electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 2 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 4 March 2008

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Critical Thinking and Modern Japan

Conflict in the Discourse of Government and Business


David Rear

PhD Candidate
Macquarie University
Shibaura Institute of Technology

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This paper examines the public discourses of Japanese government and business interests on the subject of critical thinking within education. It begins by examining the dilemma critical thinking can pose to states and organisations with the emphasis it places on reasoned nonconformity. While nonconformity can be important in a post-industrial business context where fresh ideas and innovation provide the impetus for profit, it can also pose potential difficulties for organisational stability, as people choose to reject established ways of thinking or behaving. In twenty-first century Japan, this dilemma can clearly be seen in public policy statements made on education. On the one hand, the impact of globalised competition has led to a demand from government and business circles for a new kind of graduate, able to exercise independent judgement skills unbound by conventional thinking. On the other hand, they also express fears that the increasing individualism displayed by young people is threatening the social order and leading Japan towards an undesirable future. Their apparent solution to this dilemma is the re-introduction of patriotic and moral education, aimed at reaffirming the pre-war values of social duty and national solidarity.

Key Words: critical thinking; Japan; education; discourse; cultural values


The large numbers of Asian students travelling abroad to study at Western universities has led educators to consider the kind of difficulties they face in adapting to their new learning environments. While inadequate language skills can be seen as the largest obstacle in their path, there has also been attention paid to their apparent lack of critical reasoning skills (Davies 2000, Felix and Lawson 1994). Davies argues that critical thinking and analytical skills development for international students are emerging 'as top priority concerns' for Australian universities (2000: 2). Japanese students taking an ethnographic culture course at the University of Technology in Sydney, for instance, were said to 'fit the stereotypes of being passive and non-participatory, with little ability in the type of critical enquiry which is so valued by the western academy' (Ellwood 2000).

It is not this paper's objective to discuss the validity or invalidity of these claims. No doubt linguistic weaknesses and, particularly in the case of the ethnographic culture course, plain lack of interest in the subject matter may exacerbate these negative tendencies. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that, in the case of Japan at least, criticism of students' thinking abilities has not just taken place in Western educational contexts. It is also a feature of educational discourse in the country itself. Politicians, business leaders, and educators have lined up to stress the need for Japan's education system to begin producing graduates who have the creativity, individuality and analytical skills to thrive in the new knowledge society. The 2002 White Paper of the Japanese Education Ministry, for instance, promoted a new course to help students 'develop natural gifts and faculties to find assignments, learn and think by themselves, make decisions independently, take actions, and solve problems better' (MEXT 2002: 1).

On the surface, these developments seem to bode well for Japanese students of the future adapting to study overseas. They also appear to contradict the claims of Atkinson (1997) and others, who have argued that critical thinking is a concept unsuitable and undesirable for harmony-seeking, group-oriented cultures of East Asia.

In reality, however, the situation is not quite as straightforward as it seems. For all its modernist talk of fostering individualistic and independent-minded citizens, the Japanese state, dominated by the highly conservative Liberal Democratic Party for the past fifty years, often appears to strive for the very opposite. A tension is apparent throughout political discourse on education, as the state demands on the one hand 'vigorous Japanese people who think and act on their own initiative' while simultaneously criticising 'the tendency of society to overemphasise individual freedom and rights' and stressing the need to 'socialise' young people into possessing a 'respect for rules' (MEXT 2005a: 1).

It is a conflict that can be said to lie within the concept of critical thinking itself. While the cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom 1956) are abilities that leaders may hope for in the people beneath them, the attendant risks that come with having subordinates willing and able to criticise the systems and policies put in place by their superiors are ones that most large organisations may well prefer to avoid. This could also be said to be true of national governments, which have to balance the need for a vigorous and autonomous citizenry (arguably necessary for economic success in a post-industrial? society) with the dangers such independence might pose to the harmony and order of society as a whole.

This paper aims to provide an overview of how issues related to critical thinking have been discussed in recent years within the discourses of prominent government and business institutions in Japan. Beginning with an analysis of prevailing conceptions of critical thinking in Western educational thought, it will then proceed to look at how these relate to current social and economic trends in Japan. It will examine the apparent tension between the group-oriented, conformist values of the conservative ruling elite and the more individualistic, nonconformist tendencies of the new younger generation. While government and business interests espouse the need for Japan's education system to produce a new kind of autonomous and self-directed graduate in order to drive the nation's future economic growth, they fear the potential detrimental effect this might have on societal order. The dilemma this poses leads to tensions within both policy and discourse within education.

