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Economy

Coding will be mandatory in Japan's primary schools from 2020

Tokyo aims to plug IT worker shortage and catch up to other countries

Students at a Japanese elementary school program a spherical robot's movements. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Computer programming will become a mandatory subject in Japan's elementary schools from April 2020, as the country seeks to train a new generation in highly sought information technology skills.

The basics of coding will be taught starting in the fifth grade. New textbooks approved by the education ministry on March 26 task students with digitally drawing polygons and making LED lights blink using simple commands, for example.

As IT grows increasingly more rooted in society, international competition in tech is heating up. Japan has gotten off to a slow start on programming education, but now aims to create a broader pool of potential tech workers, exposing children to coding early so that those with the interest and skill can be trained as specialists.

The polygon and LED challenges, suggested under government guidelines for fifth-grade math and sixth-grade science, respectively, were incorporated in most of the textbooks approved for those classes. The aim is to instill the fundamentals of using code to handle information, as well as to teach logical thinking through trial and error.

"Teachers are facing growing burdens, so for now, it's only realistic to give students a feel for the beginning stages" of programming, said Yuta Tonegawa, head of the education nonprofit Minna no Code, which translates to "Code for Everyone." Tonegawa cited a need for "classes that get students interested."

Japan will be short about 290,000 tech workers by 2020 and about 590,000 by 2030 if the IT market grows at a moderate pace, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry calculated in 2016. That year, a government council on industrial competitiveness vowed to make programming mandatory in grade school education.

Programming was made a required part of Japan's middle school technology and home economics studies from fiscal 2012, and the curriculum is set to be expanded from fiscal 2021. At the high school level, coding will feature in a compulsory information class set to be introduced in fiscal 2022. Japan's mandatory education stops at middle school.

A number of countries have a head start in teaching children to code. South Korea began working the subject more heavily into elementary and middle school curricula in a 2007 review of its educational system. In 2014, the U.K. introduced programming into mandatory education for students aged 5 to 16.

Making programming part of Japan's elementary curriculum is "a step forward, but still insufficient compared to other countries," said Ken Sakamura, a professor of computer science at Toyo University. "We have to flesh out the content, such as by making [programming] its own subject, or else we'll fall behind the rest of the world."

Still, bringing mandatory coding education to all students is only part of the battle. Practical hurdles remain, including obtaining and networking classroom computers, as well as training teachers in the subject.

Many of Japan's expert IT technicians receive training from companies or through their own efforts. A growing number of private universities are also launching graduate schools or departments in the field, like Keio University's Shonan Fujisawa Campus set up in 1990. But efforts by public schools have been slowed by red tape.

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