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Interview

September school year best fits colleges: ex-Tokyo University chief

Hamada says now is the time for change

Educators hope switching the start of the school year to September will help encourage academic exchange with overseas institutions.

TOKYO -- The April start of Japan's school year, which dates back a century, is said to be related to the country's agricultural background. 

When Japan pushed modernization during the Meiji Period in the late 19th century, farmers were told to submit their taxes in money and not in rice. But it took time for farmers to turn their fall harvests into money, and made it difficult for bureaucrats to form a state budget by January to start the new year.

And thus the start of the government's fiscal year was set in April, and later in 1921, the start of the school year was also aligned to April. 

As the coronavirus pandemic forces long-term school shutdowns, calls are growing to ditch this long tradition and push back the school year to September, to make it in line with the international norm.

Junichi Hamada, a former president of the University of Tokyo, has been a long advocate of a September college start. He is surprised by the sudden shift in sentiment but welcomes a broader debate. 

"For both politicians and the public, the question will be how to shape Japan after the coronavirus," Harada told Nikkei. He sees the school-year debate being shaped as part of bold ideas for a post-pandemic Japan.

Hamada's own proposal for moving the matriculation for Japan's top university to the fall, made in 2012, was ultimately scrapped amid internal opposition.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: There are growing calls to switch to starting the academic calendar in the fall.

A: To be honest, it feels rather sudden. I exchanged emails recently with members of the board at the time of our proposal to move admission to the fall. We said that our debate at that time laid the ground work for people's view, which led to talk of fall admissions coming up here and now.

I believe there are two contributing factors.

One is that high schoolers and other children are being denied learning opportunities. Even if we want to solve problems, such as widening achievement gaps and disadvantages for certain children, the current rigid system makes it difficult to do so. People think that taking the plunge and moving to a fall start would enable everything to be solved at once.

The other factor is [the sense] that, as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and others have said, now -- during the coronavirus crisis -- is the time for change. The sense that we can only do this now. The idea of fall admissions emerged from these two factors.

Junichi Hamada, a former dean of the University of Tokyo, advocated a fall start to the school's academic calendar.

Q: What do you think is important to do now?

A: It comes down to this: How do we deal with the immediate disadvantages children face?

We should move forward with a variety of steps, such as reorganizing the academic calendar, extending the school year, postponing entrance and qualifying exams, or even providing economic support. If things are still not going well even after exhausting many different measures, then a bold step like fall admissions will be necessary.

Alternatively, while working with more flexibility and considering various measures under the current system, we could find that introducing a fall start -- something we thought was impossible -- could prove less difficult than expected.

But that is putting the cart before the horse. First, we need wide-ranging discussions starting from the central point of how to support students.

Fall and September admissions must not end up as mere empty slogans.

Q: The University of Tokyo proposal involved a "gap term" between high school graduation in the spring and college admissions in the fall. But some call for a fall start at all levels, including high school and below.

A: I still believe fall admissions should just be for university. Changing everything from preschool up through elementary, junior high and high school all at once would be difficult. The general perception that school starts in the spring still remains, and switching would be costly.

One of the aims of fall admissions is internationalization [by syncing with academic schedules abroad], but that is mainly an issue at the college level. It would be a shame to lose the gap term by switching to a fall start in high school and below.

Q: If the discussion moves forward, there will likely be more people who disagree on the details.

A: Disagreement is certainly reasonable. It's important not to just point out problems, but to discuss how to overcome them.

For both politicians and the public, the question is how to shape Japan after the coronavirus, and how determined we are to take the bold steps necessary to create a new society.

I believe that is why governors are so open to fall admissions. Without that feeling, our society will stagnate.

Q: There seem to be few opinions coming from people in education.

A: For teachers on the ground, I believe that there's a strong sense that the problem is too big for them to speak up about, and that they are instead focusing on concrete things they can do, such as online classes. They probably also feel that because this is a nationwide issue that involves the foundation of how the system is set up, the country as a whole should act.

But universities can be more flexible about accepting students in the fall at their discretion, and I hope they do so voluntarily.

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