- The Strange Child: Education and the Psychology of Patriotism in Recessionary Japan by Andrea Gevurtz Arai
For parents like my wife and me, preparing for the initiation of a six-year-old child into Japan’s education system, these are unsettling times. On 9 January of this year, the main story on the NHK evening news featured artificial intelligence, speculating on how the AI teacher would change education. Researchers from the Tokyo University of Arts and Sciences purported to have shown that a computer program could now teach math more effectively than a flesh-and-blood teacher. Students remarked on how much more quickly than their human instructors the AI teacher understood their difficulties. Scenes from a Tokyo cram school (windowless, cracked walls, students glued to screens) showed the new technology in action. Back in the studio, the reporter opined that while some might have misgivings about handing over instructional duties to computers, this might be beneficial for students. In the new era, it was likely that teachers (of the low-tech variety) would be tasked increasingly with the provision of counseling and psychological support, dealing with issues such as bullying and truancy, which robots might struggle to handle.1
The march of science and psychology also has alarming implications for educational scholars. In mid-2015, Shimomura Hakubun, who was then the minister of education, sent a letter to the heads of all national universities calling for a restructuring of social science and humanities disciplines to more directly address social needs. It soon became apparent that educational studies were first in line for the restructuring ax, with the ministry indicating that departments of education should generally focus on teacher training; critical analysis of the sociopolitical context for teaching and learning came low on the official list of society’s needs. At Kyushu University, there followed an effort, since thankfully abandoned (for now), to transform the School of Education into a School of Psychological Science and Education.
Shortly thereafter, on the southern tip of Kyushu in early 2016, students from a number of elite high schools attending an international symposium in Kagoshima were treated to a pep talk encapsulating official thinking. Speaking in fluent English, the man from the ministry stressed the new challenges of a global era, exhorting students to develop thinking skills, independence, adaptability, and a spirit of innovation (cue boilerplate references to Einstein, etc.). He finished by leading the assembled teenagers in a mass recitation of the ministerial slogan, “zest for life”; they gave a far from zestful performance. Success in education, as in life, was represented as a triumph of the individual will—even if the individuating ethos was to be drummed into students through the ultimate in regimented pedagogy: collective chanting. [End Page 146]
For a Westerner who was relatively ignorant about educational matters in Japan before coming here (full disclosure: I am a China specialist), all this constituted a rude awakening. Arriving five years ago with my Japanese wife and our baby son, I had hoped to escape the tyranny of “school choice” in my native England: the Japanese public schooling system, I thought, remained uniform and predictable. In relative terms (vis-à-vis England or America), this may still be the case, but the situation is rapidly changing.
Enter The Strange Child, a new book by Andrea Gevurtz, which demonstrates the ways in which uniformity and predictability, and an underlying commitment to egalitarianism, have been drastically eroded in recessional Japan. Since the 1990s, a sense of acute crisis enveloping society in general, and youth in particular, has been stoked and exploited by a powerful coalition of conservative politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen intent on dismantling key elements of the postwar settlement and steering the country in a more elitist, competitive, and nationalist direction.
The most striking and original aspect of Arai’s argument is her focus on the role of psychology in debates surrounding the putative educational crisis. The rise to prominence of psychologists in education policymaking circles is dated, in her account, to the...