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Difficulties and problems in building schools based on community needs: A case study of educational reforms at Nara Prefecture in Japan

Wakio Oyanagi
Educational reform at the local level, both in Japan and elsewhere, often receives its impetus from a centralised government removed from the locality in which the reform takes place. While local leaders and residents, who may have lived in the area long-term, enact these reforms, they are often restricted by the requirements placed on them by those outside leaders who mandate the reforms. This research uses the concept of social entrepreneurship to compare two cases in Japan where educational reform has occurred. The problems encountered in these cases and possible solutions were identified. The results of the study have implications for thinking about the relationship between education and community development. It is concluded that we should pay attention to identifying the central figures or social entrepreneurs involved in the reforms and the associated problems at a local level.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has traditionally led educational reform in Japan. Recent educational reform, however, has derived from other sources. There are two movements to which we should pay attention here. One is the movement of structural reform of special district regions since 2002 (kouzou kaikaku tokubetu kuikihou). Another is the movement of legislation of non-profit organisations since 1998 (NPO hou; tokutei hieiri katudou sokusinhou). These movements promote not only educational reform but reforms in other areas as well and their effects have been far-reaching. In particular, they have impacted on people in regional and rural areas.


This article has three objectives:

  1. to clarify the trend of recent educational reform in Japan;
  2. to delineate current educational reform occurring in regional and rural areas of Japan; and
  3. to identify current and possible future problems associated with educational reform in regional and rural areas of Japan.
The cases underpinning this article are taken up to achieve these objectives. I present two cases as the targets of analysis. The cases are analysed by using the three keywords technical, practical and critical as a frame of reference drawn from the theory of action research (Carr & Kemmis, 1986):
  1. Technical: Was the reform advanced based on instrumental rationality?
  2. Practical: Was the reform advanced based on the interpretive criteria from practical experience or from semi-communicative rationality?
  3. Critical: Was the reform advanced based on the 'emancipatory' interest in freedom and rational autonomy or on the method of critical social science?
My aim is twofold. Firstly, I intend to identify the person or social entrepreneur at the centre of educational reform. Secondly, I seek to analyse social entrepreneurship from the perspectives of the persons leading and hopefully benefiting from that reform.

According to Carr and Kemmis (1986), communicative rationality relates to critical theory and critical social science. However, in the case of practical reform, the consensus building by the community member might be done without an "emancipatory" interest in freedom or rational autonomy. Without criticising the system to which the member belongs and reflecting his or her own cognitive frame, this practical reform is likely to aim at improvements while maintaining the current state. From this perspective, I define the communicative rationality deployed in practical reform as semi-communicative rationality.


The modern system of Japanese formal education was inaugurated in 1872. Okano and Tsuchiva (1999) described in detail the history of Japanese education from the approval of a modern school to the present age. The basic direction of school education was based on an Imperial Rescript (the name of law having indicated the direction of Japanese education before World War II) on Education at the time of the start of that education. However, after World War II, education faced a major conversion. In 1947 the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law were enacted, and the 6-3-3-4 system of formal education (that is, six years of elementary school, three of junior high school, three of senior high school and four years of university) was established in order to realise the principle of equal opportunity for education.

Naturally, the influences on the school system have changed considerably during this long period. As a result, the school has changed in some respects but not in others. The public school system and the public school have been managed and controlled using a style of unitary management of education that centred on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It was only in the classroom that teachers were able to exercise some degree of discretion. However, the curriculum did not become correspondingly free in the classroom (Benjamin, 1998; Shields, 1993; Stevenson & Stigler, 1994). For example, the Ministry shows the range of its rights and interests on its homepage, as follows:

In order to advance elementary and secondary education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau is responsible for establishing curriculum standards in elementary schools, lower and upper secondary schools, secondary education schools, schools for the blind, the deaf, and the other disabled children and kindergartens. It is also responsible for the enhancement of student guidance and career guidance, the promotion of education of Japanese children living overseas, and the free provision and authorization of textbooks. Lastly, the Bureau is responsible for the system for local education, systems related to government employees working in education, class composition and staffing numbers for schools, the payment of teaching staff, and the improvement of public school facilities. (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. ELEMENTARY and SECONDARY EDUCATION; retrieved December 5, 2003, from http://www.mext.go.jp/english/shotou/index.htm)
That is, reforms have indeed resulted from the changing influences on the school system on each occasion, so that the course of study that provides for the curriculum has changed several times. However, each reform has positioned the school system and the school as tools to solve various problems - problems that might be understood differently by central policy-makers and local recipients of these changes.

