My IntegrationGPJS Staff Interviews

Taking research to new
through mutually
beneficial encounters

with other disciplines

Graduate School of Education / Faculty of Education,
Tohoku University, Associate Professor

IMOTO Yoshihiro

Analyzing the dynamic facets of school systems from the perspective of social systems theory

In modern times, various changes aimed at transforming education or improving education in schools have been initiated under the umbrella of institutional reform. I am interested in the processes and mechanisms behind these changes—how, for example, reform of school systems is realized—and this has been the focus of my research to date. Up to doctoral level, my research focused on Japan’s secondary school system, to which I applied Luhmann’s theory of social systems as an analytical framework. When we consider how systems work, we find that they do not always function how people intend them to. Systems can fail to change even though we want them to, or they can change when we do not want them to. Systems have dynamics of their own, and when I sought to analyze these dynamics, it was the theory of social systems that seemed to offer a useful perspective for analysis.

In previous research on education systems, analysis often focused on political and policy-making processes, the traditional, the conventional method being to trace the intentions of those involved. However, even if a certain system is realized, in the process of it becoming consolidated and operated, that system may be employed in a way that was unintended. To understand educational systems with these ideas in mind, I considered it necessary to analyze different dimensions from those addressed by previous research methodology, and this led me to social systems theory.

In Luhmann’s theory of social systems, each system is reproduced within that system itself. Unlike the conventional analysis, which focused what politicians were thinking, this perspective gave a clear view of the kinds of dynamics at play within the systems themselves. In my doctoral thesis, published in 2008 as Nihon ni okeru Tansengata Gakkō Taikei no Keisei Katei (The Process of Forming a Single-Track School System in Japan) (Tohoku University Press), I was able to clarify that “continuity” existed between pre-war/wartime education system reforms and post-war, democracy-based education system reforms, despite the aspect of “discontinuity” between these system reforms being emphasized. Although the topic of continuity between pre-war/wartime and post-war reform is addressed in various discussions, one of the achievements of this work is that it illuminates the dimension of educational systems, clearly elucidating this continuity.

Considering the future of local communities and schools through comparison of school systems in Japan and Germany

I am currently carrying out research that compares school systems in Germany and Japan. In my early days as a researcher, my intention was to add to theoretical research on the mechanisms of school systems reform. However, while actually carrying out comparative research, my interested shifted to a more practical consideration of what school policies mean to people, with a focus on questions such as how school policy developments influence sustainability of local communities and how local communities actively influence school policy developments. Specifically, I am conducting surveys on underpopulated areas in the former East Germany region, where schools were consolidated at a remarkable pace after German reunification. Today, the number of private schools in this region is increasing rapidly. This increase in the number of private schools tends to be viewed in terms of neoliberal, free-market reforms reaching as far as school education; however, in the case of former East Germany, this is not necessarily the only factor underlying the trend. Rather, faced with the problem of schools disappearing from local communities, there have also been some movements to keep schools in communities by parents and local residents working together to bring private schools into the community or establish schools themselves. Rather than a neoliberal context, it can be viewed in a way that is, in a sense, similar to the starting point of public schools: the question of how we should bring up our children ourselves.

In Japan, consolidation of elementary schools or junior high schools has already reached its limit, and a movement has emerged to establish nine-year compulsory education schools that combine elementary and secondary education. How should communities interact with these new schools post consolidation? How should the vacant grounds of former schools be used to maintain ties in the community? When declining birthrates reach their trough, how can schools be kept within communities? There is something that we can learn from each other when considering these problems, by comparing what is happening in Japan and what is happening in Germany.

Education as an academic discipline is both a phenomenon to study and a goal to achieve, and as pedagogists, we cannot simply stand by and watch. The seemingly endless fall in the birthrate is likely to continue disrupting relationships between schools and local communities in the future. With no choice but to respond to these changes, I hope that my research will help provide clues for considering better modes of school systems reform.

The International Graduate Program in Japanese Studies (GPJS) derives its appeal from its interdisciplinary character.

The International Graduate Program in Japanese Studies (GPJS) is characterized by the fact that students are taught by researchers in humanities and social sciences from the standpoints of their respective areas of expertise, and the primary appeal of the program is the “interdisciplinary” learning that this creates. In his book Hikaku Kyōikugaku–Ekkyō no Ressun (Comparative Education: Lesson for Crossing the Border) (Toshindo Publishing, 2007), Toru Umakoshi discusses the significance of comparison, explaining that we develop a broader view, and a much deeper interpretation, by “crossing the border.” In my field surveys in Germany in particular, I was able to achieve a real sense of this idea, as a heightened sensitivity to educational phenomena.

Students in the GPJS belong to a graduate school and are engaged in research on a certain theme, but they are also members of the program. This provides a pathway to interdisciplinary encounters. In other words, by crossing disciplinary borders, students give and receive stimulation with researchers from other fields, thereby strengthening their research mutually. I hope that GPJS can provide students with these kinds of opportunities.

The other day, at an international conference in the program, I participated in a students’ meeting where I asked questions and gave comments from the point of view of an educational researcher. I think that one aspect of the study of education is that our work is relatively easy to understand for people working in other fields, perhaps because we have all experienced education in our lives. On the other hand, when it comes to rather deep, fanatical research content, such as that which one might find in the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, it can be difficult for researchers from other fields to even understand why a certain theme might need to be studied. This program can also provide students with opportunities to practice showcasing their research to people from other specialist fields, opportunities that are hard to come by through discussions at conferences and within one’s own academic circle.

Another advantage of joining the GPJS program is the availability of financial support. Students selected for the program can receive payment as a research assistant, as well as overseas training expenses. For students enrolled in humanities departments, where it is difficult to obtain research funding, being able to carry out research with this support is very beneficial for young researchers.

Encountering real research, as well as the research perspectives of other fields

Finally, I would like to deliver a message to students and researchers overseas who are thinking of conducting research in Japan. At our graduate school, there is no “department of Japanese studies,” in which students can study Japan as a major. If you would like to conduct research on Japan at GPJS, you will first need to join one of our graduate schools: the Graduate School of Education, the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, the Graduate School of Law, the Graduate School of Economics and Management, the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies, or the humanities laboratories of the Graduate School of Environmental Studies. There you will experience real research by real researchers conducting high-level research in their respective fields of expertise. We ask you to explore your own theme in depth at one of our graduate schools, before taking on the challenge of GPJS. In the program, you will encounter researchers from other fields, coming face to face with these other perspectives. You will encounter real researchers and real research at your graduate school, as well as experiencing interdisciplinary encounters in the program. This what makes GPJS such a special program.

  • Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education, Tohoku University. Completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Education, Tohoku University in 2007. Holds a PhD in Education. Worked as a lecturer in the Faculty of Human Science at Hokkaido Bunkyo University and a lecturer/associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, Joetsu University of Education, before being appointed to his current position.
  • Research areas: Mechanisms of change in educational systems, comparison of secondary school system reform in Japan and Germany
  • Profile, Graduate School of Education (Japanese)