ASAHI COLUMNIST SHOULD HAVE SENSED COMPASSION IN EDUCATION MINISTER’S REMARKS
The Asahi Shimbun’s criticism of Education Minister Koichi Hagyuda for his October 28 remarks about English proficiency tests is far wide of the mark.
The tests were to have been introduced in the private sector as part of the standardized university exams next year, but on November 1 Hagyuda announced the postponement of the plan until the 2024 school year. There was strong opposition within the ministry, as successive education ministers had pushed the plan, but I believe it was the right decision.
While criticizing the decision as too late, the Asahi welcomed it in an editorial in its November 2 edition. Meanwhile, its popular Vox Populi, Vox Dei column condemned Hagyuda on the same day for his October 28 remarks about students taking the tests “within their means,” stating:
“While acknowledging that children of well-to-do families can try their skills at the tests at will, Hagyuda wanted those from socially disadvantaged families to ‘do their best within their means’…He may have simply intended to point out, in a twisted way, an existing feeling in society that disparity in education cannot be helped.”
Launched in 1904, Vox Populi, Vox Dei has long been considered the “face” of the mass-circulation daily. The columns have been widely respected over the decades beyond individual ideologies and values. Its columnists are held in high esteem as grand old figures in Japanese journalism on a par with the likes of Hideo Ishii of the conservative Sankei Shimbun, Takao Tokuoka of The Mainichi Shimbun, and the late Natsuhiko Yamamoto of The Weekly Shincho.
No matter how hard an ordinary Asahi journalist may try, it is next to impossible to be assigned to this prestigious feature. What is expected of Vox Populi columnists is extremely demanding. While writing cutting critique or offering encouragement intended to warm the reader’s heart, they must avoid superficiality and have a thorough understanding of a story’s background and history. The reader, whether liberal or conservative, expects just that right combination in each column.
If a column reflects a sound understanding of the subject, criticism will be seen as fair. The reader may even tip his cap in admiration. I am not alone in believing that the Vox Populi columnists are in a position to produce such lofty columns, honoring high ethical and journalistic standards at all times.
Asahi’s Naked Malevolence against Hagyuda
Read from such a perspective, the column’s criticism against Hagyuda does not ring true, projecting only naked malevolence against him. Frankly, it struck me as “twisted,” to borrow their expression.
I have scrutinized Hagyuda’s remarks anew, but have no problem with them. He said the plan “may allow children from well-to-do families to take the tests more often than those from economically disadvantaged families, like athletes doing warm-ups prior to races perhaps.” Then he added:
“I would like for the students to do their very best while selecting the minimum two occasions they are required to take the tests ‘within their means.’ Currently, the government is working with different testing organizations trying to implement support measures, such as the creation of new examination venues as close as possible to where the students live.”
Most adults are aware they do not live in a perfectly equal world today. Sensible leaders are striving to make up for the lack of equality in our society with the goal of creating a world in which all citizens are given equal opportunities. Hagyuda is no exception. He has been working with the testing organizations to create closer venues for the high school students preparing to take the private sector tests.
Hagyuda has also declared that he has been racking his brain “to help reduce to the minimum the financial burden on students…The government is appropriating funds to help the students living on isolated islands, for instance.” The costs of taking the tests range from \5,800 (US$54) to \25,850 (US$239).
It is absolutely wrong for the Asahi to use Hagyuda’s remarks to criticize him for looking down coldly on children from poorer families. That he does not do so is obvious when one realizes how hard he has worked for financially hard-pressed citizens along the way since 1991, when he became a local assemblyman in his native Hachioji City on the outskirts of Tokyo. Shouldn’t the distinguished columnists of Vox Populi—the Asahi’s pride and joy—have included Hagyuda’s background in writing about him?
In April 2014, a parliamentarian association to promote compulsory night middle school education was formed, with Hiroshi Hase of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) serving as chairman and Hirofumi Ryu of the Democratic Party as secretary general. Hagyuda, who at the time served as the LDP’s deputy secretary general, worked particularly hard on the project. In point of fact, the LDP administration assumed a more vigorous posture than the education ministry itself.
Compared with night high schools and universities, there are very few public night middle schools in Japan. There still are people in Japan who have skipped compulsory middle school education, having failed to attend school due to poverty, a lack of understanding of the need for education on the part of parents, repatriation from abroad, or immigration status.
Hagyuda and his parliamentary colleagues worked very hard to make belated middle school education available to these people. Having known him over the years, I can state with confidence that he has never “looked down coldly” on disadvantaged people or assumed a “twisted” posture toward them. On the contrary, he genuinely feels for them. I suspect that his attitude toward people in general, especially those financially disadvantaged, may be deeply linked with his own upbringing.
Hagyuda, 56, was born to the family of a corporate employee in Hachioji City. I remember once asking him what made him decide to become a politician. He gave two reasons. Firstly, while at college he worked part time as secretary to a member of the Hachioji city council. Secondly, he was alarmed by the sorry backwardness of his city’s infrastructure development.
“Doing Best Within One’s Means”
“One example was toilets,” Hagyuda replied with a smile as he reminisced about those days. “Our city was lagging behind other cities in terms of installing flush toilets. I wanted to help improve the overall lives in Hachioji. I genuinely thought so.”
At the time, he had none of the three “tools” considered mandatory in Japan for going into politics—“jiban,” “kanban,” and “kaban” (“local supporting groups,” “name recognition,” and “electoral funds.”) Despite this, he ran and won a seat as an assemblyman in Hachioji thanks to the backing of local supporters. Ten years later, in 2001, he successfully won a seat in the metropolitan assembly. Since 2003, he has served as an LDP member of the lower house of parliament in a variety of increasingly important posts.
It is natural that Hagyuda has faced frustrating and disadvantageous challenges more often than second- or third-generation politicians. In the absence of the three “tools,” however, Hagyuda has learned to do his best, fighting each of his battles “within his means.” I assume that, when he said “within their means” he wanted to encourage students taking the English entrance tests all the more because he himself has experienced inequality.
Contained in his remarks, I believe, is this message to the students preparing to take the proficiency tests: “Unfortunately, the world is not equal. As a politician, I will continue to devote myself to building a nation devoid of discrimination, and want you to also do your very best in building a bright future for yourselves. Where there is a will, there is always a way, as the saying goes. You will be rewarded for your efforts.” It comes as a complete surprise to me that the reputable columnists of Vox Populi completely failed to perceive this point.
That said, there was an article in the series of Asahi reports on Hagyuda’s remarks that did have me nodding in agreement. That was an interview with Yukio Yanagisawa on November 3. Yanagisawa, who is president of the prestigious Kaisei Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo, had this to say:
“The fundamental problem with the Japanese university entrance examinations is that universities are so stringent with admission and tolerant with graduation—difficult to enter and easy to graduate. Even national or public universities should have their independent standards as regards the rules governing entrance examinations. I would advocate for more flexible and diverse examinations befitting the respective policies and principles of each school.”
As regards the concern about economic and regional disparities, Yanagisawa puts forward the proposal that the government and universities offer special scholarships to students from disadvantaged families. This, I think, would be an idea worth pursuing.
Although Hagyuda has postponed the new system of tests until 2024, he is entrusted with the heavy responsibility of shouldering the foundation of the nation’s education, including a thorough review of the overall entrance exam system. Weighing 95 kilograms (209 lbs) on a 180-centimeter (5.9 feet) frame, Hagyuda was an able athlete who used to run 100 meters in 11.3 seconds and belonged to the rugby team of Meiji University in Tokyo. I would very much like for him to continue working hard toward his goal, utilizing his stamina and spirit. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 876 in the November 7, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)