Absenteeism in Japanese Compulsory Education:
Cultural Impact on Perception of Diversity
Reiko Tashiro (Partner, CQ Lab, Japan)
In Japan, the amount of absenteeism in compulsory education was a record high in 2021. Despite the studies and measures taken by the education ministry, the number is worsening. This article studies the author’s observations, literature with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities, and cultural analysis using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture. In conclusion, the author hypothesizes that the cultural perception of diversity influences the phenomenon and suggests the need for inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education that considers cultural influences.
Keywords: futoko (absenteeism), correspondence high school, diversity, developmental disabilities, culturally intelligent (CQ) education
Record Number of Students in Compulsory Education Refusing to Attend School. Japan’s MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) defines “futoko” or absenteeism as follows: “Those who are absent from school for 30 days or more per year due to some psychological, emotional, physical, or social factors excluding those due to illness or economic reasons”. According to the survey released on October 27, 2022 (1), the number of students who are futoko in Japan’s compulsory education exceeded 240,000 in 2021, which was a record high. The ratio of futoko is higher in junior high school where 5% of the students are not attending school. The survey attributes “apathy and anxiety” felt by the students as the main reason for futoko. (49.7%).
Why are there so many school non-attendance due to psychological factors in Japan?
This article hypothesizes that cultural perception toward student diversity is one of the main factors in the high levels of truancy. To do so, we describe the authors’ observations, study literature with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities, and analyze cultural perception toward diversity using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture developed by Huib Wursten.
Observation of a Correspondence High School: Receptacle for Diverse Students
One of the author’s daughters was futoko for 2.5 years during compulsory education: from the second semester of the 7th grade (September 2016) to graduation from middle high school (March 2019). While the exact cause is unknown, among the reasons are the accumulation of stress and anxiety from the strict school rules, relationships with classmates and teachers, and difficulties to keep up with other students due to slight writing difficulties. After graduating junior high school, she entered a private correspondence high school, where she continued attending until graduation. The atmosphere of this school was kept friendly for diverse students. For example, unlike many regular high schools, the power distance between teacher-student and senior-junior students was kept low. There were fewer school rules and more focus on individual learning styles. Correspondence high schools offer more flexibility in the frequency of attendance through schooling, online learning, submission of assignments, and testing. As a result, most of the students continued attending and graduated. Many students including the author’s daughter take steps toward higher education at colleges and universities,
A significant number of students were transferred from regular high schools midway through the year due to the so-called “burnout syndrome”.
A high level of diversity was also observed including mild learning disabilities (LD), other developmental challenges (ASD and ADHD), and LGBTQ among the correspondence high school students.
Despite the growing awareness of developmental disabilities among parents and teachers, the author at the time felt that social understanding and support were insufficient, especially for those who are not diagnosed but having difficulties.
Literature study with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities
MEXT’s Survey on Problematic Behavior, Truancy, and Other Student Guidance Issues for Children in the 2021 Academic Year (2) shows that approximately 6.3% (200,000 out of the 3.3 million) of high school students in Japan are enrolled in correspondence high schools as of 2020, and this number is increasing every year. The 5th Meeting of Researchers on the High School Correspondence System by MEXT (3) suggests 66.7% of the case studied correspondence school students have been” futoko” during elementary/junior high school or a previous school.
It seems that correspondence high schools play a major role in the reintegration of students who did not find their place in regular schools.
The National Institute for Educational Policy Research (4) announced schools that “When a large number of students are absent from school for a long period, it is necessary to recognize that there is something wrong with the way schools are managed”. It informed that children with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience failure in a regular school system and to have difficulty adjusting, leading to stress, anxiety, loss of motivation, and low self-esteem.
The institute says that some cultural perspectives are attributed to futoko: “In Japan, there is an emphasis on group-oriented education, such as learning together, cooperation, and collaboration. The more united a group is, the more implicit the rules and discipline become, which makes it difficult for students with developmental disabilities to behave appropriately.”