The dilemma of critical thinking: The benefits and costs of nonconformity

'Critical thinking' is a term which lacks a consensual definition in Western educational thought, arguably meeting the criteria of what Connolly (1974) has called an 'essentially contested concept'. The contest that this paper is primarily concerned with is at the level of application: that is, what is the purpose of critical thinking and what is it to be used for? It is here that a dilemma exists for governments and large organisations.
At a cognitive level, critical thinking is frequently defined in terms of a set of related skills, and there is broad – though not complete – agreement on what these skills are. Bloom's seminal work of 1956 identified six major cognitive categories, ranging from the simplest, or 'lower-order', skills at the bottom to the most complex, or 'higher-order', at the top. Beginning with what he misleadingly labelled 'knowledge' (Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) call it 'remembering'), good thinkers must be able to master the progressively more complex skills of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Since then, other scholars have adapted and added to these ideas to draw up new taxonomies, which differ in detail but not substance from Bloom's original. Ennis (1987) has identified twelve abilities: focusing on a question, analysing arguments, asking and answering questions of clarification, judging the credibility of a source, observing and judging observation reports, deducing and judging deductions, inducing and judging inductions, making value judgements, defining terms, identifying assumptions, deciding on an action, and interacting with others. Facione (1990), meanwhile, organised a consensus (or perhaps compromise) of expert opinion to come up with the six broad categories of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.

It is easy to see how these kinds of cognitive skills would be deemed valuable not only in academic settings but also modern workplaces, where the ability to solve unforeseen problems is becoming a prerequisite for business success.

However, a potential danger exists for organisations in terms of how these skills are applied in everyday workplace life. If employees possess the ability to judge the credibility of statements, to identify assumptions and biases, and to come to independent conclusions, what is to stop them applying these skills with regard to the ideas and policies of their superiors? Critical thinking has been defined as 'reasonable and reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do' (Ennis 1985: 28), implying an emancipatory quality to the concept, a freeing of people's minds from a slavish acceptance of conventional beliefs.

For some scholars this is indeed a central element of critical thinking, if not its very purpose. Brookfield comments that conventional wisdoms often serve to mask unfair and unjust economic and political practices, and hopes that knowledge of this will 'galvanize people into collective social action directed toward creating a fairer, more just society' (1991: 3). Benesch sees critical thinking as 'a search for the social, historical, and political roots of conventional knowledge and an orientation to transform learning and society' (1993: 546). Paul argues that the development of cognitive skills for 'vocational' or 'technical' purposes is critical thinking 'in the weak sense' (1984: 5). Critical thinking 'in the strong sense' implies 'emancipatory reason' (1984: 5) and an inclination for people to 'free themselves from the self-serving manipulations of their own leaders' (1993: 359).

Under such a conception of the term, critical thinking is not merely a set of cognitive skills to be put to use in order to carry out a particular task, but a general disposition to challenge the status quo. Governments or organisations that encourage such a mindset must possess a commitment to social and political change, as well as a willingness to risk losing personal privileges and power.

In this sense, critical thinking is closely linked with the issue of 'conformism' versus 'nonconformist'. If critical thinking involves the ability to weigh up evidence and come to an independent conclusion, we may say that it contains within it the seeds of reasoned nonconformism. Through a nonconformist outlook, a worker may find an 'out-of-the-box' solution to a sticky business problem. However, that worker may just as easily decide the problem is not worth solving if he or she judges the entire organisation to be poorly or unfairly managed.

All organisations or societies face this dilemma when they educate people towards thinking for themselves. Even in a supposedly nonconformist society such as the United States, certain boundaries are set in terms of what issues are or are not up for debate. It is largely taken for granted, for example, that democracy is intrinsically a better system than monarchy or theocracy. Likewise, that a multi-cultural society is preferable to a mono-cultural one. It is also assumed that working for a living and taking responsibility for oneself and one's family forms part of a citizen's duty towards the wider community. Individuals who attempt to challenge these conventional beliefs are likely to face censure, ostracism or even legal coercion. Education in the United States reinforces this process, encouraging nonconformism in some areas but not others.

Japan in the twenty-first century is confronted by the same dilemma. Arguably a more conformist society than the United States, it faces the challenge of a younger generation already showing signs of rejecting some of the key cultural mores traditionally upheld by society. On the one hand, encouraging nonconformism as part of the educational process is said to be necessary in order to produce the autonomous and creative employees needed to add value to the nation's businesses. On the other hand, it could serve to exacerbate the trend away from traditional ways of living and behaving. This has led to fears, particularly from the conservative elites of the country, that the very fabric of Japanese society itself may be slipping away.

Molding Japan in their own image: The conservative elites

In order to understand what fears the elites of Japan have over the increasing individuality and nonconformity of the country's youth, it is first necessary to examine what the Establishment of Japan consists of and how it has attempted to mold the values of the citizenry over the years.

