reading skills declining in Japan

From an editorial in the Asahi Shimbun:

The results of a test by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development should leave no doubt that Japanese children’s ability to read, think logically and express their thoughts is declining rapidly.

The survey was conducted last year on 15-year-olds in 41 countries and areas. It was designed to measure students’ practical ability to think independently, deal with various real problems in the world and build healthy relations with others. Since it was not a pure scholarship test, students were allowed to use calculators in solving mathematical problems.

Japanese students’ performance in the test to gauge reading skills has dropped to 14th from eighth in the previous survey in 2000. Japan registered the largest drop in scores for reading among all participating countries….

The report on the future of Japanese language education submitted in February by the Council for Cultural Affairs to the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology reflected a strong sense of crisis about the situation….

The new curriculum guidelines implemented in the year that started in April 2002 reduced the amount of time for teaching Japanese at school. The number of children who don’t read books at all has been rising steadily.

The council report urged the government to enhance Japanese language education and provide more incentives for children to read books. As a step to achieve this goal, the report called for doubling the number of Chinese characters children learn at elementary school to cover most of the 1,945 designated by the government as basic characters. It is a very bold proposal that openly challenges the education ministry’s controversial policy of promoting “pressure-free” education….

Japanese children performed relatively well in dealing with selection problems in the OECD test but did poorly in essay questions. This should be regarded as a warning about university entrance exams in Japan.

Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward is planning to seek government approval for establishing itself as a special deregulation zone for Japanese language education. The initiative is designed to help children develop the ability to think deeply in Japanese. The plan would reduce the number of classes for comprehensive study and everyday life skills to increase the hours for Japanese language education.

Setagaya’s initiative is conspicuous amid local governments racing to create a special zone for English education. Setagaya’s sense of urgency should find a wide resonance in this country.