Ian Clark, Niculina Nae, and Masahiro Arimoto
Since the 1970s, Japanese society has endured rapid and confusing socio-economic transformation. These changes brought a sense of decentralization into Japanese life. It was a sense of loss and a sense of reality, as the stable dependencies that had characterized the Japanese way of life for centuries vanished. In the years leading up to the 21st century, this radical departure from tradition meant that the concept of continuity existed only to emphasize its absence. Society goes through a process of rapid change, posing challenges not everyone might be ready to tackle. The unintended, but inevitable, consequence is the social disaffection of Japanese youth, who may be losing their motivation (or focus) at a time of sudden and sustained adversity. The Japanese government is promoting the revitalizing energy of education for sustainable development (ESD), and even publicizes ESD’s potential for giving life a robust meaning. This is by no means an exclusively Japanese problem. In recent years, and with Japanese leadership, other UNESCO nations have integrated ESD into curricula. To fully understand the nature of the Japanese system for sustainable education, scholars need to draw from cultural philosophy, social neuroscience, historical analysis, and the ideas of socio-cognitive and constructivist theorists. Such a mix of methods provides an inter-disciplinary “geometry” of the often deeply inlaid shapes, patterns, and relationships that surround the uniquely cultural, yet highly exportable models for zenjin-education (“whole-person”).
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944) was a geographer, elementary school teacher and principal, and educational reformer, who was active in the early-to-mid 1900s in Japan. As a school leader and scholar-practitioner guided by a passion for supporting teachers and improving education for the happiness of children, Makiguchi scrutinized pedagogy as a science and proposed a number of reforms of the Japanese education system, key elements of which, he believed, were failing teachers and students alike. His proposals included, among many: the establishment of standards of competency expected of school principals as well as a system of examination to uphold these standards; the abolition of a government-led school inspection system that pressured and restricted teachers from freely conducting teaching activities; and the establishment of an “education research institute” and an organization for the training of teachers.
The growing number of modern educational scholars and practitioners paying attention to Makiguchi’s work and philosophy find his ideas not only valid and applicable to education in the 21st century but also remarkably innovative and insightful. His proposal for school leadership was still but a voice in the wilderness in the 1930s. It was also a bold and audacious attempt for him, especially at the time of the militarist regime. Makiguchi is often compared with his contemporary John Dewey (1859–1952). Evidently, Makiguchi and Dewey were both visionaries, passionate school leaders, and fearless reformers. Bearing this in mind, Makiguchi deserves much more attention than he has received thus far—at least as much as Dewey, if we are to balance the historical account of progressive education as a transnational phenomenon.