The bedrock of Japan's Establishment can be said to be the Liberal Democratic Party (Jimintō), which has held political power almost uninterruptedly for the past fifty or so years. Formed from a coalition of right-wing conservative groups in 1955, it has enjoyed a parliamentary majority in virtually every election since. (Its recent unprecedented defeat in the Upper House elections may signal an end to its dominance, but this very much remains to be seen.) Although often disunited internally, the LDP has ruled through an enduring alliance of conservative business and agricultural interests, aided by a large and powerful government bureaucracy. The bureaucracy itself is dominated by a small coterie of elite civil servants, graduates of Japan's most prestigious universities, particularly the Law Faculty of Tokyo University which has provided a staggering 35% of higher-grade civil servants since 1971, according to Yamamoto (2005). These elite bureaucrats, along with senior LDP politicians and leading businesspeople, form what might be regarded as the Establishment (Taisei) of modern Japan.

Together they wield an enormous degree of influence over the lives of the people of Japan. Even the judiciary fails to be genuinely independent. Article 79 of the Japanese constitution stipulates that the judges of the Supreme Court be appointed by the cabinet, which is also responsible for naming lower court judges from a list drawn up by the Supreme Court. With the LDP having been in power for most of the years since the Second World War, it is clear how political interference in the judicial system can become a reality. As Dean (1995: 397) states: 'The cabinet… can exert political pressure on the Supreme Court, which in turn means that the whole process reinforces conformity, consensus and conservatism.' Some judges in lower courts tend to be a little more liberal than those in the higher echelons, but since the Supreme Court controls reappointments, they are unlikely to rise any higher. Thus, the Japanese judiciary has been seen as 'an instrument of social control rather than a protector of civil liberties' (Dean 1995: 398).

With the courts on their side, Japanese governments have long engaged in campaigns to mold the values and attitudes of their citizens. Garon (1997) has shown how they have cooperated at the grassroots with local women's associations and at a higher level with media interests to shape attitudes that tally with national policies. In the 1970s, these took the form of large-scale 'moral suasion' campaigns, in which Japanese consumers were encouraged to spend less and save more in order to provide capital for corporate investment. At the height of the campaigns in 1974-8, savings rates soared by up to 23 percent. After this there were campaigns to keep the cost of welfare down, with the media consistently fed stories of the 'Swedish disease' and the 'English disease'. The English disease was the sobering example of how social welfare leads to a lazy society, while the Swedish disease described the situation in which old people were left lonely because they were cared for by the state and not their own families. A 1992 survey found that 86 percent of bedridden elderly were being nursed by their families (usually a daughter-in-law), with only 8 percent being cared for by someone outside the family. The Ministry of Health and Welfare commented that 'we should be able to raise the percentage of those [elderly people] choosing to live at home even further' (quoted in Garon 1997: 226).

Such campaigns succeeded in Japan because of a well-defined sense of national solidarity, encouraged by conservative elements in business, politics, and academia. Under this view – dubbed the sakoku mentality by Itoh (1996) - the outside world is presented as a fundamentally hostile and threatening place, against which the people of Japan must depend upon the state to defend them. Failure to do so may lead to the English disease, the Swedish disease, or worse still the American disease with its images of crime, drugs, racial tensions, and familial breakdown (Garon 1997).

The discourse through which much of this nationalistic ideology is articulated is known as 'Nihonjinron' ('Theories of the Japanese'). Its basic premise holds that Japanese society and Japanese people themselves are 'uniquely' unique in the world, a homogeneous people (tan'itsu minzoku) whose society is based on group rather than individual values (Burgess 2004). In the years leading up to the Second World War, the propagation of this message was overtly orchestrated by the state, but upon the revival of Nihonjinron in the 1970s and 1980s the state's involvement has had to become more subtle and indirect (Befu 2001). Its influence is, however, still strong enough for Anderson (1983: 104) to call it a 'systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth.' With the weakening of national confidence through the 1990s recession, Nihonjinron has died down as an industry, but Burgess (2004) has shown how the discourse has survived in a more sophisticated form through concepts such as kokusaika (internationalisation) and ibunka (cultural difference). Although ostensibly appearing to promote the opening up of Japan's borders to foreigners, the effect (and, arguably, the purpose) is quite the opposite: to further the Othering of the outside world and to reinforce the uniqueness and difference of Japanese society.

So profound an influence has this discourse been that Kubota (1999: 9) has been moved to say that Japanese culture itself has been 'constructed by discourses'. This may be overstating it, but Kubota's (1999: 21) argument that 'group orientation, harmony, and homogeneity, which are often believed to be the central characteristics of Japanese culture, need to be re-evaluated from a point of view of a discourse in which power relations construct and legitimate such particular beliefs' should be taken seriously. As shall be outlined in the next section, Japanese society and values have changed a great deal over the past fifteen years, and the policies of the LDP and the nationalist discourses of Nihonjinron have been attempts to deal with this changing environment while preserving the traditional, almost pre-war values of which the conservative elite approve.

