Japanese and American Education: Attitudes and Practices
reviewed by Daniel J. Walsh - 2001
Readers familiar enough with both school systems to read skeptically will find Japanese and American Education:Attitudes and Practices a worthwhile but flawed book. Cross-cultural comparisons are challenging, particularly between cultures as different as American and Japanese. The book would be more useful and, possibly, more convincing, had Harry Wray showed more awareness of the challenge.
Wray is Professor of Japanese History and International Relations at Nanzan University in Nagoya. From the text, one concludes that he is American, married to a Japanese woman, with four children who have attended Japanese and American schools. Given the focus of the book, more information about Wray would be useful.
Wray criticizes both educational systems and argues that both systems can learn from each other. He expresses strong ideas about what is right and what is wrong with Japanese and American schools. His descriptions and analyses are detailed, and the book contains a wealth of information. Wray appears to have read everything written about Japanese schools, certainly by Western scholars. When citing American scholars about American schools though, he favors conservatives like Chester Finn and Diana Ravitch.
Neither school system is as good or as bad as described, and certainly both systems are more diverse. Is the Japanese curriculum really "narrow and rigid" while the American "diversified," Japanese citizenry "conformist and passive" while Americans are "active and vocal"? At times Wray romanticizes American schooling, although at the same time he clearly views Japanese schools as superior in many ways.
Wray wants to introduce the best attitudes and practices from each culture to the other, certainly a laudable goal. Moving practice or attitude, however, from one culture to another is always problematic. The underlying goal of Japanese schools, whether stated explicitly or not, is the development of Japanese selves, selves that are significantly different from American selves. Likewise, American schools develop American selves (for a thorough discussion, see the work of Kitayama, Markus, and colleagues). A practice itself is less important than the meanings underlying it. Hatano and Inagaki (1998) warned educators about attempting to improve educational practice in one culture by incorporating ideas and techniques from another:
Because every culture has a more or less coherent matrix of values, policy-oriented researchers... must consider carefully whether an intended change can be induced in the given matrix at all and whether doing so will do harm to the matrix’s coherence. (p. 100)
Wray does express the need for caution; "Japanese education should selectively adopt some strengths of American schools and society"[emphasis in original] (p. 108). But not enough attention is paid to the coherence of the cultural matrix. The challenge of cross-cultural research is to get under daily practice to the cultural meanings and values that inform them. The danger is that one unearths not the underlying cultural values but one’s own.
I found Wray’s style at times a barrier. He tends to prescribe--the words must and should appear frequently. For example, "[American schools] must institute standards and procedures for discipline and removal of incompetent teachers..." (p. 294); "The practice of refraining from speaking one’s own opinion must be ended in Japan’s schools..." (p. 110). He makes many unreferenced assertions, for example, "The breakdown of school discipline is the harvest Americans reap from the larger societal attitudes of self-indulgence, family breakdown, permissiveness, lack of respect for authority, and excessive individualism" (p. 20); "America’s greater decentralization...allows schools to be creative..." (p. 81). Anecdotes proliferate--his students at Nanzan University are quoted often. The Asahi Evening News may be the most used reference in the book. One must continually flip to the notes to see whether Wray cites a research article or a newspaper article.
Wray makes compelling arguments. No doubt the two societies can learn from each other in order to improve their schools. But doing so will require very sophisticated understandings of both cultures and their more or less coherent matrix of values. What we admire about another culture may be less a reflection of the strengths of that culture than of the weaknesses of our own.
Kitayama, S., & Markus, H. R. (1999). Yin and yang of the Japanese self: The cultural psychology of personality coherence. In D. Cervone & Y. Shoda (Eds.), The Coherence of Personality: Social-cognitive Bases of Consistency, Variability, and Organization. New York: Guilford.
Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., Matsumoto, H., & Norasakkunit, V. (1997). Individual and collective processes in the construction of the self: Self-enhancement in the United States and self-criticism in Japan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1245-1267.
Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.