People in Japan are living longer at the same time as birth rates are falling. As fewer people are active in the labour market and more people require assistance and care, the trend presents major issues for the country’s economic development, social policy and public expenditure. To tackle these challenges, the Japanese government has committed itself to the strategy of Lifelong Learning, which comprises two main aspects: moving beyond formal education; and promoting learning at all stages of life.
This strategy was formalised by the 1990 Lifelong Learning Promotion Law, which provided for the establishment of Lifelong Learning Councils at national and prefectural levels, support for the promotion and development of lifelong learning at a community level, and surveys for assessing people’s learning needs. Evidence suggests that the reform has enhanced non-formal education for people of all ages in Japan, although the programme’s success has been diminished by limited government funding and worsening employment conditions for education providers.
Japan is facing a triple challenge of demographic change, uneven regional development, and global economic changes. Together, these aspects present a major problem for Japanese policymakers. People are living longer at the same time as birth rates are falling, which has the effect that Japan’s population is ageing and declining. In fact, Japan is the most rapidly ageing society in the world. The percentage of the population aged 65 and over is projected to reach 30 percent around 2025, and the population of those aged 75 and over is estimated to reach 20 percent in 2035.
With 27.4 percent of the population currently aged 65 or over, Japan is a “hyper-aged” society. This also causes uneven development within Japan, as young people increasingly move to economic growth centres, leaving behind rural areas with a high proportion of older residents. This trend has become exacerbated by economic developments since the 1990s. Responding to the collapse of its economy, the government has sought to promote growth by deregulating employment laws and reducing welfare spending. This has worsened the situation for workers and society as a whole, a trend that was further compounded by the outbreak of the global financial crisis of 2007/08.
As the population is growing older, it is a challenge for policymakers to provide people with the tools to remain active for longer, both as citizens and as workers. Education is crucial in this respect. Currently, Japanese people can choose to start receiving their pensions at any time between the ages of 60 and 70, with bigger monthly payments offered to those who do so after their 65th birthday. Due to a labour shortage the government is considering lifting the mandatory retirement age above 70, however. Providing people with lifelong learning opportunities not only reduces pressures on the public finances and the economy more generally, as people remain competitive in the labour market, but it can also enhance their wellbeing and integration in society as active citizens.
The Japanese government has set out to address these challenges through the strategy of lifelong learning. This idea was introduced to the country through UNESCO’s Faure Report in 1972, which suggested that the concept was relevant to Japanese society. In the context of economic challenges and accelerated population ageing, the Japanese government finally passed the Law Concerning the Development of Implementation Systems and Other Measures for the Promotion of Lifelong Learning (known as the Lifelong Learning Promotion Law) in 1990. This law provided for the establishment of Lifelong Learning Councils at national and prefectural levels, support for local promotion of lifelong learning, provisions for development of lifelong learning in designated communities, and surveys for assessing the learning needs of prefectural residents.
According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), lifelong learning comprises two main aspects: 1) moving beyond formal education; and 2) promoting learning at all stages of life. This means that learning not only encompasses formal education but extends to a much broader range of activities, including sports, culture, hobbies, recreation, and volunteer activities through civil society initiatives, universities and traditional Kominkan (Community Centres), which are located throughout Japan. The MEXT’s official statement on lifelong learning reads: “In order to create an enriching and dynamic society in the 21st century, it is vital to form a lifelong learning society in which people can freely choose learning opportunities at any time during their lives and in which proper recognition is accorded to those learning achievements”.
The Lifelong Learning Promotion Law contains three key policy agendas:
- To encourage each prefecture – the administrative unit comparable to an English county – to establish a “top-down” structure to plan its own lifelong learning. This means that responsibility for designing and providing lifelong learning opportunities was reorganised away from national and municipal governments to the county level, essentially entailing both administrative devolution and centralisation
- To encourage private business to cooperate in the development of a lifelong learning society through networking with the public and not-for-profit sectors
- To promote the involvement of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in the facilitation of lifelong learning. This has encouraged private industry programmes and policies for lifelong learning in industry.
The public impact
The Lifelong Learning Promotion Law of 1990 (The 1990 Law) has generally achieved its goals in terms of enhancing non-formal education for people of all ages in Japan. By 1995, at least 33 of the 47 prefectures had established Lifelong Learning Councils. In addition to the ubiquitous Kominkan, a number of citizens’ universities and private learning initiatives emerged throughout the country, offering communities a wide variety of courses and learning formats.