From the perspective of the argument advanced in this article, social entrepreneurship was conspicuous by its absence from this brief history of educational change in Japan. The centrally dictated and controlled reforms were largely bureaucratic and reflected a "top-down" understanding of decision-making that was not explicitly concerned with the multiple aspirations and needs of local communities, including those in rural areas.


At the beginning of the 21st century, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is leading a major change in educational reform. Education in Japan, therefore, is approaching a major conversion in three respects now. The first is the movement of revision of the Fundamental Law of Education (FLE). The second is the movement of the Structural Reform Law (SRL) of special district regions. The third is the movement of educational reform by the Non-Profit Organisation (NPO).

The FLE is an important law, having decided the direction of Japanese education since World War II. Criticisms of the Imperial Rescript on Education during the pre-war period led to the FLE; however, the current influence of neo-conservatism has been an important factor driving moves to revise it. This means that conceptualising education as community development in Japan needs to encompass an understanding of the interplay between educational reform and political ideology.

What does this mean for education in Japan now? This has caused the controversy related to the educational philosophy that has been maintained since post-war days. For example, on the one hand, some people have pointed out various problems such as the decline of social energies, a crisis of minds, the problem of Japanese economic stagnation, global competition, the new knowledge and a crisis of education as the reasons for revision, and it has been related as an educational problem. People who oppose the amendment to the FLE, on the other hand, worry about the reversion to the educational thought of pre-World War II, because ideas about mental health care and nationalism, for example, are strongly emphasised in the revision. Ideas that decide the direction of Japanese education in the future and the basic ideas that especially decide educational content are discussed like this. That is the first movement.

However, it should be emphasised that it is not the FLE that contested the rights and interests of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, even though the movement of this reform influences the selection of an educational target and educational content. The management structure of the school system, the school and the classroom remain unchanged. Instead, the reform influenced from the movement takes the more usual style of a "technical reform". Actually, some people indicate that this reform was planned as a result of a compromise, since the bureaucrat of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology who hoped to attain fiscal resources for the basic plan for the promotion of education consulted with the member of the Liberal Democratic Party who in turn hoped for the amendment to the FLE (Satou, 2003). But the second and third movements are significant threats to the said Ministry.

The reform based on the SRL of the special district region falls outside the judgement of each ministry agency, and is advanced by the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, under his immediate control. This reform was enacted to resolve problems and to achieve a plan by attending to the characteristics of each region. It adjusts to fields such as industry, agriculture, medicine, imports and exports, social welfare and education. As a result, it has given the region some possibilities not to be found from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The various municipalities began to move together. The door through which the municipality works on the reform of its own school system and schools according to the problem has been opened (The Official Residence of the Prime Minister, n.d.; Shimomura, 2003).

Finally, the reform based on legislation of the NPO has many practical possibilities for the person who does not belong to the government or school system. In a word, it is bound by neither the government policy nor administrative guidance, and has the potential to reform according to the problem under consideration and the aim of the group that advances the reform. It gave the opportunity to people who had interests in education and people who had advanced the volunteer work to participate positively in educational reform. The activity came to be secured socially, and to obtain social confidence (NPO Establishment Center; retrieved February 9, 2004, from http://www.iva.jp/npo/). This approach resonates strongly with a socially entrepreneurial view of the world and of the place and role of education within that world.

In general, a private group that acts to contribute to the society without pursuing profit is referred to as an NPO. The term 'NPO' refers to both the NPO Corporation and the NPO without corporate status such as a citizens' activity group and a volunteer group. Therefore, there is the NPO that the government appoints as an affiliated association, and also the NPO that the private company establishes. Also the NPO is seen superficially as one that a volunteer group is making, although it is actually achieved by government initiative.

However, it is possible that educational reform that differs in character, concept and leadership from the above two reforms will emerge. For example, McConachie and Simpson's (2003) distinction between traditional and social entrepreneurship, and Leffler and Svedberg's (2003) differentiation between external and internal enterprise, provide useful conceptual grounds for suggesting that various combinations of these previously separate philosophies and practices might be attempted in Japan as much as in Australia and Sweden.


Who is the social entrepreneur advancing the reform based on SRL? How does it work? To address these questions, I now take up the reform case in the rural area of the Nara Prefecture.

