The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Japan’s academic calendar starts in April, the same month that the country’s corporations welcome their annual batch of young recruits. But now, the coronavirus has rekindled talk of moving the start of the school year to September, which would make it easier for Japanese to study overseas and for its universities to attract foreign students.

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda said on April 28 that his ministry is “conducting simulations” for revising the April start of the school year “as one option.” He also said he needs to coordinate with other ministries, since any revision would “need to be observed by society” as a whole.

Corporations, for example, would have to adjust their recruit­ment calendar and practices.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chimed in on April 29 at a meeting of the lower house budget committee. “With such a big change happening, I would like to consider a wide range of options,” he said, noting that some have voiced the need for caution because a change in the school calendar would greatly affect children, parents, and society as a whole.

Hagiuda’s comments come as a political groundswell is build­­ing. The day before he made them, the Democratic Party for the People held a working group meeting for the first time on the topic. It intends to work with other opposition parties on proposals to submit to the government. The smaller Japan Innovation Party compiled its own proposals the same day.

Such a change could be a catalyst for a “paradigm shift” in Japanese society, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said in an April 28 video posted online. She noted that it would change the schedule for everything from preschool to job-hunting for university students.

Calling a September start the “global standard,” Koike argued that it would help attract foreign students—something that has been an issue for Japanese schools that are out of sync with much of the rest of the world.

“There would be some confusion, but things are already confused now,” she said.

Calls for change are growing louder. A group of 17 prefec­tural governors have urged the government to adopt a September start to the academic year, saying that “now is the time to think boldly.”

Miyagi Prefecture Governor Yoshihiro Murai told reporters on April 27 that a permanent shift would “boost globalization.” He called the idea “one option” to a problem that has cropped up now that the coronavirus has caused public schools to be closed. As the country finds itself behind the e-learning curve, students are falling behind.

Japan’s public schools have been closed since the beginning of March and are expected to remain so until sometime after the government lifts the state of emergency that it declared on April 7.

In the meantime, only five percent of public schools are hold­ing online classes as of April 16, according to an education ministry survey.

Hagiuda is considered an advocate for a September start to the school year. At the April 28 news conference, he said: “The issues have already been sorted out at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. In a globalized society, it may be easier to accept international students.”

He said it is imperative for the national government, local governments, educators, and the leaders of Japanese industry to speak with one voice.

“The only way to secure opportunities for children to learn,” he said, “is to move [the start of the school year] to September.”

As things stand now, many public schoolteachers are simply giving assignments to their homebound students, who are on their own to complete them.

There are concerns this arrangement will lead to unequal outcomes and that students with few resources will be at a disadvantage when they take the country’s competitive entrance exams.

“School days are precious for students,” 12th graders wrote on the Spring Once Again website, “and events that we were looking forward to have been canceled as we stay at home.”

The website is part of a campaign advocating for a move to September.

The 12th graders also suggested that a revised enrollment date would solve confusion over university entrance exam and application procedures. The campaign had attracted more than 2,300 signatures as of April 26, according to a Twitter post.

“Changing the academic year to start in September also makes sense [when it comes to accepting] more foreign students,” said Masato Kamikubo, a Ritsumeikan University professor, who pointed out that the government has been trying to increase the number of international students studying in Japan.

In addition, Kamikubo said, the country’s unique academic year has prevented many Japanese students from studying abroad.

The debate has raged before. The University of Tokyo pushed it in 2011, hoping to align its calendar with those in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries. At the time, the university said the April start to the academic year hindered its efforts to attract foreign students and professors.

But the university’s voice was drowned out by strong oppo­sition from Japanese industry, which did not want to interrupt its traditional recruitment efforts.

In Japan, spring graduations and, weeks later, the start of a new school year, have been part of life since the Meiji Period (1868–1912). Opposition to drastically shifting the calendar remains, and laws would need to be revised.

But Kamikubo said business will be more open to the idea this time around. “Companies have come to realize that Japanese employment practices, like the simultaneous recruiting of new graduates and lifetime employment, are not sustainable. Rather, the new academic year would give companies more opportunities to gain global talent.”