Growing individualism and nonconformity of the Japanese

In the 1990s, Japan underwent a series of events that shook the country's confidence in itself to the core. The collapse of the bubble economy, the failure of banks and securities firms through the stock market crash, the subsequent drop in land prices, the Kobe earthquake, the sarin gas attack by the members of Aum Shinrikyo, and the Recruit scandal that precipitated the temporary downfall of the LDP in 1993 led the Japanese towards a re-examination of their society and systems. As Eades (2000: 2) writes: 'These events were not only shattering in themselves, but their inept handling by the government, the bureaucracy, and the police further undermined public trust in the government and administrative system.' Since then, with new political scandals brought to light almost daily, there have been constant and vociferous demands for change both from the media and the electorate.

There is widespread belief that the state is out of touch with the views of ordinary Japanese people, not only in terms of its specific policies but also its general value system. The downfall of the premiership of Shinzo Abe in 2007 was said to be due in part to his failure to 'read the atmosphere' (kūki o yomu) of the nation when he concentrated his efforts on revising the pacifist constitution while ignoring the real day-to-day concerns of its citizens. Another example was seen in the public statements of his Minister for Health and Welfare, who was tasked with the problem of raising the country's flagging birth-rate. In a speech in January 2007, the seventy-one year-old Minister referred to women as 'birthing machines' ('umu kikai'). The storm of protest that followed, which included a week-long boycott of Diet proceedings by the opposition over Yanagisawa's refusal to resign, elicited apologies from top LDP officials, only for the Minister to make a similar gaffe ten days later when he stated that all 'healthy' (kenzen) young couples want to get married and have at least two children. Opposition leaders described Yanagisawa's prior comment as 'impermissible as a human' (Daily Yomiuri, 31 Jan 2007), while Noriko Hama, a professor at Doshisha University, summed up many women's feelings when she wrote: 'It is indeed tragic when we have people in positions of responsibility whose convictions seem so apparently to be at odds with intellectual soundness and integrity of values' (Japan Times, 12 Feb 2007).

The fact that Yanagisawa was not asked to resign by the Prime Minister led many commentators to suggest that he was far from being alone amongst government ministers in holding these views of women. Indeed, four years earlier former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori had commented in a debate: 'It's peculiar that any woman who's never given birth to even a single child, but enjoys her freedom and has fun, should demand taxpayer support when she gets old' (Japan Times, 11 Feb 2007). However, the swift condemnation from all quarters that followed Yanagisawa's remarks revealed that mainstream Japanese society has moved on from these attitudes. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the average age at which women marry has increased from 25.9 in 1990 to 28.0 in 2005, and Mohwald (2000) has confirmed these attitude changes with his longitudinal analysis of value surveys. Although marriage is still evaluated highly by women, there is a rejection of customary gender roles. Discrimination in the workplace is strongly opposed, particularly by the younger generation, and sexual harassment is despised by both young women and men. Mohwald's study also shows that overall value trends have moved from being 'traditional conservative' to 'modern individualistic'. With the bursting of the bubble economy in the 1990s, this process has accelerated. As Mohwald (2000: 65) writes: 'Since about 1990 we can also observe an increasing relaxation of control over the lives of Japanese young people, combined with a further general increase in permissiveness in Japanese society.'

This value change extends to attitudes about work. In a 1976-1977 survey of life values, the importance of diligence, hard work and work as an end in itself was revealed to be the mainstream view, but by 1990 a Labour Ministry report found that a majority of young people belonged to a type which they dubbed shinjinruigata, characterised by low loyalty to the company, dislike of hard work, a preference for leisure over work, and a rejection of after-hour socializing with colleagues (Mohwald 2000). The worsening economy in the 1990s has exacerbated these trends, contributing to a dramatic rise in the number of young people not taking up full-time work. According to official statistics, there were 2.09 million floating part-timers or 'freeters' in 2003, twice the number as ten years previously. There were also 1.68 million young unemployed, and 640,000 young people not actively seeking work (all reported in Japan Institute of Labor Policy and Training 2006). Perhaps even more serious from the point of view of Japanese companies, 30 percent of new regular employees are now said to quit their jobs within the first three years (reported in Adachi 2006).