The Kuzu school district committee (in one rural area in the Nara Prefecture) accepted the challenge of engaging positively with the educational structural reform, and planned as follows. This plan was aimed at assisting the children who will have responsibility for the Kuzu district in the future. It was also aimed at the regional promotion of education. Thus it paid attention to the characteristics of the district by enhancing education, advancing interest in nature and science, and aiming at assisting the children who will have responsibility for industry in the region in the future. Consequently, it aimed at the achievement of consistent education that designed the curriculum of nine years (with six years in the elementary school and three in the junior high school). It is expected that the child who learns in this school will demonstrate sufficient ability in the future, and will contribute to the promotion of industry within the region as a leader of that region. In a manner that evokes the combination of internal and external enterprise (Leffler & Svedberg, 2003), this child is expected to take an active part internationally and to contribute to the development of the economy and the society of our country.

To achieve this target, lessons in "Nature" and "English" are scheduled from the first grade. The content of each subject (Japanese, Mathematics, Science and so on) is arranged and integrated with these areas. Curricula do not depend on the course of study and are organised and planned to follow the 4- 3-2 system (nine years from elementary school to the end of junior high school). The teacher and the employee working at the high school, the pharmaceutical company and the production company in the region are requested to participate in students' learning as science advisers.

Usually, the public school has responsibility for the compulsory education of six years in the elementary school and three years in the junior high school. It is put under the local board of education under the guidance of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology that manages the school system. Each public school organises the school curriculum to conform to the course of study. Judged from the above-mentioned point, it can be understood that the school in this district is in a special situation.

This innovation began in April 2004. It is remarkable that such a plan had its origins in a district in a rural area rather than in a major city. That is, the approach in this district by the school and the local education authority is significant to the point of having exceeded the expectations - and evaded the restrictions - of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. This shows that the authority of the school is partially transferred to the local education authority, the school and the region from the Ministry.

In this example, it could be considered that the source of social entrepreneurship has also been transferred. This is on the assumption that socially attentive acts of educational innovation are most likely to flourish when they have substantial involvement from the target population and when they are unfettered by excessive bureaucracy and control. Such a result can be understood from the following words of the local education authority that took charge of this reform:

This time, there are three reasons why such a reform could be achieved. Firstly, it is because Kuzu is a small local town and there are only one elementary school and one junior high school in that town. I think that the discussion is difficult if two or more elementary schools and junior high schools exist in the district. Then, the reason is that there is a special high school that deals with the needs of the local industry and the pharmacology of the medicine in the region. As a result, we could get assistance and support from the staff that belonged to them. Finally, it is because people had the tendency to want to bring up young people who will develop the town in the future. It was possible to discuss it with the people related to the school, the parents and the residents, thanks to the positive attitude of representatives in the town. (Interview, 26 October 2003)
This statement indicates that the reform was achieved by mutual agreement through discussion among the local education authority, the school and local people. On this basis, it seems that this reform is a practical one that started from the practical problem consciousness in the rural area.

However, all has not been positive about this reform. This reform also has the problem of getting underway from April 2004, as indicated at the end of the same interview:

Actually, parents do not understand this reform enough yet. The teachers don't have a concrete image in the instructional planning yet, either. To have advanced the reform rapidly is difficult because there was no extra time to plan in detail.... These are problems. (Interview, 26 October 2003)
What is the significance of this person's statement? This reform reflected needs in the region. However, what we should be learning from it is that the members who planned this reform are different from the members who will operationalise this plan and different from the members who have been learning according to this plan since April 2004. That is, the consensus building of the school and the involvement of the residents could be incorporated into the planning stage. However, it can be seen that this plan was not the one that originated from the needs of the person who actually initiated the reform and of the people who learned from it. There is a shadow over this reform in its present conceptualisation because it achieves results and has possibilities that differ from the reform intended by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.


As previously described, NPO also opened the way for people who volunteered in their region to obtain corporate status. This means that the people not belonging to the administration, such as the board of education and the people not directly related to schools, can also participate in educational reform. I describe here, through the study of a case, how NPO in regional and rural areas relates to educational reform.

Ohzora Juku is the NPO that is active mainly in the Asuka school district in Nara City. Ohzora Juku was established in 1999 and was led by the manager of a cram school. Ohzora means space; it also means the extension of the encounter of the heaven and the ground. Juku means a place of learning that is different from the school. The aim of the activity of this NPO is to give residents the place to learn mental health care and environmental education with one another, to create the space where an elderly person and a child can offer opinions and standpoints to each other through an educational activity and to offer a place where residents can talk about liveable city planning where all can live together. This NPO focuses on regional activities, and aims at the construction of a community school based on the school and the public hall and other places, in co-operation with the school and the administration.

