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Lifelong Learning in Japan

Bill Gordon

March 1998

Introduction (this page)
Section 1 - Defining Lifelong Learning
Section 2 - Environmental Factors
Section 3 - Selected Events Since 1945
Section 4 - Principal Characteristics and Unique Aspects
Section 5 - Problems
Section 6 - Conclusions
Various public and private organizations in Japan offer many types of lifelong learning activities for adults. Monbushô (Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture) promotes "the creation of a lifelong learning society in which people can learn at any stage of life, can freely select and participate in opportunities for study and can have the results of their learning appropriately evaluated" (Monbushô 1996c).

The rate of adults participating in learning activities reached 48% in 1992, up from 40% in 1988. A survey by the Prime Minister's Office concerning lifelong learning found 66% of the Japanese adult population wanted to try learning activities. The majority of adult learning covers sports and personal health (24%); hobbies and personal interests such as music, calligraphy, and flower arranging (23%); or skills useful for family life (9%). Classes to gain knowledge and skills required for work make up only 10% of the total learning activities (Monbushô 1996a, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.1; Chart I-2-1; Ch. 3, 1).

In contrast to Monbushô publications that extol the virtues of lifelong learning and to government programs and laws that promote lifelong learning, several writers on Japanese education conclude that the current system of adult education requires significant improvements: "Lifelong learning has not been successful in so far as building a learning ethic, one that prizes learning, teaches creativity, includes everyone, and is seamless" (Sawano 1997, 1). "There is no doubt that adult education has been treated as a marginal area in comparison with regular schooling" (Maehira 1994, 335). "Adult education is clearly a low priority and of low status" (Smith 1995, 108). "It is of paramount importance therefore that the . . . notion of the right to learn be allowed to take root and grow within the consciousness of each and every citizen. . . . This consciousness must in turn express itself in relentless demands for the right to freely learn and inquire. . . . the basic orientation being described here is diametrically opposed to . . . the government-propagated discourse on lifelong education (shôgai kyôiku)" (Horio 1988, 272).

Japanese lifelong learning programs for adults, despite their accomplishments and admirable objectives, require some significant improvements to fully realize their goals. This essay provides an overview of the principal features and problems of the Japanese system of lifelong learning for adults. Although the term lifelong learning implies education throughout a person's lifetime, this paper will focus only on adults after graduation from high schools or universities. Section 1 of this essay defines lifelong learning. The next section discusses significant environmental factors that have a direct effect on lifelong learning for adults. Section 3 provides a brief history of adult education since the end of World War II. Section 4 examines the principal characteristics and unique aspects of the Japanese system of lifelong learning. Section 5 focuses on some critical problems with the current system. The final section provides conclusions.

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Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3
Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 and Bibliography
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