Status quo in Japanese early childhood education and care: A contemporary and critical issues in
early childhood teacher training courses in Japan
Taichi Akutsu, PhD, Okayama Prefectural University
The negative news could be listed endlessly surrounding in Japanese early childhood education such as shortage of childcare workers, a high rate of turnover, low wages, and declining quality of childcare. Japanese early childhood education faces a necessity of dealing with numerous critical issues. A famous comparative study in the realm of early childhood education entitled Preschools in Three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States illustrated the rapid changes in Chinese and American preschools in a comparison to Japanese ones without much changes by emphasizing cultural sustainability and child-centered approach as positive phenomena (Tobin, Hsueh, & Karasawa, 2009). Nevertheless, in our time of uncertainty and new era of advancing technology and changing of culture, Kobayashi (2018) insisted the necessity of change in Japanese preschool systems and policies match to global standards. Preschools are sites not just of cultural continuity but also of change; thus, preschools must deal with such changes (Tobin, 2023). Tobin (2023), one of the authors of Preschools in Three cultures as mentioned above, analyzed, and said, “cultural practices in preschools have been replaced by practices borrowed from abroad, but other cultural practices have emerged unscathed from their encounter with globally circulating ideas, still others have evolved into hybrid forms the way some new cultural practices have been invented.”
As a premise, one of the major issues regarding Japanese early childhood education is the confusion and distinction of its existing systems such as Kindergarten, Nursery, and Center for Early childhood Education and Care. In Japan, as the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIEPR) (2023a) pointed out, historically, there were mainly two kinds of institutions involved in preschool education and care: kindergartens (youchien) and day nurseries (hoikujo). Until now, kindergartens and day nurseries have existed under the separate systems of the education sector and welfare sector, respectively (NIEPR, 2023a). As NIEPR (2023b) described, in August 2012, the Japanese government enacted and revised law for the Center for Early Childhood Education and Care. As a result, the Cabinet Office of Japan now manages the Center for Early Childhood Education and Care. The traits of ECEC Centers are the following (NIEPR, 2023b). ECEC Centers were developed from existing kindergartens and nurseries in the form of either a collaborative or separately (Kobayashi, 2017). A revision of the Law for Early Childhood Education and Care Centers led to an establishment of Unified Type ECEC Centers as a single facility that consists of a school educational institution and as a social welfare facility (Kobayashi, 2017). In the Unified Type of ECEC Centers, the legal foundation and the curriculum standards are also unified aiming to resolve the issues with the dual system (Kobayashi, 2017). Nevertheless, in Japan, we still have kindergartens, nursery and Center for Early Childhood Education and Care, and they belong to both public and private. According to The Center for Early Childhood Development, Education and Policy Research (CEDEP) (2023) of the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Education, there were no single national research organizations in Japan focusing specifically on ECEC yet from infancy to preschool age. Empirical researches on early childhood environment quality and child development in Japanese contexts are urgently needed to generate evidence basis for ECEC policy and practice (CEDEP, 2023). In addition, in the elementary education and above, MEXT (2018) is the only organization in charge; however, the ECEC is supported by mainly the Cabinet Office. As a result, there is probability a systematic gap between Japanese early childhood education and elementary education.
Second, Friedman-Krauss et al. (2018) stated that the minimum degree that a preschool teacher in the U.S. must have been a bachelor’s degree, while Japanese system still accept junior college degrees and still, they could be a principal of kindergarten, nursery and/ or Center for Early Childhood Education. Although Morozumi & Nagashima (2019) insisted that pre-service teacher training schools were likely to influence employment opportunities and having a four-year system does not mean its evaluations are always positive, the requirement of Japanese teacher’s degree maintains minimum and is lower compared with the other advanced countries. Friedman-Krauss et al. (2018) stated that the minimum degree that a preschool teacher in the U.S. must have a bachelor’s degree. The Japanese policy is currently not aligned with this benchmark because there are three types of teacher certification for kindergarten teachers in Japan. The highest level requires a master’s degree, the middle one requires a bachelor’s degree, and the lowest one requires at minimum an associate degree from a junior college (Educational Personnel Division in Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau of Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, 2023). These phenomena may cause the lacking the linkage between theory and practice in the realm of early childhood education and care particularly in Japan.
“Maintain the current situation is just go backwards” is a famous proverb by Walt Disney, one of the greatest leaders who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes to improve the quality of hospitality. Such a view is echoed by Konosuke Matsushita, a Japanese industrialist, widely known as a founder of the Panasonic Group, by saying adhering to the status quo marks the beginning of decline. We all know that being creative, innovative and updating knowledge and skills must be the heart of all kinds of professions; however, Japanese early childhood education has been slow in change compared with other countries.