This has driven a shift from Japan’s traditional focus on formal education to more informal, human resource-centred forms of learning, It has, in the process, enhanced the wellbeing of older people. The different activities offered through the lifelong learning agenda have been found to keep senior citizens engaged in the community and involved in wider social issues through cultural programmes. They also help them remain physically active through healthy lifestyles and sporting activities, which has an economic benefit for society – a healthier ageing population will tend to make fewer demands on resources for health and welfare.
According to a 1999 national survey, the majority of classes and lectures provided under the umbrella of lifelong learning relate to arts and culture and to sports and recreation. The most common classes provided by the prefectural and local governments are focused on “home education and home life” (38.9 percent). In 2008, the MEXT announced that the total number of participants in social education courses offered by state-run facilities, designed and overseen by the prefectures, achieved a record of 34,172,338 people, an increase from 29,377,896 people who participated a decade earlier. This means that almost one-third of the Japanese population attended some kind of social education course.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry played a significant role in promoting private sector involvement in lifelong learning. Most importantly, the Ministry established the Lifelong Learning Development Office within its Industrial Policy Bureau. The Office had its own budget and facilitated private industry programmes related to citizens’ learning. Supported by these initiatives, which also included some financial assistance – mostly in the form of direct subsidies – private businesses became increasingly involved in lifelong learning through in-house training modules for their employees and in the form of private universities and other for-profit education facilities.
According to the 1995 Ministry of Labour’s Survey on Private Sector Education and Training of 1994, 73.4 percent of enterprises carried out on- or off-the-job training. The survey also observed a rise in the latter, due to the growing presence of specialised private education institutions. Private schools were increasingly seen to establish join-stock companies to provide lifelong learning programmes on a for-profit basis. While the survey did not provide statistics regarding the number of private companies involved in lifelong learning, the social education survey found that in 2005, 24 libraries and 525 museums across Japan were managed by private sector organisations.
At the same time, the shift from state-funded education to private initiatives, community universities and not-for-profit organisations has been criticised for being primarily about cost-cutting. A 2009 report on Social and Adult Education found that the programme was part of administrative and financial reforms based on a rhetoric of “efficiency”, rather than educational merit or purpose.
The reliance on private sector investment has been particularly problematic, because private financing dried up when Japan experienced an economic crisis in the early 1990s. In addition, it has been argued that that this development has contributed to the simultaneous bureaucratisation and privatisation of adult learning by strengthening the leadership of national and prefectural governments and introducing market values into social education. Researchers have also argued that the law has focused on the administration and infrastructure of lifelong learning, but has neglected the content and methodology of teaching and learning.
Written by Mirjam Büdenbender
This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).Have an idea for a case study? Print
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Fair
Evidence concerning stakeholder engagement in preparing the 1990 Law is mixed. The government made significant efforts to involve different stakeholders in the reforms – from citizens to civil society organisations. To raise awareness of lifelong learning, the MEXT hosted national lifelong learning festivals in collaboration with local governments and others. Many prefecture and municipal governments also conducted surveys of citizens to better capture the local demand for learning initiatives. In some of these cases, local governments even designed their lifelong learning policies in concert with the local population. Volunteers have also played an important role in planning and implementing courses, distributing information on and promoting the virtue of lifelong learning in their communities.
At the same time, the authors of the Social and Adult Education report – the Japanese Domestic Grassroots Meeting for CONFINTEA Ⅵ – suggested that the Japanese government did not live up to its promise of including diverse voices in the writing of the 1990 Law and subsequent reforms. They suggested that some of the civil society organisations involved in lifelong learning activities contacted the National Commission of UNESCO in Japan to inform it that the government did not hold meetings with them as it had promised. After discussing the reforms among themselves, the Japanese Grassroots Meeting was eventually given an appointment for “a meeting for exchange of opinions” about a draft of the Japanese National Report in 2008. By then the draft report was almost complete, however, preventing the organisations from having their opinions included in it. In response, the Grassroots Meeting published its own report, critically examining Japan’s lifelong learning policies.
