Expectations Run High on Educational Exchange between Japan and South Korea; Program Kicks Off With 50 Teachers Invited to Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
South Korean teachers take part in a discussion with Japanese students in English at Tokyo Metropolitan Nishi High School in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. (This image is partially modified)

Thanks to improvements in bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea last year, there are hopes that educational exchanges between both countries will expand after a period of stagnation.

In January, about 50 high school teachers from South Korea were invited to Japan to interact with Japanese teachers and students. This was the first event of a joint project established by business organizations of both countries. In addition to having similar educational systems, Japan and South Korea also have many challenges in common, such as declining birth rates and the falling popularity of teaching as a profession, which makes it even more meaningful for both countries to continue such exchanges.

The program was held by the Japan-ROK/ROK-Japan Future Partnership Fund, which was established last year by the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and the Federation of Korean Industries, in response to the improvement of bilateral relations.

Contributing ¥100 million each, the organizations are proceeding with various joint projects, including the exchange of high school teachers and support for startups, with the aim of building a “future-oriented” Japan-South Korea relationship. The initiative is part of a response to Seoul’s reconciliatory measures over the lawsuits involving former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

The program in January was carried out over five days, with high school teachers from their 20s to 40s visiting schools and businesses in Japan. This is expected to have a positive impact on South Korean students’ views of Japan in the future, as educators will gain a better understanding of the country.

There are plans to dispatch Japanese teachers to South Korea this summer, as well as an exchange of university students and others between the two countries.

About 200 teachers in South Korea wanted to participate in the latest program, four times the number of spots the organizers made available. Many applicants were said to have remarked that they wanted to see what schools in Japan were like because they had never had such an opportunity despite having previously visited Japan as tourists.

Participants visited two high schools in Tokyo — Kaetsu Ariake Junior and Senior High School and Tokyo Metropolitan Nishi High School. They observed classes and took part in discussions with students on topics such as the declining birth rate, which is also an issue in South Korea. They also had lunch with teachers and students to deepen their interactions.

Exchanging opinions

During an informal talk with Japanese teachers, many South Korean teachers asked a similar question: “In South Korea, both the social status and attractiveness of teaching as a profession have been declining; what about in Japan?” In both countries, the decline in the number of prospective teachers is a serious issue.

“The number of would-be teachers is decreasing, partly because we face difficulties when dealing with students’ parents,” said Kim Hye-hyeon, an English teacher at a high school in central South Korea. “I’d like to exchange opinions with Japanese teachers about the problems they usually face and share how both of us have overcome them.”

In South Korea, many parents are intent on giving their children a good education, with the hope that their children will achieve high educational qualifications.

“When we become a homeroom teacher, we feel immense pressure in giving guidance on higher education to the students in our classes. We feel we must have all of them pass the entrance exam for colleges,” said Son So-hye, a teacher at a high school in the suburbs of Seoul. “I was very impressed to hear that Japanese teachers are willing to become homeroom teachers.”

Many South Korean university entrance exams use a method that attaches importance to reports from high schools. High school teachers are required to keep records of students’ grades and extracurricular activities, among other information. Many teachers from South Korea complain that, as such records have a huge impact on the entrance exam, they have to be extremely careful, and it is also time-consuming.

“While the burden related to university entrance examinations seems to hang heavy on teachers in South Korea, I learned that digitization is progressing in such tasks as attendance management and teaching subjects,” said Yoshiharu Yokoyama, a teacher at Nishi High School.

“I heard from the South Korean teachers that they explain to their students the significance of each subject and their connections to society in class so as to motivate students to learn. It was helpful,” he added.

Changing views on Japan

At the two high schools, students actively participated in interactions with the South Korean teachers. With the use of English as well as a translation app, the students talked with the visiting teachers on topics such as South Korean music.

Choi Hyo-sung, a history teacher at a high school, said, “I think that the gap in historical perspectives between Japan and South Korea stems from a lack of effort on both sides. Students in South Korea have few opportunities to gain an accurate understanding of Japan.”

He also said, “After returning to South Korea, I want to call on them, saying, ‘You need to build future-oriented ROK-Japan relations together with young Japanese people.’”

Ikumi Haruki, a professor at Seigakuin University who is an expert on South Korean society, said: “Compared to the 1990s, the view of Japan among young South Koreans has changed. Due partly to economic growth, more and more South Koreans may have become interested in Japanese culture and education in a natural way.”

As for education in South Korea, she pointed out that entrance exams are more competitive than in Japan, while there are also problems such as the declining birth rate and truancy, which Japan also faces.

“South Korea has also carried out drastic institutional reforms in such areas as university entrance exams. There are many points that can be helpful to Japan in dealing with these issues, including their challenges,” she added.

Stagnation due to historical issues

Education-related exchanges between Japan and South Korea had stagnated partly because of historical issues affecting bilateral relations. According to the education ministry, about 35,000 Japanese high school students visited South Korea on school trips in fiscal 2002 and over 20,000 in fiscal 2011, but only about 1,800 did so in fiscal 2019. School trips to China also declined markedly due to territorial disputes and other issues.

The exchange of elementary, junior high and high school teachers has been conducted by the Japan-Korea Cultural Foundation since fiscal 1989 as a project commissioned by the Foreign Ministry to promote mutual understanding. The number of teachers invited from South Korea and the number dispatched from Japan both reached about 120 a year in the mid-1990s. But in recent years, the numbers hovered around 80 and 40, respectively. The interactions were conducted online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and about 50 teachers have been invited from South Korea this fiscal year.

The Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) has also organized Japan-ROK teacher exchange programs since fiscal 2000 as a project commissioned by the education ministry. The number of teachers invited from South Korea decreased from about 150 in fiscal 2011 to less than 100 in fiscal 2017. This fiscal year, 30 teachers have been invited. The ACCU said that the number is likely to increase next fiscal year.

“To build peaceful relations with neighboring countries and not leave any source of problems untouched for the next generation, it is meaningful to continue grassroots exchanges even when the political situation changes,” said Tetsuo Tamura, the director general of the executive board of the ACCU and the chairman of the board of Trustees of Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen. “Those who host the teachers [from South Korea] also need to bear the issue of historical perception in mind and gain knowledge of it. As exchanges deepen, opportunities to discuss it frankly will arise.”

Park Sang Mi, a professor at Yokohama National University knowledgeable about cultural exchange between Japan and South Korea, noted, “There is a gap among students in both countries in the historical perception taught at school and at home, while Japanese students tend to have few opportunities to learn modern and contemporary history in depth at school.”

She added: “Nevertheless, the younger generation is becoming more interested in each other’s culture, while economic ties between the two countries have progressed. What is important is to make the best of this favorable opportunity to maintain level-headed relations and foster multifaceted exchanges, including in the private sector.”