Social justice in Japan’s education system

Schooling in Japan has become more inclusive due to the incorporation of diversity in teaching, writes Rebecca Borg

In recent years Japan’s education system has undergone significant change, with globally recognised results. Global Partnership of Education ranks it as one of the top 10 countries in the education field, with most students achieving grades well beyond the standard level. Such success didn’t come without implementing change, as Japan’s once homogenous education system has now responded to several emerging socio-economic factors and policies.

“One of the major changes in Japanese education the last two decades is its response to diversity, not only in terms of ethnicity, class, and gender, but also in terms of sexuality,” says Kaori Okano, a Professor in Asian Studies and Japanese Studies at La Trobe University. “The school system has learnt to treat students as individuals, but is it ‘fairer’ now compared with two decades ago?"

"In my book I am urging the reader to consider fairness or social justice in schooling. Does Japanese schooling provide a greater scope of equitable educational opportunities and life chances to everyone, regardless of social background? Has the content of schooling become more impartial to all social groups, and more socially just?”

Professor Okano explores social justice and the changes that have occurred within Japan’s education system over the last two decades in her latest book, Education and Social Justice in Japan, published by Routledge. It is the culmination of research conducted by the academic and a follow up to Education in contemporary Japan, and presents as an evaluation on how changes introduced to Japan’s school routine have shaped their education system into what it is today.

“An increase in migration numbers into Japan along with slow economic growth were some of the first steps initiating modifications to Japan’s schooling,” says Professor Okano. “There are other factors - the country’s low birth rate, slow economic growth, sustained low interest rates and an ageing population, which are all contributing causes that to some degree have changed Japan’s education system.”

Another key idea reflected on in the book is the extent to which social justice has been pursued within Japanese education. Social justice has two focal points: one looking at student accessibility to education regardless of their socio-economic status, and the second highlighting the need to make the content that is taught – including what students learn through interaction with peers – equitable. The book argues that Japanese schools’ interest in social justice has centred more on the former – who gets how much of schooling – than the latter, the content – whose interest schooling serves and whose influence is dominant in deciding the content.

“If the content of schooling is racist or one version of history which marginalised minority groups’ versions, then it doesn't achieve the goal of social justice, even if more children receive education.”

Professor Okano is commencing a new book focusing on a longitudinal study of  the same group of working class women she has been studying since they were at high school (1989-2019).