Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Hakubun Shimomura, Shares the Ministry’s School of Thought
Hakubun Shimomura was appointed as minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on December 26, 2012. A graduate of Waseda University’s School of Education, he was first elected to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in 1989 and began serving in governmental roles related to education in 1993. Tokyo Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Hakubun Shimomura to learn about the government’s plans for English education, the globalization of Japanese universities, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)’s plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
TJ: What are some of the greatest challenges that Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology faces?
SHIMOMURA: In the theory of evolution, Darwin says that survivors are not tough or big but are those who can adjust to changes in the environment. Educational needs have varied across the ages, and although the education system in the 20th century was highly successful, it needs to be changed in the 21st century. We should be aware of that. This not only applies to Japan. All other developed countries are also facing this issue. I think this is the greatest challenge that MEXT is facing.
TJ: Can you tell us about the current system of English language education in Japanese public schools?
SHIMOMURA: Yes. The English education system in public schools underwent a revision in 2008. In 2011, foreign language activity started in elementary schools from fifth grade, and in 2012 the frequency of English classes increased from three to four times a week in middle school. Furthermore, the focus of the curriculum shifted from reading and writing to a balance of the four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. In 2013, English classes began to be taught in English for the purpose of increasing students’ exposure to English and cultivating students’ English communication skills throughout elementary to high school. We have been promoting these revisions.
TJ: How will this change in 2020?
SHIMOMURA: The full-scale revision of educational guidelines will be adopted in 2020. In elementary schools, English activities will move up two years and start from third grade with English being an official subject starting from fifth and sixth grades. In addition to that, private qualifications and proficiency tests will be utilized more for the university entrance process. Also, we will put more emphasis on teacher training and the expansion of Assistance Language Teachers (ALTs) such as the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), and aim to double the number of native English-speaking teachers and enhance native-English education for children in Japan with native English-speaking teachers’ support.
TJ: Do you have any other plans for English education in Japan?
SHIMOMURA: We would like to make a full-scale revision of English education. We have been teaching English for a total of six years in junior high school and high school. However, unfortunately, the system was only focusing on preparing students for university entrance exams and was not designed to enable them to master the four language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. We need to thoroughly change this situation. To do so, for example, as a main project within the intensive English education area, last year we began supporting schools which promote an innovative English curriculum. Also, we are going to commence teacher training in order to improve their English and teaching skills. Furthermore, we are planning to utilize English education promotion leaders and increase the number of teachers and specialized course teachers. Lastly, we hope to utilize ALTs and language assistants more. With these aforementioned projects, we are planning to work on the full-scale revision of the educational guidelines from 2020, so we would like to start ahead with the ones we can do now.
TJ: What goals does MEXT have for the English level of Japanese students from elementar y to high school?
SHIMOMURA: In terms of students’ English skills, our goal for this five-year project in the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education is to have more than 50% of junior high school students obtain grade 3 on the EIKEN [Japan’s national English test] when they graduate, and for more than 50% of high school students to obtain grade pre-2 or 2 when they graduate. However, the results of our research on the English skills of senior students in high school showed that they have difficulty with writing and speaking, so it would be difficult to achieve this goal. We will need to reconsider this goal given the current situation and work on a thorough reform of English education, which includes restructuring the next educational guideline revision.
TJ: What is the current system for English teacher training?
SHIMOMURA: As for English teacher training at universities and colleges, one of the requirements for obtaining a teaching license to teach at junior high and high schools is more than 20 units of English-related courses. Other requirements are taking pedagogy classes and English communication classes. For an elementary school teaching license, in addition to two credits in English teaching, a foreign language pedagogy class from most universities is also mandatory. In this way, we aim to improve the quality and ability of English teachers. As for English teacher training, looking at the next educational guideline revision, the Japanese government has started to cooperate with the British Council in order to train 500 English education promotion leaders every year. We are aiming to have the English education promotion leaders train all elementary school teachers and English teachers at junior high and high schools in their respective areas. We hope to support English teacher training and training courses to improve teaching skills with the full-scale reform of teacher training and recruiting.
TJ: Can you tell us about the activities that MEXT is involved in related to the 2020 Olympics?
SHIMOMURA: The Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 are not only a chance for the host city, Tokyo, but also a tremen- dous opportunity for the nation as a whole to come together and achieve stronger growth. We want to spread the effect of the Tokyo Olympics across the country for the significant development of a new Japan by taking total measures across the country. To fulfill this purpose by utilizing rich local resources effectively, we hope to host various events for international exchange through sports, education for the Olympics and Paralympics or cultural events, including a culture program ranging from traditional Japanese culture, such as local festivals to modern art and pop culture from many different places in Japan in order to enhance the mood throughout the entire country. We won’t just pursue the success of the Olympics, as we also would like to rejuvenate the entire nation and create a new Japan. Prior to that, in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one of the things we are going to do is host the Sports Culture World Forum in 2016, right after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and the Paralympics. We will be hosting this event in both Tokyo and Kyoto in October 2016 and we will invite top athletes, artists and sports ministers from around the world. By hosting people from over 100 countries, we hope to discuss international contributions and legacy as well as share information. Also, we will host cultural events related to shrines and temples that are listed as World Heritage Sites to attract more attention to Japan from around the world between 2016 and 2020. We are trying to increase the number of overseas students studying in Japan to approximately 300,000 and the number of Japanese students studying overseas up to 120,000. In addition to this, we started a new study abroad promotion campaign, “Tobitate! Ryugaku Japan,” in April 2014. This project is run solely by funds and donations from private businesses.
TJ: Can you please tell us your plan to support increasing the number of Japanese students studying abroad as well as to increase the number of foreigners studying in Japan?
SHIMOMURA: We want to double both by 2020. High school and college students can go abroad for free through this project. Also, for students coming from abroad, we think it is necessary to expand opportunities for them to work for Japanese companies in Japan or back in their own countries upon graduating from universities in Japan. We are hoping to provide such support. We also want to expand scholarship opportunities for them and at the same time hope to promote cooperation between universities within and outside Japan.
TJ: What do you feel are some of your greatest achievements since becoming minister?
SHIMOMURA: It’s been almost two years and nine months since I became minister. This is a very long period for a minister of education in Japan. At the moment, I’m responsible for education, culture, sports, science and technology. I made 57 listings for reform within these areas and created a road map. I don’t have time to explain each one of them, but by promoting that major-scale revision of education, I think people started to become aware that education is an investment for the future and that human development equals nation-building, making education the most important theme among all policies that we should put more effort on than ever. It is necessary for us to secure financial resources to do so, but we hope to make an educational movement that will create an environment with the belief that we can provide chances and possibilities for the future to each and every person living in Japan. tj
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