Ohzora Juku has the following activity programs during a year: agricultural experience, outdoors practice experience including a camp, cooking experience around country dishes, healthy advice classroom talks by doctors, traditional culture exchange experiences (dance, sculpture and embroidery) and an international cultural exchange that centres on music and other activities. It is a program in which everyone can participate, from the parent to the child and from the elderly to the young in the region (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003). The artist, the scholar, the doctor, the counsellor, the cook, the dietician, the environmental education instructor, the outdoors practice instructor and the teacher at the school, for example, are included as centre members of this NPO (Ohzora, oozoratoha; retrieved February 9, 2004, from http://www5.ocn.ne.jp/~ohzora/oozoratoha.htm). This broadly inclusive approach demonstrates social entrepreneurship in practice.

The program operates like this during holidays so that various people may participate. However, the following two activities are conducted on weekdays because the teacher at the school also participates as a member of this NPO. One activity is to support the class in cross-curricular activities and to involve a specialist from the NPO. Another is correspondence to supplement instruction. The supplementary instruction is paid for by an extra fee of 3000 yen (approximately $A43), adding to the annual membership fee of 2000 yen (approximately $A29), because the person who has led this NPO is a manager of the cram school. From one perspective, this arrangement could be seen as combining traditional and social entrepreneurship (McConachie & Simpson, 2003) and exterior and interior enterprise (Leffler & Svedberg, 2003). Thus, Ohzora Juku provides a place for local people to talk and learn, responding to a variety of educational needs jointly with the school.

The question is whether such an NPO could exist simultaneously in a number of places. It is not so at all. The person who led this NPO, and who has discharged many of the functions of a social entrepreneur, was therefore interviewed to establish the nature of the problem and the criteria for success:

Q: What was the impetus for establishing this NPO?

A: The impetus for establishing the NPO was the situation in 1998 when Japan experienced an economic downturn. There was a restructuring of a major car company and the consumer electronic company, etc. in those days. As a result, children had often withdrawn from the cram school that I had been managing. I then gathered parents, held an informal social gathering and tried to grasp the situation. The child doesn't understand the parents' situations well. Parents do not understand the child's situation either. We learnt there was a mutual communications gap. Moreover, there was a concern about how some children in disadvantaged circumstances in the local area were being brought up. It was clear that there was a need for the child, the parents, the local populace and the school to understand each other, and we should try to make a liveable town. This was the reason for the NPO's establishment.

Q: This NPO brings together centre members who have various talents. How were these people brought together?

A: The network of people whom I was acquainted with when I was a university student and who lived in this region was counted on. Moreover, the network of people who had gotten acquainted in the manager's community was used. It has started with various activities and has since been extended. The reason for the success was that the participating person is able to play a leading part. For instance, it asks some participants to be lecturers in their special fields...

A: Up to now, have you met any problems in advancing the activities of the NPO?

B: It is certainly a problem that the management expense is relatively high. The income only includes 2000 yen (approximately $A29) as an annual membership fee and the fee to participate in each event including an expense account. Therefore, the fee for the lecturer can hardly be paid. However, after holding the event, a subsidy was given by various foundations because the activity was recognised as helping the NPO to succeed. The foundations prioritise the subsidies that they give to assist this situation. It is possible to survive with these. The most difficult problem is to persuade a resident who has lived in this region for a long time and has power to participate. This is because traditionally participation in voluntary or outreach activities has not been common in Japan. It is difficult to make people who have power in the region participate in this NPO activity. Moreover, it is the most difficult problem to obtain the people's confidence. (Interview, 13 February 2004)

The difficulty of implementing this activity is indicated in the interview. However it is not a top-down system and this NPO tries to advance the activity by employing "bottom-up" procedures. People in various fields are included by the social entrepreneur who leads this NPO activity. This approach accepts advice from various people in order to refine the activity. It also tries to make the activity relevant to all participants. The origin of the educational reform based on the region is seen here. This reform can be referred to as practical, partly because of its inclusive approach to reaching agreement.