In this paper, the author pointed out the problem embedded in Japanese early childhood education that cling to the convention and follows the established procedure with blind obedience from three perspectives: linking between research and practice; and an on-site narrative from a standpoint of an instructor of teacher education course. The main focuses of the study were the following: (1) Linkage between research and practice in Japanese early childhood education and care, especially in teacher training; (2) Critical issues in conventional control in a circumstance of pre-service teacher-training in the field of early childhood education and care.
This study is consisted with two holds. First, the study addressed the gap between theory and practice in teacher training courses. Initially, it analyzed the percentage of PhD holders in national and public universities in Okayama Prefecture that offer curricula on early childhood education and care. The educational backgrounds of faculty members were examined based on information available on each university's website. Furthermore, the study probed into the publications of faculty members to determine whether they had authored at least one article in English. Using university websites, the research also determined the percentage of faculty members who had published articles in English.
Second, by employing a first-person narrative as a methodology, the author addressed the problems embedded in Japanese early childhood education and care as an insider of early childhood teacher training courses at the university. Reason and Torbert (2001) described first-person research encompassing the skills and methods address the ability of the researcher to foster an inquiring approach to his or her own life. The author, former violinist of the New World Symphony, is Professor of Okayama Prefectural University, Faculty of Children, where he created and supervises a specialty in music and early childhood education. As a violinist-teacher-researcher of music education and early childhood education, in the process of analysis, the researcher made a connection among system and practice in the realm of early childhood education. From a phenomenological standpoint of view, the author described about himself as a musician, educator and researcher of music education and investigated Japanese early childhood education especially as the one who supervises pre-service teachers and in-service teachers as a faculty members of early childhood division at the university.
Specifically, the study incorporated and drew insights from pre-school teachers who had recently finished their student teaching in 2023. Specifically, this research highlighted challenges within the realm of early childhood education, particularly concerning pre-service teacher training, which are linked to the aforementioned systematic issues. From a group of 20, the study randomly selected accounts from three pre-service teachers (n=3) who shared their experiences in small groups after completing their student teaching to reflect upon their teaching practices.
University faculty members’ educational and research background
First, the study revealed that Japanese faculty members’ educational background is the lowest level in early childhood teacher training courses among the most advanced countries which caused the lack of linkage between theory and practice in the field of early childhood education in Japan. In Okayama Prefecture, where the author’s university is located, there were a total of 3 national and public universities maintaining the early childhood teacher education program, but there were not so many professors who holds doctoral degrees. There are total of 33 (N=33) faculty members and out of them 19 (58%) have PhD in the related field.
Moreover, there is almost no research in the field of early childhood education written in English in Japanese universities. Among the above mentioned 33 faculty members of early childhood education in three either national or public university in Okayama Prefecture, only 4 members (12 %) has written at least one peer reviewed journals in English. If we add the impact factor of the journals, the numbers become even lower. Consequently, Japanese early childhood education has certain gaps between research and practice so that we miss opportunities to improve the quality of early childhood education.
Pervasive control of convention in the fields
Here is a story told by a pre-service teacher who recently attended 20 days of student-teaching at a public kindergarten. Due to the above mentioned changes for caregivers especially who works full-time and part-time to send their children to either nursery or ECEC Centers, there are minimum numbers of the children who go to kindergarten. In fact, there were 6 children who are in the range of ages5 and 5 children for ages 4. As a result, there were the mixed ages of 4 and five total number of the class was 11 including children with autism spectrum disorder, and Asperger syndrome. In Japan, some private kindergarten refuses for handicapped children, so many of their caregivers decided to send their children to the public kindergarten.
On the first day, the student was asked to submit two lesson plans for half-day practice and whole-day practice. In Japanese student teaching in kindergarten, usually students were asked to conduct practice under supervision by her/ himself twice and submitting the lesson plan are a standardized procedure in student-teaching. First thing that the student learned was revising the lesson plan based on the supervisor’s suggestion and detailed comments in red. By the way, in Japan, the lesson plan in kindergarten especially in the student teaching must be written by hands as of 2023. The students revised 11 times because there were so many issues that the kindergarten teacher thought must be improves. To describe, some of the description such as “maintaining a good posture” was incorrect according to the teacher because ‘good posture’ may variously depend on the students according to the kindergarten culture that emphasize the child-centered approach, students must rewrite and changed to “stretch your back” to be more specific. Such a details were not taught in university’ classes, the student felt anxiety of surviving all the days of student-teaching already on the first few days.
