By Makiko Kondo, Development Education Association and Resource Centre (DEAR), Japan.
What is education for? This is a universal question that has been asked for many years: Is it for the learner or to build society? We say – Of course, it is for the learner but both of them are important purposes of education. And we, in Japan, have to remember that education historically has always been a strong tool for building a nationalistic society or developing human resources needed for a ‘strong nation’.

In Japan we target adults and youth. One is Social Education and the other is Lifelong Learning. Social education is basic adult and youth education. It has been promoted to support a democratic society through the learner’s self-education.

After World War 2 we had to change from militarism to democracy and build a democratic society. During the war the government used local community groups to mobilize the nation for war: it was called the total war system. Educational administrators, reflecting on that experience, decided that small education groups must be independent of the general administration – so local Education Boards were established by an electoral system, independent from the general administration and managed by a social education department.1

In 1948 the Social Education Act was passed with the strong intention of forming a democratic society. It defined social education as all organised educational activities except school education. It also encouraged local government to foster the education environment, for example through establishing community learning centres (KOMINKAN) and assigning specialised staff. Staff were required to provide the activities that citizens want to do. Article 9-3 says: Social educators provide specialised technical advice and guidance to those who are engaged in social education activities. However, they do not order and oversee. The principle is to satisfy requests from the learner or groups. Local governments are responsible for arranging the learning environment but should not intervene in educational content.

KOMINKAN, public libraries and museums are called public social education, and are independent from the administration. The law stipulates the establishment of a KOMINKAN administration council, consisting of experts and citizens in the community who monitor the activities in KOMINKAN.

Recently, the KOMINKAN system has been attracting attention from international adult education Civil Society Organizations for their publically funded establishment and community administration. When we had the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Japan in 2014, a Global Regional Centres of Expertise (RCE)2 conference was held in Okayama at the same time. International participants showed strong interest in the KOMINKAN system and activities in Okayama.3

However, individualisation and consumerism has changed the world. As the result of privatization there has now been a change from Social Education to a Lifelong Learning policy and in 1988 the Lifelong Learning Bureau was established in place of the Social Education Bureau. The administration’s slogan was – emphasize the vitality of the private sector. Now we have the Lifelong Learning Promotion Division, the Social Education Division, the Learning Information Division, the Women’s Education Division, and the Youth Education Division.

The Lifelong Learning Promotion Act was passed in 1990. The main contents of the law is the establishment of the prefectural system for promoting lifelong learning and the establishment of the country’s standards accordingly, and the establishment of a new lifelong learning council. It emphasizes the role of the prefecture as a policy agent, the involvement of the Ministry of Trade and Industry in lifelong learning measures, and the utilization of the private enterprise’s capabilities.

The act promotes the provision of learning in nursery, after school, and elderly facilities and social education facilities, including KOMINKAN, libraries, and museums. The system – public construction and private ownership – has been advanced and non-regular job titles have increased in those operations. Private enterprise and non profit organisation cooperation is responsible for the operation of public facilities, so, for example, you could find a company name on a public library counter.

We cannot tell if there is merit for people by this transformation. There are many corporations that respond to the local needs by, for example, starting new projects. But some libraries that are run by large companies have also had the problem of preferentially placing best-selling books or practical books without educational and public perspectives in the local community. Sometimes local groups have organised an opposition movement.

If based on the concept of lifelong learning in the world, Japan should have taken a plus-alpha approach to traditional social education policies, but it has not.

In 2018, Ministry of Education, Culture Sports Science and Technology has made organizational changes at the national level – and these are gradually being implemented by local government. They are:
1 Abolish the Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau and reorganize it into a General Education Policy Bureau.
2 Abolish and integrate the Social Education Division and Youth Education Division of the Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau, and reorganize it into the Regional Education Promotion Division, General Education Policy Bureau.
3 Abolish lifelong learning policy station gender equality learning section, integrate with international education section of primary and secondary education station, health education, food education section and reorganize to general education policy station symbiosis society learning promotion section.

Weakening social education administration will progress. Local governments have already been transferred from the Education Board in the Lifelong Learning Bureau to the head office. If education administration ceases to be an independent specialised administration, we could say that it is getting away from the political philosophy of increasing the expertise of adult and community learning, and building a society by learning.

And we must not forget that the education gap is now widening in Japan.

Statistics show that 15% of 9th graders do not understand the first phase of sentence comprehension, such as not knowing the subject, and about half did not fully understand reasoning and differences between the two sentences4. 9th grades become adults in a few years. The issue of securing education for children and adults of foreign roots has also been fixed.

Adult and youth education should be a separate, specialised sector, not part of Municipal General Administration. Adult and youth education needs to be about individual development.

We have to question whether our current policy is really helping us develop a learning society.

1 Education committee has been appointed by the chief with the consent of the parliament since 1956. The term of the committee is 4 years.
2 RCE stands for Regional Centres of Expertise on ESD which is regional base for ESD
4 Conducted for approximately 25,000 middle and high school students by National Institute of Informatics April in 2016 to July 2017.