Reduced hiring by corporations is a very important factor in these trends, but there is also a perception that a change in the attitudes of young people is also a significant reason. In a study of 405 university students, Adachi (2006) found that their career consciousness was marked by three tendencies: 'tekishoku shinkō' (belief in the idea of a perfect vocation), 'ukemi' (passivity), and 'yaritaikoto shikō' (inclination towards personal interests). While the dominant government view appears to be that young people have become passive or lazy, Adachi found that the most common tendency was yaritaikoto shikō, marked by high scores on questionnaire items such as 'I want to maintain my character in doing my job', 'I want to make a career out of what I like', and 'I want to be in an environment where I can do what I want to do'. These are all markers of individualist values. Honda (2005: 6) argues that freeters are 'latent objectors to the mainstream structure of Japanese society. A significant percentage of freeters have refused the life of the "company-man", which has become the negative symbol of mainstream Japanese society. In this sense, freeters can be seen as the potential pioneers of the coming society.' Honda acknowledges, however, that at present the social and economic conditions are not right for freeters to fulfil this potential. Instead, they are seen as a serious problem for the future of Japan, one that highlights the dangers of growing individualism in a society whose structure may be too rigid to handle it.

The value battleground: Education reform

It must be pointed out that over the past ten years there have been signs that Japanese society is becoming more flexible and accommodating. For example, the number of Japanese students choosing to study at overseas (mainly Western) universities has been increasing steadily, reaching 78,000 by 2001, second only to China (MEXT 2005b). Fifteen percent of these students were on Japanese government scholarships (Goodman 2005). A further 50,000 elementary and junior high students also reside abroad (MEXT 2005b). Whereas in the past returnee students (kikokushijo) were viewed with suspicion by school authorities and corporate recruiters out of fear that they would no longer be able to fit in with Japanese society, there is evidence now that the skills they bring, particularly in foreign languages, are becoming more highly valued (Goodman 2005, Omori 2001). Omori's (2001) interviews with returnee and non-returnee students revealed little of the tension that had been seen in the past. Returnee students generally made an effort to conform to their peers' modes of behaviour, but they objected to the rigid nature of vertical sempai-kohai relationships. One boy, Hiroshi, even managed to persuade his fellow seniors or sempai to put an end to the unequal treatment of their juniors, albeit in a school where returnee students predominated.

However, whether these developments will truly lead to significant change in Japan depends a great deal on the policies of the Ministry of Education, which maintains a tight grip over the nation's education system. It is in the elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools of Japan that the future members of society will be nurtured and created. In terms of the Establishment view of education, there are two main stakeholders to consider: the Japanese business community, which relies on the products of the education system for its Human Resources; and the government itself, which to a large extent is responsible for producing the kind of Human Resources the business leaders demand. When we analyse the discourse of these two groups, we find many broad similarities, though where the business community tends to think in purely practical terms (gaining the kind of labour they need for business success), the government's view is both practical and ideological, with an emphasis on nationalism and social management. It is through the clash between ideology and practice that the conflict inside the discourse emerges.

The business community view: a new kind of graduate?

The post-industrial business world has seen a demand for a new kind of corporate employee in the West. As companies struggle to gain and maintain competitiveness in a global market, 'knowledge' has become the key tool around which success is said to be based. The successful company is one that can best harness the collective knowledge of its employees, in order to produce high-quality goods at the right price for the right market niche. In the pursuit of 'innovation' and 'continuous improvement', responsibility is pushed lower and lower down the hierarchy, requiring front-line workers who can 'learn and adapt quickly, think for themselves, take responsibility, make decisions, and communicate what they need and know to leaders who coach, supply, and inspire them' (Gee, Hull & Lankshear 1996: 19).

Nowadays in Japan too, this discourse has begun to be heard. In the past, cooperativeness, eagerness for work, enthusiasm, general knowledge, a willingness to work hard, and stamina were seen as the most attractive features of a new hire (Nakamura 1992). The perfect white-collar worker was 'green' enough to be easily socialised but smart enough to pick up the various skills needed to carry out their jobs effectively.

The Japanese education system succeeded very well in producing this kind of worker. High literacy and numeracy levels were reached through elementary school education, which has been seen as a model for the world. Observation studies of maths classes have revealed that children are encouraged to think creatively to reach their own solutions and to solve problems collaboratively (Stigler, Fernandez and Yoshida 1998). Japan has done well on international comparisons both for maths skill and problem-solving ability (OECD 2003). After elementary school, however, the focus switches towards study for university entrance examinations. The examinations are almost entirely multiple-choice and factual-based, forcing students to memorise huge chunks of information and turning high school classes into little more than teacher-centred lectures (Aspinall 2005, Goodman 2005). The idea was that the system should be fair for everyone, with all subjectivity taken out of the equation, but in reality wealthier parents send their children to 'cram schools' for extra tuition outside of normal school hours. The result is that the key to success for Japanese students was seen not as thinking ability so much as sheer hard work and persistence. The words 'gaman' (endurance), 'gambaru' (effort) and 'kurō' (suffering) are all used to describe this deliberate character-building aspect to Japanese education (Rohlen and LeTendre 1998). These fitted well with the attributes demanded by the Japanese workplace. As Takeuchi (1997: 195) has remarked: 'the mentality created by the examination system corresponds to the mentality desired by Japanese management.'

