With the approach of the twenty-first century, Japanese society has faced a number of rapid changes—the advent of an information society, globalization, a plunging birthrate, and an aging population—while its economy has remained in a prolonged slump. These developments have led to calls for the transformation of the country’s social systems as a whole. In January 1997 Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryûtarô set forth a program of six major reforms covering such areas as economic structure and public administration; education was also included as one of the six. Deregulation and decentralization were the common themes of all six reforms.

The Ministry of Education had been working since 1995 at developing concepts for educational reform. Prompted by Prime Minister Hashimoto’s announcement, it redoubled its efforts, calling on all of its advisory organs—the Central Council for Education and the University Council among them—to deliberate on what reforms should be undertaken, and based on their work it had a body of major recommendations by the end of 1999. Voices arose from within the ruling coalition—especially in the Liberal Democratic Party—however, that educational reform led by the Education Ministry was not sufficient and that the reform process should be pushed even more strongly under the initiative of elected politicians. The National Commission on Educational Reform was thus launched in March 2000 as a personal advisory organ to the prime minister, and it submitted an interim report, including proposals for reform, to Prime Minister Mori Yoshirô in September.

The reform program put together under the Education Ministry’s lead raises three major objectives. The first is “enhancing emotional education”—cultivating pupils as emotionally well-rounded human beings and countering the growing decay of school education as witnessed by bullying, violence, nonattendance, and the breakdown of classroom order. The second is “realizing a school system that helps children develop their individuality and gives them diverse choices”—shifting from excessive emphasis on egalitarianism and uniformity to a diverse, flexible educational system that encourages individuality, thereby cultivating creative human resources. The third is “promoting a system in which the school’s autonomy is respected”—advancing decentralization of educational administration, reinforcing the autonomy of local boards of education, and aiming for independent, autonomous school management.


In line with these three major objectives, the Central Council for Education and other councils have made numerous concrete proposals, ranging from the idea of introducing unified secondary education (combining middle schools and high schools) as an option for public schools to modifications of the entrance exam system, including permitting superior students to enter university directly from the eleventh grade, skipping the final year of high school. Some of the proposed changes are already beginning to be implemented.

The prime minister’s National Commission on Educational Reform, meanwhile, has published an interim report on its deliberations, having undertaken a comprehensive review of Japanese education to date and a reexamination of the basic principles of education as set forth in the Fundamental Law of Education. Its overall objectives for educational reform are more or less in line with those of the Education Ministry, but its specific proposals are more forceful and involve more fundamental changes.

To take an example, the course of study designated by the Education Ministry simply encourages volunteer activities as an aspect of “emotional education.” The commission’s interim report, by contrast, more specifically suggests effectively requiring students to engage in two weeks of volunteer activities while in elementary and middle school and one month while in high school. It further calls for consideration of a system requiring every 18-year-old to put in a year’s worth of community service activities. The report also puts forth other bold reforms at which the Education Ministry may hesitate, such as entirely removing the minimum age requirement for university enrollment and allowing for the establishment of new types of public schools operated with the active involvement of the local community—rather like a Japanese version of U.S. charter schools.


With regard to the Fundamental Law of Education, conservatives claim that it fails to address patriotism and the value of tradition, and Prime Minister Mori is particularly eager to revise it. This issue was hence expected to be one of the focal points of the interim report. But the commission could not reach an agreement on concrete revision proposals, and the report only commented: “A national debate is needed, and we hope that various discussions will be held in the respective fora.”

Prime Minister Mori has announced his determination to give priority to educational reform, labeling the ordinary Diet session that will convene in January 2001 as an “education Diet.” Several bills relating to educational reform are expected to be submitted and debated during this session. The administration has not, however, given overall thought to how it will mesh the Education Ministry’s reform program with that of the National Commission on Educational Reform and how it will go about realizing the composite plan.

Educational reform does not involve only schooling but is also linked with other areas of society. Successful implementation requires the achievement of various conditions, such as the securing of adequate revenues, and it is also important to obtain the fullest possible support of the public at large. But in a mature society diverse views are bound to emerge, and reaching a consensus is difficult. Numerous doubts and criticisms have already been voiced toward both the reform program formulated by the Education Ministry and the proposals of the National Commission on Educational Reform. There are still many hurdles to overcome in the educational reform process. (Tokutake Yasushi, educational journalist)