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Lifelong Learning in Japan

Section 4. Principal Characteristics and Unique Aspects

Section 4 describes some noteworthy features of Japanese lifelong learning for adults. The first two parts summarize the roles of government organizations involved in providing and promoting lifelong learning. The remainder of this section discusses some distinctive programs such as the University of the Air, certification programs, and culture centers.
Government Structure
Monbushô (Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture) establishes overall national direction and policies for lifelong learning, primarily through the Lifelong Learning Council established through the 1990 Law for Promotion of Lifelong Learning. In fiscal year 1995, the national government provided over US$ 4 billion in subsidies for local lifelong learning promotion (Sawano 1997, 7).

Lifelong learning responsibilities at the prefectural level include collecting and providing information about learning opportunities, training of local supervisors and instructors, developing programs appropriate to the needs of residents, investigating the demand for learning, evaluating the results of learning, and administering social education classes (Kawanobe 1994, 489; Makino 1997, 16). As of 1995, 33 of the 47 prefectures had established Lifelong Learning Councils as called for in the 1990 Law, and 42 prefectures had formal plans for the promotion of lifelong learning (Monbushô 1996b, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.3).

In contrast to development of lifelong learning systems at the prefectural level, there has been less systematic promotion by local governments, with many municipalities not having established lifelong learning centers and measures to encourage lifelong learning. The framework for lifelong learning at the local level, in contrast to the prefectural level, depends more on each municipality's particular environment (Kawanobe 1994, 489-490). Local governments and boards of education sponsor adult education courses and classes. About 2.9 million people attended these courses and classes in 1993 (Monbushô 1996a, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.7). Local governments also have the responsibility to establish and operate kôminkan, which are discussed in the following section.

Kôminkan (citizens' public halls or community centers) serve as the principal organization in Japan to carry out social education activities. The official establishment of kôminkan, and their role in social education, dates back to the Social Education Law of 1949, which states in Article 20 that "the object of citizens' public halls is to perform various activities for the cause of education, science and culture by providing the people . . . with certain types of education fitted for daily life to improve their attainments, improve their health, ennoble their sentiment, elevate their cultural life, and in general, increase the social welfare of the community" (Thomas 1985, 130).

Almost every municipality has at least one kôminkan, and there are about 19 thousand throughout the country (Monbushô 1997a, 1). Kôminkan offer a wide variety of classes, hold meetings, allow residents to hold meetings, provide physical education and recreation activities, sponsor lectures and exhibitions, publish and make available books and other materials, and sponsor other types of activities. In 1992, Japanese residents used kôminkan 260 million times for all types of activities, which included 8.7 million people taking courses and classes (Monbushô 1996a, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.1; Chart I-2-39). The commitment and interests of kôminkan managers play a critical role in the types of programs offered to the public. Some kôminkan managers have developed special programs to serve special community interests such as elderly, handicapped, women, couples getting married, the blind, and minorities like Koreans (Thomas 1985, 86-88).

Certification Programs
Challenging certification or qualification examinations in a wide variety of subjects play a significant role in Japanese lifelong learning. Public, professional, and non-profit organizations administer these examinations which generally fall into three broad categories: (1) professional, such as accounting and nursing but also newer and more specialized professions like energy management, outdoor advertising, and health and exercise consulting; (2) general, covering a specific skill or subject such as a foreign language; and (3) civil service, including the Self-Defense Forces. Government ministries, such as Monbushô, or public organizations have officially approved or recognized national examinations in over 600 different areas (Tsubashi Shoten 1997, 2).

Many Japanese people of all ages participate in certification examination programs. Just for the 23 Monbushô-approved proficiency examinations, 5.5 million persons participated in 1995, sharply up from 3.5 million participants in 1990. About 2.8 million persons passed the examinations, with the highest levels being in practical English (1.7 million), calligraphy (170 thousand), and secretarial skills (170 thousand) (Monbushô 1996a, Chart I-2-45; Ch. 2, Sec. 3.1). The proficiency examination in kanji (Chinese characters) has also experienced spectacular growth and will offer in 1998 the first examination after having the program officially approved by Monbushô. Kanji proficiency test applicants increased from 240 thousand in 1994 to 850 thousand in 1997 (ALC 1998, 122).