Analysis of Cultural Perception and Its Influence Using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture
According to the 7 Mental Images of National Culture developed by Huib Wursten (5), Japan alone forms a single cultural group apart from the other 6 cultural clusters or “Mental Images”. The culture is uniquely characterized by two combinations: mid-Power Distance (PDI) /mid-Individualism (IDV), and high Masculinity (MAS) /strong Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI).
The author discusses how each combination relates to the societal perception of diverse students who seem to be outside of the social norm and the difficulties they have faced
1) Combination of mid-Power Distance(PDI) / mid-Individualism (IDV)
Keywords: relationship (Kankei), the need to maintain balance and harmony, prioritizing group interest, and “reading the air” (ability to read between the lines)
Many aspects of Japanese school life observe an emphasis on harmony and group interest. For example, small children are repeatedly taught “Nakayoku-Suru” (make friends and get along with them) in the playground. Playing alone is not highly recommended. There are many group-based activities from the very early stage of education. The more they work together, the more there are expectations to understand the unspoken messages among the members. Those who prefer to play alone and are not good at reading the air are considered “KY” (Ku-ki ga Yomenai: a popular word to describe a person who cannot understand the hidden rules/ collective intentions) and will be excluded from the group, which is often the case with children with the developmental disorder.
2) Combination of high Masculinity (MAS) /strong Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
Keywords: constant focus on improvement, pursuit for mastery, Kaizen
The combination of high MAS and strong UAI leads to increased competition for academic grades among students and discipline/rules in schools. For children with ADHD and LD, goals are usually more difficult to achieve unless appropriate individual support is provided, which can lead to a lack of motivation, burnout, and rebellion against school rules.
Keywords: difference perceived as threats, Anshin (reassurance), Anzen (safety).
In his book (6), Geert Hofstede writes “The strong uncertainty-avoidance sentiment can be summarized by the credo of xenophobia: “What is different is dangerous.” and that this tendency becomes more aggressive when combined with high masculinity. We assume that Japan, having the unique combination of very strong scores of both dimensions, consider diversity as “threats” against their Anshin and Anzen. This leads to a tendency, whether consciously or unconsciously, to exclude those who are different from the majority, in the forms such as prejudice and bullying.
Despite various initiatives taken by MEXT and society, the number of futoko students continues to increase. The author hypothesizes that Japanese culture is one of the factors that influence the phenomenon of futoko. Therefore, an inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education that incorporates cultural self-awareness and awareness of others program will ensure accessible education not only for children with developmental disorders but also for everyone.
There are several limitations to this article. Future studies can explore interviews with concerned parties, research on other diversities including LGBTQ and non-Japanese students, and more discussion on what inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education should be done.
(1) Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Results of the Survey on Problematic Behavior, Truancy, and Other Student Guidance Issues for Children in the 2021 Academic Year [English translation], October 27, 2022, https://www.mext.go.jp/content/20221021-mxt_jidou02-100002753_1.pdf
(2) Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Current Situation of Correspondence Education in High Schools (May 1, 2020) [English translation] https://www.mext.go.jp/content/20210226-mxt_koukou01-000013082_04.pdf
(3) Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Handouts for the 5th Meeting of Researchers on the High School Correspondence System for the New Era of Japanese School Education- Document 2: Clark Memorial International High School Initiatives,” (January 19, 2022) [English translation] https://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/chousa/shotou/171/mext_00005.html
(4) National Institute for Educational Policy Research and National Institute of Special Needs Education, “Student Guidance Leaf 14S-Preventing Truancy: Characteristics of Developmental Disabilities and the Risk of Truancy,” (First Edition June 2020) [English translation] http://www.nise.go.jp/nc/report_material
(5) Wursten Huib, The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and Managing in a Globalized World (2019) Hofstede Insights.
(6) Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., & Minkov, M. (2010), “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, 3rd revised edition, (2010) McGraw-Hill