Here is another story. In her case, the class size of the kindergarten was rather small so that they combined two classes: ages 4 and 5; thus, supervisor asked students to write separate lesson plan based on the same activities: one for ages 4 and another for 5. Children shared the same activities at the same time; however, the student had to come up with objectives and detailed care considering children’s developmental perspectives. Consequently, the student had to revise and write total of 22 lesson plans in 20 days.
Another story followed by different student. In her case, the class size was too large with almost 35 of them so that the musical activity that she planed had to be changed based on the supervisor’s suggestion. Friedman-Krauss et al. (2018) stated that “class size should be limited to at most 20 children” (p.18) and “class should be permitted to have no more than 10 children per classroom teaching staff member” (p. 18). In Japanese kindergarten, every class must have a teacher and the maximum number of children is 35 (Kobayashi, 2017). Thus, the Japanese policy has a huge gap compare with the standards. Famous cross-cultural studies on preschool education (Tobin, Hsueh, & Karasawa, 2009; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989) have already pointed out that Japanese preschool education assumes that large class size and high staff-child ratio are essential methods for facilitating the social development of contemporary Japanese children who are growing up in isolated environments. Nevertheless, this is the time that we need to consider changing this policy to give care and improve the quality of nursing.
The student was supposed to teach musical expression and designed the activity. The student was good at playing several brass instrument and percussion instruments including the snare drum. In fact, on the first day of her student-teaching, she found the snare drum not being used for a long time. The student proposed the supervisor if she could let student to touch the snare, and let them experience the element of drum playing. Nevertheless, the answer from the teacher was no due to oversized class, and in the case of danger if children start scrambling them. As a result, as the most kindergarten pursue, half of the children hold the castanets and other half holds the tambourines and play along with teachers piano playing. This is standardized strategy to manage a large sized classroom by handing only small percussion instrument such as castanet or tambourine, however, children could explore and experience more advanced instrumental playing including the technological instrument. The author is the one who conduct practitioner research to implement various instruments in the field of early childhood education; however, the field seems afraid of adding new challenge especially when they supervise novice teachers.
Finally, the study addresses the gender issue embedded in the field. As a recent educational trend, for example, all elementary children in Japan nationwide stop calling each other’s name by either first names or nicknames, and call their name by adding San. San is used to be tied to female children for long time, but now days, they try to avoid gender conflict so all ‘boys’ and girls’ were called for each other by adding San after their family name. In kindergarten, it is not that strict yet; however, teacher was asked to avoid calling group of children in the manner of boys and girls.
Speaking of gender, the third students who just finished the student teaching was participating a research methodology class. The students were eligible to select any research topics and pursue research independently. The student selected gender bias and stereotype in kindergarten aged children ages 3 to 5. There was an open seminar to gather all the student s and faculty members shared their research for 10 minutes each in the manner of academic conference. When the student presented her research, two of the elderly faculty members said to audience and to her that dealing with gender issue in kindergarten is not preferable because now all the kindergarten is avoiding dealing with the gender differences. The faculty members though they told the students the most recent trend in the field of early childhood education which is perhaps true; however, in the research and academic fields, there are vast arrays of research investigating the gender stereotypes with consideration of developmental and international perspectives. The students thought almost give up and change the research topic because she was embarrassed in front of other teachers and faculties. As a researcher the author searched and gave the related articles written by Okada et el. (2022) and Bian (2017) to proof that the researching gender related matters in young children has nothing to do with the criticism. In addition, the research was already approved by the IRB in the university. In the field of Japanese early childhood education, often control of convention win the research and academics. Urgently, we need a stronger tie to research and practice in the field of Japanese early childhood education.
This study investigated the problem embedded in Japanese early childhood education to refuse the change. First, the study analyzed linkage between research and practice in Japanese early childhood education and care. Next, the study investigated the conventional control in the field of early childhood education and care in Japan. There are quite few problems embedded in the system and fields of early childhood education; however, the author insists that the key to solve the problems is to have open minds to implement research and to encourage the field to accept the research informed practice to construct evidence based practice. Japanese early childhood education is outstanding in many ways such as world famous child-centered and play-based approach. Nevertheless, there is almost no research derived from the field of early childhood education in Japan. We must change and appeal what’s new and traits of Japanese early childhood education to the world. The status quo marks the beginning of failure of Japanese early childhood education.
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