However, the demands of global competition coupled with the economic downturn in Japan have led to an urgent re-examination of both the skills that are needed by employees and the role general education must take in developing them. Words such as 'creativity', 'initiative' and 'individuality' are now frequently heard as desirable attributes for graduates, as the old values are no longer deemed sufficient to drive an economy dependent on innovation and new ideas. As Japan's most influential business organisation Nippon Keidanren put it in 2003: 'Corporate employees must develop sophisticated judgement and problem-solving skills based on a broader perspective than before. Young people… also need the creativity and reformist approach to create new business models that take an "outside the box" approach' (2003a: 4). The current education system, particularly tertiary education, has come under repeated fire from business leaders as they struggle to find the kind of Human Resources they now need (Bachnik 2005, Amano 1999).

On the whole, corporate discourse on education is modernist in tone, with a stress on individualism and diversity. In its vision of 'Japan 2025', Nippon Keidanren envisages a country where 'diverse values come together to foster dynamism and creativity' (2003b: 3). 'Communities of self-reliant individuals with clearly defined values will form the core of the Japan of 2025, and people must wean themselves away from the business-centred culture that compels uniformity if they are to play a role in these communities' (2003b: 7). Individuals will need to become 'more empowered and assertive' to 'take part in public affairs that were once the domain of the state' (2003b: 7). They will also 'identify themselves less with the companies they work for and more with their own personal talents and interests' (2003b: 6). A key part of revitalising the country would be accepting more skilled non-Japanese workers into Japan, who will bring 'diverse viewpoints and talents' (2003b: 7). Nippon Keidanren urges the government to 'develop a well-rounded acceptance policy that addresses Japanese language education, employment assistance, eradication of discrimination, and the needs of the children of non-Japanese workers and students arriving in Japan' (2004: 3). This is not likely to be mere empty rhetoric, since it provides the only viable solution to Japan's impending population crisis, and it stands diametrically opposed to the government's ideological policy of preserving Japan, in ex-Foreign Minister Taro Aso's words, as 'one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race' (quoted in Japan Times, 18 Oct 2005).

Of course, the Japanese business community's overwhelming concern is not with promoting individualism for its own sake, but with the development of effective Human Resources. Much of Nippon Keidanren's interest is with producing 'technologists', which it defines as 'a worker who applies creativity by combining knowledge and technology' (2003a: 2). The Visions and Philosophy section of Toyota Motor Corporation's website urges its workers to 'ask why five times about every matter', but the five questions it provides as examples are all technical in nature, intended to carry out Toyota's policy of kaizen (continuous improvement). Being an 'empowered' worker in the Toyota mindset means having the confidence to stop factory lines when a defect is spotted, an essential element in the company's quality control strategy. This is not the same as encouraging workers to alter the company's entire way of doing things. As Koki Konishi, the director of the Toyota Institute, Toyota's management training school, remarked on the company's rapid globalisation: 'There is a sense of danger. We must prevent the Toyota Way from getting more and more diluted as Toyota grows overseas' (New York Times, 15 Feb 2007). It has had to set these foundational principles down on paper to make them explicit for non-Japanese workers. Nor does it seem as though Toyota is looking to change its traditional male-dominated management structure. In 2006, it set up a new elite boarding school in Japan called Kaiyo Academy in order to groom future corporate leaders. The school is open only to boys.

Like the government, Nippon Keidanren is concerned by what it sees as a declining work ethic amongst young people. 'At all stages of their education career, young people should be made aware of their role in society. They should be trained on a continuing basis to develop sound attitudes to work, develop a taste for, and learn the meaning and importance of work' (Nippon Keidanren 2002: 3). In its 'Japan, Land of Hope' report in 2007, the organisation echoes the government's call for greater patriotism in education. Education should emphasise the 'traditions, culture and history of Japan', and young people should be taught 'public morals' and a 'consciousness of social norms' in order to 'live within society' (Nippon Keidanren 2007: 120 - 1).

