Current Challenges of Kindergarten (Yochien) Education in Japan: Toward Balancing Children's Autonomy and Teachers' Intention
Oda, Yutaka, Mari, Mori, Childhood Education
"Japanese students are falling lower on the international ladder of academic ability." (Asahi Shinbun Newspaper, December 12, 2004).
Many education critics, teachers, and parents have lamented the recent poor achievement scores of Japanese school-age children, and have sought the reasons for the decline. Some critics, including the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science and Technology, blame the practice known as yutori-kyoiku (literally translated as "relaxed-education"), initiated in 2002, which cut the school week from six days to five days and slashed curriculum content by 30 percent. They claim these changes led children to lose their motivation and discipline for school work. They strongly recommend that the Japanese school curriculum return to teaching basic education contents rigorously and revert to a six-days-a-week school schedule.
At first glance; this debate does not seem to affect kindergarten or preschool education directly. However, some critics make kindergarten the scapegoat for poor school performance, saying that kindergarten education overemphasizes free play. Such free play, they say, encourages children to become self-centered and causes classroom disruptions, and that when they enter 1st grade they cannot stay in their seats to listen to the teacher's instruction (Oda, 2003). What these critics ignore is that the push by some kindergartens to teach young children the 3R's resembles the rigid elementary school curriculum. Some parents rush to bring their children to cram schools to get ready for private elementary school exams. Many teachers at the kindergarten level are at a loss to define what is appropriate practice for young children before entering elementary school. Kindergarten curriculum developers also wonder what would be the best curriculum for the children. This is the time for professionals in the field of early childhood education to evaluate the development of Japanese kindergarten education, and seek the right curriculum to respond to children's needs and interests.
Thus, this article provides an overview of the history of kindergarten education in Japan, focusing on the development of curriculum content and practice. Then, the authors illustrate the current Japanese kindergarten curriculum and prospects for the future.
Dawn of Kindergarten Education in Japan: Late 19th Century to Pre-War
The first kindergarten in Japan was established in 1876, attached to Tokyo Women's Normal School (now named Ochanomizu Women's University). Curriculum and practice were influenced by Froebel's education philosophy, especially his use of the Gifts. Although Froebel stressed the importance of play and songs, most educators in Japan emphasized the use of the Gifts as a tool for instructing young children. Most practices were teacher-directed, emphasizing the 3R's and the "manner for living" (e.g., bowing, putting things back on a shell washing hands, etc.), responding to demands from largely upper-class families.
However, when the number of kindergartens had grown, some early childhood educators began questioning the Froebelian-oriented kindergarten practice and the curriculum similar to that of elementary schools. One of the leading educators to criticize such policies, Sozo Kurahashi (1882-1955), decried the "Froebelian orthodoxy," taking a set of the Gifts from a shelf and mixing them up to convert them into a set of simple, modern wooden blocks (Oda, 2005).
Kurahashi described his education philosophy as "everyday life-oriented." He believed that teachers must facilitate children's inclination to play, insisting that educators and parents must release children from the constraints of the typical elementary school system, and instead to begin with schooling that is derived from children's everyday life experiences (Kurahashi, 1954; Moriue, 1984). The core of practice, Kurahashi believed, is to be "play oriented." The role of the teacher is not to teach children what to do directly, but rather to guide every child when she/he needs guidance in order for the child's play to be enriched. …