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Schooling Selves

Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education

Schooling Selves

Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education

Balancing the development of autonomy with that of social interdependence is a crucial aim of education in any society, but nowhere has it been more hotly debated than in Japan, where controversial education reforms over the past twenty years have attempted to reconcile the two goals. In this book, Peter Cave explores these reforms as they have played out at the junior high level, the most intense pressure point in the Japanese system, a time when students prepare for the high school entrance exams that will largely determine their educational trajectories and future livelihoods.
Cave examines the implementation of “relaxed education” reforms that attempted to promote individual autonomy and free thinking in Japanese classrooms. As he shows, however, these policies were eventually transformed by educators and school administrators into curricula and approaches that actually promoted social integration over individuality, an effect opposite to the reforms’ intended purpose. With vivid detail, he offers the voices of teachers, students, and parents to show what happens when national education policies run up against long-held beliefs and practices, and what their complex and conflicted interactions say about the production of self and community in education. The result is a fascinating analysis of a turbulent era in Japanese education that offers lessons for educational practitioners in any country. 

296 pages | 15 halftones, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Asian Studies: East Asia

Education: Comparative Education, Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education


“Cave examines the impact of Japanese educational reform policies in junior high schools through a longitudinal, multi-site ethnographic study…. Throughout the book, Cave provides insight into how concepts such as individuality, autonomy, education (guidance), and equity are defined and understood in contemporary Japanese society and how they are enacted in the institution of junior high schools.”


“A nuanced look at recent efforts to alter the context for teaching and learning in Japan. Not only does Cave’s analysis deepen our understanding of the education system, it also raises some pithy questions about social change in Japan and the tensions that have surfaced as government leaders attempt to convince citizens to adopt behaviors that often clash with established practices.”

Christopher Bjork, author of High-Stakes Schooling

“In this wonderfully detailed ethnography, which draws on over a dozen years of fieldwork—often visiting the same event many years apart—Cave robustly challenges the persistent view of Japanese junior high schools as unchanging institutions that serve primarily to prepare children for a life focused on group rather than individual activity. In doing so, Cave shifts our understanding of some of the key topics not only in Japanese studies but also in anthropology more generally, such as personhood, autonomy, creativity, and how social change both occurs and is resisted.”

Roger Goodman, author of Children of the Japanese State

Schooling Selves is an insightful longitudinal ethnographic study of how Japanese junior high schools have interpreted, and struggled to implement, national reform policies to promote individual autonomy. Its outstanding feature is the extensive coverage, exceeding any previous studies, of aspects of daily schooling that Cave devotes to examining this process, including extracurricular clubs, the subjects of Japanese and integrated studies, sports days, choral contests, cultural festivals, and assessment. Readers can unpack the complexity and underlying reasoning for the contradiction-ridden policy implementation process through the author’s thick description of everyday schooling; and in so doing, they gain an insight into how individual autonomy, interdependence, and the social whole are conceived by teachers, parents, and students, and in the wider society.”

Kaori H. Okano, La Trobe University

"This book will be essential reading for scholars researching contemporary Japanese education and society and more generally for all those seeking a greater understanding of the phenomenon of educational intensity in Japan and across East Asia. As such, it is just the latest in an extensive and impressive body of work that also includes an earlier volume, Primary School in Japan (Routledge, 2009)."

Comparative Education Review

"Cave’s detailed ethnography, drawing on over a dozen years of fieldwork, makes this book a highly useful contribution to the field of Japanese education. The book offers an insightful evaluation of the educational reform, as Cave reveals how the reform was interpreted and implemented by the teachers in practice. Its outstanding feature is the extensive coverage of different aspects of daily schooling."

Social Science Japan Journal

Table of Contents

Note on Conventions

Chapter 1.       Individuals, Autonomy, and Society in Japanese Education
Chapter 2.       Reshaping Reform: Discipline, Autonomy, and Group Relations
Chapter 3.       Classes, Clubs, and Control
Chapter 4.       Mass Games and Dreams of Youth
Chapter 5.       Changing the Classroom? Autonomy and Expression in Japanese Language and Literature
Chapter 6.       The Challenges and Trials of Curricular Change
Chapter 7.       To Graduation and Beyond: High School Entrance and Juku

Fieldwork Appendix

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