An October 12 International New York Times article criticized Japan’s education strategy for being “divided.” The article claims that, “Japan’s simultaneous embrace of nationalism and cosmopolitanism is generating ambiguous signals from its education policy makers. They are rewriting textbooks along what they call ‘patriotic’ lines, alienating their Asian neighbors in the process.” This is completely counter to our understanding.

 A dramatic change in the direction of education is underway in Japan in order to respond to globalization – not to promote nationalism. The reforms we are undertaking center on three main areas: foreign language education, the internationalization of Japanese universities, and the teaching of Japan’s traditions, culture, and history to strengthen students’ sense of identity.

 Regarding foreign language education, we intend to have elementary school students begin learning foreign languages at an earlier age – starting at the third grade from the current fifth – and to raise the level of English language education in middle and high school.

 Although reading, listening, writing, and speaking are the four necessary competencies for English language education, the university entrance exams administered by the National Center for University Entrance Exams to over half a million students around the country each year focus almost exclusively on reading, with slight coverage of listening and almost nothing on writing and speaking.

 Many Japanese people cannot speak English despite receiving six years of English language education in middle and high school. The reason is the problem with Japanese school education. This is why we are moving ahead with reform not only to start English language education earlier, but also to introduce university entrance exams that balance the four competencies mentioned above.

 At the same time, we are promoting the internationalization of high schools and universities in order to develop human resources that can compete on the global stage. Through our Top Global University Project, which provides financial support to 37 universities, we intend to promote the internationalization of Japanese universities with a specific target of seeing ten Japanese universities placed in the top 100 in global university rankings within a decade.

 Japan has sent a large number of students overseas, but the number has unfortunately declined to around 60,000 in 2011 after peaking at 83,000 in 2004. In particular, the number of students studying in the United States fell from a peak of about 50,000 in 1999 to around 20,000 (or 40% of the peak) in 2011. To address this trend and the risk of becoming overly inward-looking, the government intends to double the number of students studying abroad from 60,000 to 120,000 by 2020. We also plan to increase the number of foreigners studying in Japan from the current 140,000 to 300,000 by 2020, by financially supporting students and universities.

 To succeed as a truly globalized person, however, requires a sense of one’s own identity. To nurture that identity, the learning of Japanese traditions, culture, and history – the elements that make up the Japanese identity – is essential. Without this knowledge, we cannot discuss many matters of substance concerning Japan, including our traditions, culture, and history. Indeed, a commonly cited problem is that many Japanese students cannot explain aspects of their own country while overseas. Inadequate foreign language ability is one part of the problem, but the weak sense of identity many young students possess is also a factor. Unfortunately, Japanese young people often come up against this problem.

 I do not believe that it is a problem with Japanese students individually, but rather that Japanese schools have not properly taught Japanese traditions, culture, and history. There naturally exists differences between various nations and ethnicities, and it is important to respect such differences. To nurture such an attitude of respect for differences, it is surely indispensable to teach one’s own country’s values.

 The International New York Times criticized Japanese education for becoming “nationalistic” and undergoing a “rightward shift.” However, teaching Japan’s traditions, culture, and history, which are the foundation of the Japanese identity, is intended only to foster an attitude of love for one’s country and native environment; it is not meant to promote nationalism or education that evokes contempt for other countries, especially our neighbors. In the 7th century, Prince Shotoku instituted the Seventeen-Article Constitution, one of the earlier constitutions in the world. The foundation of that Constitution is Japan’s long-held “spirit of harmony.” It is this value that underpins much of our educational reforms.

 I believe the people of the world recognize that bonds among people, thoughtfulness, and a spirit of harmony are at the core of the Japanese spirit, as exemplified by the actions of the victims in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

 That is to say, the Japanese traditions, culture, and history taught at schools are not synonymous with the idea of “nationalism.” There is no contradiction between Japan placing great value on its traditions, culture, and history on the one hand, while coexisting in the international community on the other. We believe rather that providing education that deepens the understanding of Japan is important for Japanese to succeed in a globalized world.

 The role that Japan and the Japanese people must serve in the international community in the 21st century is based on the “spirit of harmony” and the “spirt of hospitality” that have been cultivated in Japan since ancient times. We intend for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to show this spirit to the people of the world. We wish to promote reforms through the education I have described, so that the direction of Japanese education will provide greater alignment with the people of the world.

Hakubun Shimomura
Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
October 31, 2014

(Office for Public Relations and Press, Management and Coordination Division, Minister's Secretariat)