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Contemporary Setting

The late twentieth-century Japanese education system has a strong legal foundation. Three documents in particular, the Fundamental Law of Education, the School Education Law, and the new Constitution, all adopted in 1947, provide this legal basis (see The Postwar Constitution , ch. 6). The system is highly centralized, although three levels of government administration--national, prefectural, and municipal--have various responsibilities for providing, financing, and supervising educational services for the nation's more than 62,000 schools and more than 25 million students in 1991 (see table 5, Appendix). At the top of the system stands the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (hereafter, the Ministry of Education, or Monbusho ), which has significant responsibility for funding, curricula, textbooks, and national education standards.

More general responsibilities of the Ministry of Education are the promotion and dissemination of education, scientific knowledge, academic research, culture, and sports. The ministry is supported by advisory bodies and standing councils, such as the Central Council on Education, and by ad hoc councils, such as the National Council on Educational Reform.

The ministry's authority and responsibilities are not limited to public institutions. Most of its regulations, particularly concerning compulsory education, also apply to private institutions. The ministry has power to approve the founding of universities and supervises the national universities. In addition, it provides financial assistance and guidance to lower levels of government on educational matters and is empowered to mandate changes in local policies.

The ministry drafts its annual budget and education-related legislation and submits them to the National Diet (see The Legislature , ch. 6). Monbusho administers the disbursement of funds and cooperated with other agencies concerned with education and its finance. In 1990 a main ministry activity was implementing reforms based on the reports and recommendations of the National Council on Educational Reform, whose final report was submitted to the prime minister in 1987.

Each of the forty-seven prefectures has a five-member board of education appointed by the governor with the consent of the prefectural assembly. The prefectural boards administer and operate public schools under their supervision, including most of the public upper-secondary schools, special schools for the handicapped, and some other public institutions in the prefecture (see Local Government , ch. 6). Prefectural boards are the teacher- licensing bodies; with the advice of municipal governments, they appoint teachers to public elementary and lower-secondary schools; they also license preschools and other schools in their municipalities and promote social education.

Municipal-level governments operate the public elementary and lower-secondary schools in their jurisdictions. Supervision is conducted by the local board of education, usually a five-member organization appointed by the mayor with the consent of the local assembly. The board also makes recommendations to the prefectures about the appointment or dismissal of teachers and adopts textbooks from the list certified by the Ministry of Education. Mayors also are charged with some responsibilities for municipal universities and budget coordination.

All three levels of government--national, prefectural, and municipal--provid financial support for education. The national government is the largest source of direct funding, through the budget of the Ministry of Education, and is a significant source of indirect funding of local education through a tax rebate to local government, in a tax allocation grant. The national government bears from one-third to one-half of the cost of education in the form of teachers' salaries, school construction, the school lunch program, and vocational education and equipment.

The ministry's budget between fiscal year (FY--see Glossary) 1980 and FY 1988 increased a total of about 7 percent (see The Role of Government and Business , ch. 4). But as a percentage of the total national budget (before the deduction of mandated expenses and debt service), the ministry's share actually declined steadily during the 1980s, from about 10 percent in 1980 to about 7.7 percent in 1989. A slight increase was seen in the early 1990s. For example, the FY 1992 budget provided 5.319 trillion (for value of the yen--see Glossary), or 7.9 percent of the national budget.

Teaching remains an honored profession, and teachers have high social status, stemming from the Japanese cultural legacy and public recognition of their important social responsibilities. Society expects teachers to embody the ideals they are to instill, particularly because teaching duties extend to the moral instruction and character development of children. Formal classroom moral education, informal instruction, and even academic classes are all viewed as legitimate venues for this kind of teaching. Teachers' responsibilities to their schools and students frequently extend beyond the classroom, off school grounds and after school hours.

Teachers are well paid, and periodic improvements also are made in teachers' salaries and compensation. Starting salaries compare favorably with those of other white-collar professionals and in some cases are higher. In addition to their salaries, teachers are eligible for many types of special allowances and a bonus (paid in three installments), which amount to about five months' salary. Teachers also receive the standard health and retirement benefits available to most salaried workers.

Whether for economic reward, social status, or the desire to teach, the number of people wishing to enter teaching exceeds the number of new openings by as many as five or six applicants to every one position. Prefectural boards and other public bodies are able to select the best qualified from a large pool of applicants.

By the late 1980s, the great majority of new teachers were entering the profession with a bachelor's degree, although about 25 percent of the total teaching force at the elementary school level did not have a bachelor's degree. The program for prospective teachers at the undergraduate level included study in education as well as concentration in academic areas. Most new teachers majored in a subject other than education, and graduates of colleges of education were still in the minority. After graduation, a teacher had to pass a prefectural-level examination to be licensed by a prefectural board of education.

Changes also occurred during the 1980s in in-service training and supervision of new teachers. In-service training, particularly that conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, had been questioned for many years. After considerable debate, and some opposition from the Japan Teachers Union (Nihon Kyoshokuin Kumiai-- Nikkyoso), a new system of teacher training was introduced in 1989. The new system established a one-year training program, required new teachers to work under the direction of a master teacher, and increased the required number of both in-school and out-of-school training days and the length of time new teachers were under probationary status.

The Japan Teachers Union, established in 1947, was the largest teachers union in the late 1980s. The union functioned as a national federation of prefectural teachers unions, although each of these unions had considerable autonomy and its own strengths and political orientation. Historically, there had been considerable antagonism between the union and the Ministry of Education, owing to a variety of factors. Some were political, because the stance of the union had been strongly leftist and it often opposed the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Another factor was the trade union perspective that the teachers union had on the profession of teaching (see The Liberal Democratic Party , ch. 6). Additional differences on education issues concerned training requirements for new teachers, decentralization in education, school autonomy, curricula, textbook censorship, and, in the late 1980s, the reform movement.

The union tended to support the Japan Socialist Party, while a minority faction supported the Japan Communist Party (see Minority Parties , ch. 6). In the late 1980s, internal disagreements in the Japan Teachers Union on political orientation and on the union's relationships to other national labor organizations finally caused a rupture. The union thus became less effective than in previous years at a time when the national government and the ministry were moving ahead on reform issues. The union had opposed many reforms proposed or instituted by the ministry, but it failed to forestall changes in certification and teacher training, two issues on which it was often at odds with the government. The new union leadership that emerged after several years of internal discord seemed to take a more conciliatory approach to the ministry and reform issues, but the union's future directions were not clear.

Data as of January 1994

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Japan Table of Contents