Political Commitment Good
The government and political leaders from the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – which has been in power since 1955, with the exception of the 1993-1994 and 2009-2012 periods – have shown significant commitment to lifelong learning. This is reflected in continuous reforms and government programmes aimed at improving the legal and policy environment for lifelong learning. The laws included the 1990 Law, the 2006 Revised Basic Act on Education, the 2008 Revised Social Education Act, and the 2006 Human Resources Development Promotion Act.
In terms of policy programmes, the government passed the Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education in 2008, including a 10-year vision and 5-year plans for 2008-2012 and 2013-2017. In addition, lifelong learning received significant financial support from the state. A central tool to promote these efforts is the MEXT, which allocated 8.5 percent of its 2007 budget, or the equivalent of JPY452.5 billion, to lifelong learning.
However, political support has been equivocal. Many policymakers, practitioners and researchers regard the 1990 Law as highly centralised at the provincial level and not effective in promoting lifelong learning initiatives at the community level in order to encourage learner input. Nagaki Koyama, associate professor at the Graduate School of Library, Information and Media Studies at the University of Tsukuba, for example, observed that “the freedom and autonomy of local governments has been reduced” as a consequence of administrative reforms. Dr Hiromi Sasai, director of lifelong learning policy research department at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, also suggested that the law has focused too much on the administration and infrastructure of lifelong learning, at the expense of teaching and learning contents and methodologies. Despite this criticism, the government has been able to pass the relevant legislation and implement the reform strategy without major delays or resistance.
Public Confidence Fair
While the value of lifelong learning is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and has received wide public support, the particular nature of the reforms has not been welcomed by all members of the public. While volunteers and groups that are currently involved in lifelong learning tend to be supportive of the programme, traditional education providers in schools or libraries have often been critical. In general, though, the notion of lifelong learning has become increasingly well understood in Japan since the 1990s. In a national opinion survey conducted in 2000, 74 percent of the respondents were already familiar with the term.
Confidence in the reforms was especially evident in people who are involved in lifelong learning in the capacity of volunteers. For example SLG, a community-oriented, lifelong learning not-for-profit organisation, is engaged in creating and supporting the “public” at the grassroots level through volunteer activities. As of 31 March 2003, SLG had a total of 102 registered volunteers, 68 perecent of whom were women. More than half the volunteers were over 50 years of age, and housewives were the most active volunteer participants. One volunteer, a piano instructor in her early 40s, who designed an introductory course on opera after volunteering for one year in the course planning department, expressed her support for the lifelong learning approach as follows: “I planned a course on opera, responding to a request from a local resident. Currently, I am happy to help with the course. Every week, I become obsessed with course preparation, though. While working as a piano teacher, it occurred to me how much I could help the course participants understand opera music as an instructor. I believe in being involved in this process; I make efforts to achieve something that is definitely a part of my own lifelong learning. I appreciate volunteering at SLG. It gives me a chance to enhance myself in such a way.”
Members of the public who had been involved in social education before the 1990 Law have generally been found to be more critical of the reform. Several persons and groups related to traditional Kominkan and libraries voiced their opposition as a growing number of their original activities have become outsourced to volunteer-based civil society organisations and for-profit companies. For example, the Japanese Association for Promotion of Social Education publicly criticised the reform in 2005, suggesting that it “spreads the idea that beneficiaries should pay for public services in social education”, that it is an “obstacle to participation of resident in policymaking” and that it “destroys the freedom of learning because the designated system prefers profitability and efficiency”.
Clear Objectives Strong
The 1990 Law identified clear, measurable objectives. These were formulated on the basis of careful studies by different government ministries. As the government continuously measured the success of its lifelong learning programmes, the goals were regularly reviewed, adjusted and extended in the subsequent years. The overarching objectives of the 1990 Law were to: develop human resources capable of supporting and developing society and competing internationally; and to build a society that gives each individual a chance to excel and contribute to the welfare of others. The government sought to achieve these goals through a three-pronged strategy (see The Initiative above).
To translate these objectives into concrete measures, the government prepared action plans. Japan’s first comprehensive education plan – the 2008 Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education (see Political Commitment above) – was based on the principles of the revised Basic Act for Education and designed to promote educational reform. The MEXT developed a comprehensive plan and a set of expected results and performance indicators for the first five years (2008-2012). The plan also contained a systematic procedure involving a cycle of four phases (plan, do, check and act) guided by basic directions laid out in education policy measures.
