In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education by Peter Cave
  • Yuki Imoto (bio)
Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education. By Peter Cave. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016. x, 287 pages. $105.00, cloth; $35.00, paper; $35.00, E-book.

Schooling Selves by Peter Cave examines the implementation of curricular reforms in junior high schools in Japan. It is the first and only in-depth anthropological work that studies junior high schools in Japan over a critical period of a dozen years and leaves us much to ponder on the complex notions of autonomy and individualization from a comparative educational and philosophical perspective. It demonstrates how school education is deeply related to ideas of selfhood as well as to issues of equity, democracy, and social change.

The junior high curriculum reform in question was published in 1998 and implemented in 2002. The revisions were a culmination of debates continuing from the 1980s and signify the national reflexivity that emerged after rapid modernization. The reforms aimed on the one hand to promote sociality and cooperation (a pull toward traditional values) and, on the other hand, to promote autonomous learning and to develop “creative” people who could think for themselves, rather than simply acquire existing knowledge imported from the West. With the implementation of the reforms, a new curricular area called “integrated studies” was introduced; there was a significant reduction in the number of class hours for traditional subjects; and elective subjects were introduced. The reforms received criticism and were branded a failure when international testing scores uncovered a national decline in academic standards. In 2008 conventional academic subjects were increased and electives were abolished.

Cave’s work is based on fieldwork at two junior high schools located in the Kinki district of Japan. The fieldwork includes one year of participant observation in the late 1990s at Tachibana Junior High School and participant observation at both Tachibana and Yoneda Junior High Schools in the 2000s after the curricular reforms were published. This diachronic perspective allows for insight into what changed and what did not as a result of the 1998 reforms. The account reveals, fundamentally, that there was less change on the ground level than one might expect from the outside.

The chapters forming the body of the book are richly ethnographic and focus on specific rituals and traditions within the school’s activities (the cultural festival, the sports day, and the choral contest), group formations and their relations (the classroom and the extracurricular club), textual [End Page 245] discourses and their interpretations (content of textbooks, implementation of integrated studies), and relations of junior high school education with other institutions such as the juku and high school entrance examinations. Cave’s account and analysis is nuanced and intricate, aiming to “go beyond antimonies of individual and society, or individualism and group orientation” and “look more deeply at the diversity of discourses of self in Japan and how they interact in dynamic ways” (p. 2). Thus, the book can be seen as a complementary extension of Cave’s previous monograph, Primary School in Japan,1 which identified various discourses of the individual self. In Schooling Selves, specific attention is given to the notion of autonomy. Cave unravels its complexity, explaining how “distinguishing between individualization and autonomy shows that education that emphasizes working with others is not necessarily autonomy-limiting, while education that individualizes is not necessarily autonomy-promoting” (p. 37). In what follows, I present an overview of the book, paying attention to what the empirical findings illuminate about the notion of autonomy in Japanese education.

One highlight of Cave’s ethnography is the “school fieldtrip” for first-year students at the beginning of the school year at Tachibana Junior High School, presented in chapter 2. When Cave first joined the fieldtrip in 1996, its function (evoking the company “spiritual education” or seishin kyōiku described by Thomas Rohlen2) was to strengthen group life (shūdan seikatsu) among students and teachers with emphasis on discipline, building identity, and cooperation. The fieldtrip was abandoned in 1998 due to time constraints brought on by the reduction of school teaching days. It was...