Having reflected on the two cases, I now consider the current and future potential of such educational reform for regional and rural areas in Japan. Drawing on research by Moriarty and Gray (2003) in analysing this situation, it could be considered that reforms such as that by SRL would be more easily conducted in rural areas as opposed to cities. Of course, such a reform can still be carried out in the city. However, city reform differs from the one of this district in many cases. This is because the education authority in cities technically advances the reform without getting the mutual agreement of the school and the local residents. This is due to the fact that a lot of people who go in and out of the rural areas live in the city. There are many people who have little interest in the education of the town. This is almost the same as the reform style of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology initiatives. For the above reasons, it can be said that there is potential that the board of education in rural areas might advance the practical reform with the school and the local people in those rural areas.

However, there are some problems in the educational reforms of rural areas. One is the budget, and another is the refinement of reform. Until now, the Japanese regional administration has relied on the budget allocation from the centre. Therefore, it is difficult for the rural area without a strong financial base to advance the educational reform itself. When people in the rural area request the budget, the leadership is consigned to the centre. It is therefore difficult to plan educational reforms to answer local problems.

Also, reform in rural areas tends to turn attention to the actual problem solving in the schools. People who participate in the discussion about the problem solving are also fixed to this narrow scope. Thus, it is difficult for them to request a continuous target of reform, and to refine a concrete way to advance that reform. It is not easy for them to ask and reflect whether the reform of this district was valuable. To open the possibility of educational reform in these rural areas, it is important for the local education authority, the school and the local people to reflect from multiple perspectives on the kinds of problems that exist in the reform of the district. It is important to devise and implement a system that can execute this reform. Efforts are needed to overcome the problems caused by practical reform. That is, critical reform, which interrogates the basis on which judgments are made and the methods of mutual agreement employed, will be needed by people in the rural area in the future.

On the other hand, the contribution to educational reform by the NPO differs from the reform by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the reform by SRL. It is a reform that can be bottom-up and hence responsive to local needs. It can be said that there is a place here for critical reform, even if further refinement of the method is needed. However, it was difficult for the NPO to obtain the understanding and participation of long-term residents. Therefore, relations with long-term residents becomes an important key to the success of the NPO in the rural areas. There are the possibilities both of educational reform based in those rural areas, and of resident people's contributions to community development, though much time is required to achieve these outcomes.


As has been described above, the educational reform of Japan in the 20th century was a reform that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology always led. However, the recent educational reform that started in the rural area has changed this situation. In this article, I have examined who had the initiative in educational reform through the review of two cases, and how this initiative has changed. The meaning of the reform was composed of relations between the people advancing it and the people receiving it. I have tried to understand that meaning by using the keywords technical, practical and critical, and by thinking about "who is entrepreneurial?" and "where is the entrepreneurship?".

One finding achieved by this analysis is the answer to the following questions. Why has the educational reform that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology leads continued up to now? Why have many rural areas not succeeded in being able to adopt a different approach? By exploring the movement of educational reform by SRL and NPO, it was found that the problem related not only to the minds of people who judge the reform, but also to influences from outside the reform, such as politics and economics. This also relates to the problem of community development in rural areas. Residents should be given a chance to advance their own reforms and the means to refine the method. This is difficult to achieve when activities such as reforms by the Ministry, SRL and NPO are completely independent. It was found that there is merit in each approach, and each needs to admit that the other is necessary. There needs to be mutual understanding in order for each to complement and to supplement the other.

Furthermore, if social entrepreneurship is to provide a means of generating educational change in regional and rural areas in Japan that is useful to the intended beneficiaries of that change, it must be situated in the lived experiences of the residents of the Nara Prefecture, and it must respond to the current and projected future needs of those residents if it is to assist in promoting community development in that region. To put it another way: such community development depends for its success on the mutual benefits of all participants (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003).


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Dr Beverley Moriarty and Dr Mike Danaher provided detailed suggestions about enhancing the article's readability for English speaking readers. An anonymous referee gave constructive feedback on an earlier version of the article. Also I would like to thank Dr Patrick Danaher for encouraging me to write this paper.

Author details: Wakio Oyanagi is Associate Professor at the Centre for Educational Research and Development, Nara University of Education, Japan.

Please cite as: Oyanagi, W. (2003). Difficulties and problems in building schools based on community needs: A case study of educational reforms at Nara Prefecture in Japan. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 67-82. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/oyanagi.html

[ Contents Vol 19, 2003 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Sep 2004. Last correction: 31 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/oyanagi.html