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Japanese Schooling: Patterns of Socialization Equality and Political Control


reviewed by Merry I. White - 1990

coverTitle: Japanese Schooling: Patterns of Socialization Equality and Political Control
Author(s): James J. Shields, Jr.
Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park
ISBN: 0271009349, Pages: , Year: 1993
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James Shields has given us opportunities in this volume to go beyond the rhetoric of U.S.-Japanese contrast and competition in the discussion of Japanese education. We now all know, or assume, certain things about Japanese children and schools, but we seldom venture beyond “examination hell,” “they must all be killing themselves,” and, perhaps, the “revered Confucian teacher.” We are ready for deeper pictures, more detail, and new and more subtle frameworks for analysis and comparison that transcend the headline news that says Japanese children are beating American children in math and science.


The papers in this edited collection treat three broad areas in Japanese education: socialization, equality, and political control, but each section and often each paper contributes significant detail and analysis beyond the stereotypes created by the “school war.” While the underlying polemical rhetoric still occasionally surfaces even here (looking, for example, for “strengths and weaknesses” in Japanese education, or otherwise measuring the system’s worth and efficacy), on the whole these essays contribute a balanced and objective view.


Among the most informative and useful essays are those in the socialization section, particularly Catherine Lewis’s “Cooperation and Control in Japanese Nursery Schools” and Tobin, Wu, and Davidson’s “Class Size and Student-Teacher Ratios in the Japanese Preschool.” These use ethnographic detail to highlight significant cultural encoding in Japanese socialization that is important background to the meaning of the group in Japanese society, and the individual’s experience throughout life. Stevenson’s important work on mathematics performance among Asian children has been much cited and it is good to have this authoritative background to the newspaper headlines.


A key strength of this volume is the inclusion of work by Japanese scholars, who have been significantly ignored in the English-language works on Japanese society; indeed, about half the essays here are written by Japanese scholars and practitioners. These include descriptive material as well as a problem orientation frequently missing in Western encomia about Japanese successes, and poorly treated in much of the more “trade-war” oriented negative views. Japanese social and behavioral scientists are well represented here: Amano, Fujita, Fujimura-Fanselow, and Kobayashi, among others, offer important treatments of contemporary issues.


I would raise one issue concerning perceptions and interpretations, an issue that goes beyond this volume and that affects all contemporary comparative or ethnographic studies of Japan. In understanding the surprises presented in descriptions of Japanese schooling (home indulgence at odds with classroom cooperation, but yielding hard-working children; large class size preferred by teachers; low levels of adult authority evinced in classrooms; stress given to peer learning), it often seems that observers have an implicit American model as contrasting type, as well as American stereotypes about Japanese education. Much of the English-language scholarship on Japan has been conducted by Americans and the comparisons, explicit or not, skew our observations of Japan. America and Japan, though both preeminent modern democracies, are very unlike, in important ways, making Japan (for Americans) seem exotic when, in a three-way comparison with Europe, it is often the United States that emerges as the oddest case. I would very much like to see Europeans observing Japanese schools, and Japanese viewing European and American schools as well. The use of alternative comparisons, triangulating, or visions of what it means to be “modern” would be most instructive.


The section on discontinuities is perhaps the most significant in its discussion of strengths and weaknesses, and we here get a very different picture of Japanese education from that we gain in examining the blissful world of the young child. It is important to remember that Japanese homogeneity is a cultural construct more than a demographic reality, and attention is here paid to distinctions-even uncomfortable ones such as those defining outcastes and handicapped children. Ominous are the signals about dangerous pressure resulting from distinctions in ability and life chances percolated down through the system to become the focus of the junior high school years (Mochizuki, Murakami, and Fujita treat this problem). The fact (‘just revealed and so not mentioned in Kobayashi’s interesting article on the returnee child) that large companies are now discouraging employee families from taking their children overseas when they are posted abroad seems to fly in the face of the new buzz word, kokusaika (internationalization), implying the need for foreign experience and skills.


Diversity has always been present in Japanese society, but the myth of conformity has only recently been overtly challenged. It may be the schools that will be the test sites for Japanese accommodation to this reality, and this book gives us the background we will need as observers of future social change in Japan.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 2, 1990, p. 312-314
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 373, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:54:37 PM

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