Many certification programs give examinations at different levels, and passing an examination at the top level demonstrates a true level of excellence because of the very low passing rates. For example, only 4% of applicants pass the Level 1 Practical English Proficiency Test, which is roughly the equivalent of English ability at the college-graduate level. A few of the other certification examinations with passing rates under 15% at the top level include secretarial skills, abacus, bookkeeping, calligraphy, retailing, and business English (Tsubashi Shoten 1997, 334-6, 340, 343-4, 354-5, 371).

Proficiency examinations have the potential to help counteract the undue importance placed by Japanese people on previous academic background such as the prestige of the university attended. These examinations require the demonstration of objectively verifiable knowledge and skills, regardless of previous formal schooling. They also provide an incentive for university students to study diligently to pass challenging certification examinations related to the profession they want to enter. However, a great number of graduating students go directly into companies where they place little value on professional certifications except in limited fields such as law and public accounting. Business and government leader attitudes, which place excessive value on the ranking of universities that generally can be entered only by high scores on the university entrance examination, must change before the true value of certification programs will be recognized throughout Japanese society.

Other Distinctive Features
The Japanese lifelong learning system for adults has several other distinctive aspects, three of which are discussed below: University of the Air, on-the-job training by businesses, and private companies offering adult education.
University of the Air
In 1985, the University of the Air began to admit students without the requirement of an entrance examination. Students receive printed course materials, which are supplemented by radio and television broadcasts. The principal purposes of the university include: (1) to provide university-level education for workers, including women working at home; (2) to ensure a flexible opportunity for university education by allowing students to take single courses and to research specific subjects; and (3) to improve university education in Japan by promoting the interchangeable credit system between existing universities (Moro'oka 1989, 421; Monbushô 1996b, Ch. 2, Sec. 3.5).

The University has already graduated over 8 thousand persons and has an extremely varied student population of 62 thousand, including elderly people, workers, and housewives. Currently, the University of the Air only covers part of the Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounding prefectures), but it plans to expand coverage nationwide via broadcasting satellites. When nationwide coverage has been implemented, the student population is expected to increase to over 200 thousand (Monbushô 1996b, Ch. 2, Sec. 3.5; 1995, Ch. 2, Sec. 3.1).

Business Support
Japanese companies provide employees with extensive on-the-job vocational training with very specific objectives. Private industry plays the dominant role in the training of workers and supports a minimum of formal in-house training and outside seminars and courses (Smith 1995, 108). Only 20% of Japanese companies have a policy to provide employees with paid time off for outside training classes, and only 6% of the workers sent for outside training go to universities or technical schools. Instead, businesses rely upon industry organizations (74%, survey allows for multiple answers per worker), commercial educational providers (46%), parent and affiliated companies (44%), and equipment makers (43%) for their outside training needs (Monbushô 1996a, Charts I-2-30, I-2-41).
Private Enterprises
Private sector educational organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, play a key role in the education and training of Japanese adults. These include proprietary vocational schools, some with many branches throughout the country, covering fields such as computers and business. Commercial correspondence schools, YMCAs, YWCAs, temples, churches, foreign language schools, learning circles, and culture centers also offer many opportunities for lifelong learning.

Culture centers offer a great variety of courses and often use famous experts and university professors as instructors and lecturers. Newspaper publishers, broadcasting companies, department stores, and other businesses operate culture centers that offer classes in hobbies, health, sports, and liberal education (Moro'oka 1989, 421). Companies run the culture centers to make money, and participants are expected to spend much more money that government-sponsored (e.g., kôminkan) classes. In 1993, over 1.9 million persons participated in culture center classes (Monbushô 1996a, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.3, 1.7).

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