Despite the talk of treating employees as individuals, the pressure on employees to put in long hours of overtime seems to be as strong as ever. According to a labor union think tank, 28 percent of men in Tokyo and Osaka work over 12 hours a day, and 33 percent of men in their 30s do so. They are discouraged from claming full overtime payments by the atmosphere of the workplace and the attitude of management (Japan Times, 27 Nov 2006). Genda (2003) reports that since the recession these long working hours have extended to large companies as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises. When asked why they worked so hard, most employees were unable to answer concretely. As Genda writes, 'It actually appears that the main reason is that they are afraid to "stop working". A sense that one is being moved by something that is inside but not of oneself' (2003: 10). This is a good description of the power a group culture can have over individuals within it. Most young workers also felt that they were not valued by their companies and that, despite the claims of their superiors, their opinions were not sought or listened to. These findings suggest that, in spite of the modernist rhetoric, little may yet have changed inside workplaces themselves.

The government view: Thinking for the good of the nation

If we have to treat discourses of education espoused by big business with some degree of caution, those of the government are more obviously self-contradictory. On the one hand, the government acknowledges the need for the education system to begin producing autonomous, self-directed graduates who can thrive in the new knowledge economy, while on the other it stresses the importance of re-inculcating a sense of group consciousness and of duty to society and the state. These two ideologies frequently clash within the same policy statements.

On one level, the government has taken on the arguments of the business community regarding the need for students who can think and act as independent individuals. For example, in a policy White Paper entitled 'Higher Education to Support a Knowledge-Based Society', the Ministry of Education urges universities to review their curricula in the light of 'a change in the abilities that employers are seeking in their human resources and a change in the customs concerning personnel management and employment' (2004: 4). With a range of diverse curricula, universities should promote knowledge-creation and the means of cultivating students with such abilities. The government report 'Innovation 25' adds another voice in agreement, arguing that the key for Japan to thrive in the globalised era is to develop people with 'unique and exceptional talent who are often described as "nails that stick out" of a conformist society' (2007: 3).

Primary and secondary schools too are expected to contribute to this effort. In April 2002, the Ministry introduced a new course into schools called Period of Integrated Study ('sōgō-teki na gakushū no jikan') aimed at helping students to '(1) Develop natural gifts and faculties to find assignments, learn and think by themselves, make decisions independently, take actions, and solve problems better; and (2) Acquire ways to learn and view things, develop attitudes to address problem-solving and research activities independently and creatively, and be able to think of their own goals in life' (MEXT 2002: 3). With no set textbooks, schools were at liberty to choose the exact content of these classes themselves around issues such as international understanding, information, environment, welfare and health. Further reforms increased the number of elective subjects 'in view of developing individuality and ability thoroughly according to interests and preferences, wishes for career etc.' (MEXT 2002: 2).

There has also been a reaction, in the Ministry's rhetoric at least, against the traditional fact-cramming teaching methods necessary for university entrance exams. In its plan to introduce English classes to elementary schools, it stated that since the idea was to create a positive atmosphere for communication 'teacher-centred methods for cramming knowledge should be avoided' (MEXT 2003: 10). It has also encouraged universities to adopt more flexible admission methods, such as interviews and essay tests (Aspinall 2005). The exam-obsessed mindset may take time to change, as the well-publicised failure of at least 290 high schools in 2006 to teach certain compulsory subjects in order to concentrate on subjects more likely to be tested in the entrance exams shows. However, as Aspinall (2005: 215) comments, 'the days when the mindless cramming of vast numbers of facts was seen as a good in itself may soon by over.'

The pronouncements described above, however, only form part of the government's recent rhetoric on education. In the last two years there has been a reaction against what the government perceives as a 'deterioration in the socialization and moral consciousness of children' (MEXT 2005a: 1). In its blueprint for education reform, the Ministry argues that 'social awareness and respect for rules and morals among our young are deteriorating. This reflects not just the tendency of society to overemphasize individual freedom and rights, but the drastically changing environment that children find themselves in and the decline in opportunities for them to polish themselves in relationships with people and the community' (MEXT 2005a: 1). In a recent speech, the Education Minister, Bunmei Ibuki, went further, saying that 'Japan has stressed the individual point of view too much.' He argued that a society which values human rights or civil liberties (jinken) too highly will get 'human rights metabolic syndrome' (Asahi Shimbun, 25 Feb 2007).

'Individuality' is a double-edged sword in Japanese educational discourse. The same reform blueprint that criticises society for overemphasising the rights of the individual (kojin) also comments that the current education system, including university entrance exams, 'is unable to maximise students' individuality [kosei] and talent' (MEXT 2005a: 1). The word for individuality (kosei) is being used here in a positive sense, contrasting with the negative connotation the Ministry attaches to the word for individual (kojin). Maximising kosei is important, for the future of Japan depends on developing workers with specific and diverse skills suited to their own innate abilities. Stressing the rights of the kojin, however, can lead to undesirable social change and disruption, such as young people choosing to leave their jobs within three years or women delaying the age at which they get married.