The interim report on the plan for the following five years (2013-2017 inclusive) envisaged the following objectives:
- “Nurturing the power to fulfil personal potential and participate fully in society
- “Fostering an innovative workforce that will flourish in the future
- “Developing safety nets for learning
“Creating linkages, structures of mutual support and viable communities.”
The lifelong learning reforms were based on strong evidence that the Japanese government and UNESCO collected before the 1990 Law was introduced. In 1982, the National Central Advisory Committee for Education studied the concepts of lifelong education and lifelong learning and their application across the world. In 1990 it released a report with its main findings and concrete suggestions for reform in Japan.
The MEXT also played a crucial role in collecting evidence for the 1990 Law and subsequent reforms by researching education systems in other countries and especially the role of lifelong learning. University researchers and national research institutes, such as the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIER), have played a crucial role in providing the research underpinning Japan’s education reforms. NIER’s Department of Lifelong Learning Policy Research, for example, carried out fundamental research relating to awareness and learning needs and provided data for international surveys of the OECD pertaining to lifelong learning.
No information was found specifying that NIER, the MEXT, or the Ministry of International Trade collected evidence concerning the involvement of private business in lifelong learning, which were the second and third goals of the 1990 law. However, considering that the OECD and UNESCO have conducted international comparative studies on lifelong learning and the role of private business in the programme, it appears likely that Japanese institutions analysed this evidence too.
At the local level, municipal governments sought to design their policies in line with the specific needs of the local population. To this end, they undertook surveys and organised meetings with citizens – the format and precise nature of which differed across municipalities – asking about their opinions and needs with regard to lifelong learning.
The government and political leadership passed several laws and advanced national action programmes in order to create a favourable legal and institutional environment for the successful implementation of lifelong learning. However, budgetary constraints and changes in employment conditions in the public sector presented some obstacles to the reform.
Japan’s public expenditure on education is relatively low by international standards. The OECD report, Education at a Glance 2008, stated that in 2005 the total public expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP in Japan was only 3.4 percent, the smallest proportion of all OECD member countries. And in 2014, only Chile allocated less of the public budget to education. At the same time, Japan has one of the highest rates of private expenditure on school and after-school education. About a third (33.6 percent) of the total expenditure on educational institutions comes from private sources, including individual families, in contrast to the OECD average of about a sixth (16.5 percent).
The reliance on private sector investment has proved problematic, however, as private financing tends to dry up in periods of economic crisis, as happened in the early 1990s and post-2008 period. The Japanese government does not collect data concerning the share of its overall education spending that it allocates to lifelong learning. However, the budget of the MEXT indicates that lifelong learning receives relatively generous funding compared to other educational programmes. The ministry spent 8.5 percent of its 2007 budget, or the equivalent of JPY452.5 billion, on lifelong learning.
Despite the relatively higher financial commitment to lifelong learning compared to other education programmes, overall budgetary constraints – expressed in the outsourcing of education activities – and the deregulation of employment laws, posed some constraint on the successful implementation of lifelong learning. Due to Japan’s 1990 deregulation of employment conditions and its increased reliance on private sector education providers, which has been an explicit element of the lifelong learning programme, education staff have struggled with short-term and part-time employment. This has been reported as negatively affecting the quantity and quality of the services they are able to provide.
With regard to library workers, for instance, the Japanese Domestic Grassroots Meeting reported in 2009: “These non-regular library staff working under such conditions do not have sufficient guarantee for appropriate specialisation or development of skills for their jobs, thus the job turnover rate is high. Moreover, since this is short-term employment, it is difficult to execute work with long-term objectives and also to build appropriate morale. Thus the increase in the number of such staff lowers the quality of the library workforce and is set to become an obstruction factor to the professionalism of library services and their continuous development.” Similarly, changes in funding priorities from public to private initiatives reduced the funds available for the traditional Kominkan centres, resulting in a decline in their numbers and employees. In 2008, half of Kominkan staff worked part-time.
The 1990 Law and subsequent reforms were managed through a complex multilevel system – reaching from the Japanese national government to lifelong learning councils at different administrative levels. While these councils are formally independent to pursue their education objectives, effective policymaking is relatively centralised through top-down advice mechanisms. In order to implement the 1990 Law, the Japanese government set up the Lifelong Learning Bureau, later renamed the Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau, within the structures of the MEXT.
