50 years on / Steady improvements made on remedying Okinawa’s educational lag

Courtesy of Okinawa Prefectural Archives
Members of the U.S. military observe a lesson in a “blue-sky classroom” in what is now Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, in 1945.

This year, Okinawa marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan. This fifth and final installment of the “Origins” part of our anniversary series explores some of the issues that have impacted Okinawa’s people since the handover, leading up to the present day.

School facilities were destroyed in the battles that raged over Okinawa during World War II, leaving children with a poor educational environment after the war.

The schools set up under U.S. rule in civilian internment camps were outdoor “blue-sky classrooms.”

Gradually, flimsy buildings with thatched or tin roofs were built, but they often collapsed in typhoons. Few teachers were available. Some were sent into the classroom with less than a year of training.

Efforts to revive education later merged with the movement to return Okinawa to Japan.

Former teachers were at the core of this effort. One was Atsuo Yamashiro, who led the education department of a resident administrative organization established by the U.S. military to seek policy advice.

According to his granddaughter Michiko Oshiro, 77, of Urasoe in the prefecture, the first task undertaken by Yamashiro and his colleagues was to compile textbooks.

Within the U.S. military, there was a move to change the official language of Okinawa to English, and some in the resident organization also said it might be necessary to write textbooks in English. However, Yamashiro insisted that language education must always be in standard Japanese.

“I think he wanted to provide Japanese education because he believed [Okinawa] would be returned to Japan,” Oshiro said.

Yamashiro died in 1968 at the age of 80. His mantle was taken up by Chobyo Yara, who served as the first governor of Okinawa after its return in 1972.

A former teacher, Yara traveled all over the country to raise funds to build schools and win sympathy for the plight of Okinawa. He frequently told those around him, “We have to make sure we don’t fall behind in academic ability.”

Under U.S. military rule, Okinawa had in fact fallen behind other parts of the country in terms of education. Efforts to close the educational disparities continued after its return to Japan, but the path was not easy.

A survey in the 1972 school year — April 1972 to March 1973 — showed that Okinawa had the lowest high school entrance rate in the nation at 71%, compared to the national average of 87%.

Akira Moromizato, 65, a former superintendent of education in the Okinawa prefectural government, recalled being overwhelmed by the abilities of students from outside of Okinawa in 1975, when he studied with them at an exam-prep school in Tokyo.

Moromizato graduated from an Okinawa high school and went to Tokyo to study at a university. He said that a friend from his hometown hid the fact that he was from Okinawa due to feelings of inferiority.

In the nationwide academic achievement tests that began in the 2007 school year, Okinawa’s elementary and junior high schools ranked last in all subjects for two years in a row and have continued to score poorly.

The prefectural board of education has promoted exchanges with teachers from Akita Prefecture, one of Japan’s top prefectures in terms of education, and has been trying to improve academic ability by measures such as setting up free cram schools for children from disadvantaged households.

In the 2014 school year, Okinawa elementary schools finally ranked higher than last in all subjects, and in recent years they have maintained a higher position. Okinawa junior high schools remain at the bottom, but the gap with the rest of the country is steadily narrowing.

Moromizato, who is now the principal of a private high school in the prefecture, feels that the children of Okinawa are starting to gain confidence.

“Education is about creating people and creating the future. Okinawa’s future is a bright one for sure,” he said.