So, how does one go about developing the individuality of children while downplaying their rights as individuals? The government's answer to this conundrum appears to be the re-introduction into schools of a revivified discourse of patriotic education (aikoku kyōiku). Amidst substantial controversy, the recent LDP administration, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pushed through a revision to the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education, striking out Article 1's reference of the need for education to 'esteem individual value' and adding a stipulation that education should cultivate in students 'an attitude that autonomously takes part in building society and contributes to its development on the basis of a public-oriented mind' and 'an attitude that respects tradition and culture and love of the national homeland that has fostered them' (Japan Times, 18 Dec 2006).

While the government denies that the law is aimed at stifling opposition to any particular administration's policies, it has not explained precisely what it means by 'tradition and culture' nor has it attempted to resolve the apparent paradox of students being taught to 'autonomously' build and develop society. Critics believe that it is an attempt to keep the nation quiet and to force young people, particularly those lower down on the academic scale, into the roles assigned to them by the elites. As Takashi Narushima, a professor of education law at Niigata University, says: 'For the losers in this [educational] competition, dissatisfaction will fester. Society will fall apart. To fix it, the government will push the Hinomaru flag and Kimigayo national anthem to integrate them into the "beautiful country" and compel them to tow the national line' (Japan Times, 27 Oct 2006). Just as the propagation of Nihonjinron in the past has been viewed as a strategy to bind the nation towards common statist goals, the reintroduction of patriotic education – not seen in Japan since before the Second World War – is arguably an attempt by the government to check the rising tide of individualism and to reinforce the 'traditional' Japanese values of conformity, social duty, and national solidarity.


This article has attempted to show how 'critical thinking' is discussed in the public policy statements of Japanese government and business interests. It began by examining the dilemma faced by all national states and organisations over the issue of critical thinking. It argued that since cognitive conceptions of the term generally share an emphasis on questioning assumptions and reaching independent judgements, it inevitably contains the potential for reasoned nonconformism. Indeed, for some scholars the challenging of authority and social conventions is the very purpose of critical thinking. This poses a challenge for governments and organisations. On the one hand, independent and nonconformist thinkers may open a path to innovation and creativity, vital for economies in the modern post-capitalist world. On the other hand, they may seek to use their skills in opposition to established authorities, leading to social dislocation or organisational disharmony. Thus, educational systems (and societies themselves) often seek to thread a line between the two: that is, to permit frank and open debate on some issues while strongly discouraging it on others.

This is the dilemma Japan finds itself facing at this time. Since the end of the Second World War, Japan has been ruled almost continuously by a highly conservative alliance of LDP politicians, career bureaucrats, and leading business and agricultural interests. The vision they have put forward of an ideal society is one in which social duty takes precedence over individual rights and in which national needs override private ones. Through moral suasion campaigns and nationalist Nihonjinron discourses, they have consistently worked to preserve these traditional, almost feudal values, attempting to suppress through discourse the more individualistic trends that have begun to emerge within society.

The problem the Establishment faces, however, is that they have begun to believe that the nation's education system is not responding adequately to the demands of economic life in the twenty-first century. Guided by egalitarian principles in which hard work and effort are the key ingredients for success, the current system is based around university entrance exams, which, in the interest of objectiveness, consist overwhelmingly of factual multiple-choice questions. Deemed efficacious in the past, when effort and persistence were the primary qualities demanded by Japanese management, it is seen as less successful now in the age of innovation, creativity, and personal initiative. Business rhetoric on education has reflected this change in perception by calling for a new kind of graduate, who has the individuality and initiative to challenge conventional wisdoms and provide companies with the 'value-added' service they require.

For the government, the clash between the need for independent and innovative individuals and the threat these qualities pose to the traditional values the ruling elites support has given rise to a conflict at the heart of Japanese political discourse on education. The key term around which the tension revolves is 'individuality', which can be used in a positive sense to express diversity and independence of character (kosei) or in a negative sense to denote selfishness or reckless nonconformity (kojinshugi). The latter is associated strongly with Western values, anathema to the conservative echelons of the LDP, while the former is seen as necessary for post-industrial business success. In the Japanese government's view, kojinshugi is increasing among young people, whereas kosei is still relatively undeveloped. The challenge of education is to promote one while suppressing the other, and this is where the idea of patriotic education comes in. By tying Japanese youth into a vision of Japan as, in ex-Prime Minister Abe's words, a 'beautiful country', the government hopes to develop the positive side of critical thinking (as a purely cognitive skill) while keeping the dangerous aspects (as harbinger of social change) at bay.

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About the author

David Rear is a full-time lecturer in English language at Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Japan. He is also conducting a PhD doctoral thesis in Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Australia, under the supervision of Dr. Alan Jones. The subject of his PhD concerns discourses of critical thinking and interpretations of critical thinking current within Japanese business contexts.

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Copyright: David Rear
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