This Policy Bureau is responsible for planning education that fosters collaboration between schools, families and communities. It has five divisions:
- Policy planning and coordination
- Analytical research planning
- Lifelong learning promotion
- Social education and gender equality learning
- Educational media and information policy.
In order to increase synergies in policies and programmes, various local education councils that had previously existed in isolation were now reorganised under the leadership of the Central Education Council, an advisory body to the MEXT. In addition, the Human Resources Development Bureau within the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is responsible for vocational training for youth and adults outside the school system. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry encourages private industry programmes and policies for lifelong learning in industry.
National, prefectural and municipal educational agencies are formally independent of each other, and a new article – which was added to the 2006 Revised Basic Act on Education – gave primal authority over educational policy and administration to local governments. However, while higher-level agencies, led by the MEXT and followed by prefectural, municipal and local boards of education, only offer advice and assistance to lower-level institutions, these are de facto viewed as orders. Research by the World Bank suggested that “through informal advice from the top, the administrative structure tends to operate as a centralised system”.
Overall measurement of the reforms relating to the 1990 Law has been of mixed quality. While the government and research institutions conduct regular studies and surveys to monitor the programme’s performance, the main limitation to measurement lies in the lack of basic statistical data concerning national budgets for adult education and the number of learners, as well as profiles (such as sex and age) of learners participating in adult education. More importantly, measurement relates mainly to the performance of lifelong learning as a whole, rather than the three goals set out by the 1990 Law (see The Initiative above). While the government has a good basis from which to measure the performance of lifelong learning in general, it seems to lack the tools to capture to what extent the goals set by the 1990 law have been met.
The Social Education Survey is an important mechanism through which the performance of lifelong learning is captured. The survey examines 81 statistics specified by the government, including learning opportunities and citizens’ participation in social education, and is conducted every three years. The questionnaire survey is distributed and completed through municipal boards of education all over the country. The results of the survey inform policymaking and programme development and lead to improvements in the management of social education resources.
Another important feedback mechanism for lifelong learning policies comes from the data collected by OECD-PIAAC (the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). PIAAC is the most comprehensive international survey of adult skills; it measures the skills and competencies needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. The survey includes interviews with about 5,000 adults aged 16-65 years in each participating country to assess their literacy and numeracy skills and their ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments. The results were released in 2013 and enabled the Japanese government to review and adjust its education policies.
Joint surveys and regular knowledge exchange has ensured alignment between the different public institutions promoting lifelong learning, including government ministries, Lifelong Learning Councils, and research institutions. Alignment with private education providers was enhanced through financial subsidies – mainly provided by the Ministry of International Trade – and through the training and assessment programmes provided by the ministries in order to ensure a standardised teaching quality across the different institutions.
However, worsening employment conditions for many of the education staff involved in lifelong learning have undermined alignment with these frontline workers. The employment conditions of actors engaged in lifelong learning – such as librarians and teachers in cultural centres – deteriorated when local governments introduced the designated system for the outsourcing of social education institutions and facilities, effectively shifting them from public to private work contracts.
The worsening of labour conditions in the private sector was linked to the labour market reforms the Japanese government undertook in the 1990s to combat the economic crisis. Specifically, they led to a proliferation of short-term, flexible contracts and declining wages. In addition, qualification requirements for work in lifelong learning were lowered, reducing the training necessary for people to work in this field. As a result, education providers in libraries and Kominkan centres as well as not-for-profit organisations involved in education have expressed criticism of the lifelong learning reforms. 
Teachers in traditional schools present an exception to this trend and receive regular training and financial incentives to fulfil their roles within the lifelong learning strategy. This is linked to the high level of respect, training and salaries teachers are traditionally accorded in Japan. Ongoing professional development and the regular assessment of teachers is considered important in order to ensure consistent quality and constant advancement. In 2009, the MEXT introduced a new system, requiring teachers to demonstrate every 10 years that their skills are up-to-date before they can renew their teaching certificates.
 Japan’s new lifelong learning policy: exploring lessons from the European knowledge economy, Akihiro Ogawa, 15 September 2009, International Journal of Lifelong Education, Volume 28, 2009, Issue 5