Kamikubo warns that, if Japan misses this opportunity to alter its academic calendar, there will be no second chance, and the country would pay a lofty price. “While the world is becoming more united,” he said, “Japan will be left behind and will lose in the global competition for outstanding human resources, unless it can change now.”

Time for Change

Former University of Tokyo president says September best fits colleges

By Shinichiro Yokoyama


The April start of Japan’s school year, which dates back a century, is said to be related to the country’s agricultural background.

When Japan pushed modernization during the Meiji Period (1868–1912), farmers were told to submit their taxes in money and not in rice. But it took time for farmers to turn their fall harvests into money. This made it difficult for bureaucrats to form a state budget by January to start the new year.

And so the start of the government’s fiscal year was set in April. Later, in 1921, the start of the school year was also aligned to April.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces long-term school shutdowns, calls are growing to ditch this long tradition and push back the start of the school year to September, bringing it in line with the international norm.

Junichi Hamada, a former president of the University of Tokyo, has been a longtime advocate of a September college start. He is surprised by the sudden shift in sen­timent but welcomes a broader debate.

“For both politicians and the public, the question will be how to shape Japan after the coronavirus,” Hamada told Nikkei. He sees the school-year debate being shaped as part of bold ideas for a post-pandemic Japan.

Hamada’s own proposal for moving the matriculation for Japan’s top university to fall, made in 2012, was ultimately scrapped amid internal opposition.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

There are growing calls to switch to starting the academic calendar in the fall.
To be honest, it feels rather sudden. I exchanged emails recently with members of the board at the time of our proposal to move admission to fall. We said that our debate at that time laid the groundwork for people’s view, which led to talk of fall admissions coming up here and now.

I believe there are two contributing factors.

One is that high schoolers and other children are being denied learning opportunities. Even if we want to solve problems, such as widening achievement gaps and disad­vantages for certain children, the current rigid system makes it difficult to do so. People think that taking the plunge and moving to a fall start would enable everything to be solved at once.

The other factor is [the sense] that, as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and others have said, now—during the corona­virus crisis—is the time for change. The sense that we can only do this now. The idea of fall admissions emerged from these two factors.

What do you think is important to do now?
It comes down to this: How do we deal with the immediate disadvantages that children face?
We should move forward with a variety of steps, such as reorganizing the academic calendar, extending the school year, postponing entrance and qualifying exams, or even providing economic support. If things are still not going well even after exhausting many different measures, then a bold step such as fall admissions will be necessary.

Alternatively, while working with more flexibility and considering various measures under the current system, we could find that introducing a fall start—something we thought was impossible—could prove less difficult than expected.

But that is putting the cart before the horse. First, we need wide-ranging discussions starting from the central point of how to support students.

Fall and September admissions must not end up as mere empty slogans.

The University of Tokyo proposal involved a “gap term” between high school graduation in the spring and college admissions in the fall. But some call for a fall start at all levels, including high school and below.

I still believe fall admissions should just be for university. Changing everything from preschool up through elemen­tary, junior high, and high school all at once would be difficult. The general perception that school starts in the spring remains and switching would be costly.

One of the aims of fall admissions is international­ization [by syncing with academic schedules abroad], but that is mainly an issue at the college level. It would be a shame to lose the gap term by switching to a fall start in high school and below.

If the discussion moves forward, there will likely be more people who disagree on the details.

Disagreement is certainly reasonable. It’s important not to just point out problems, but to discuss how to overcome them.

For both politicians and the public, the question is how to shape Japan after the coronavirus, and how deter­mined we are to take the bold steps necessary to create a new society.

I believe that is why governors are so open to fall admis­sions. Without that feeling, our society will stagnate.

There seem to be few opinions coming from people in education.

For teachers on the ground, I believe that there’s a strong sense that the problem is too big for them to speak up about, and that they are instead focusing on concrete things they can do, such as online classes. They probably also feel that, because this is a nationwide issue that involves the foundation of how the system is set up, the country as a whole should act.

But universities can be more flexible about accepting students in fall at their discretion, and I hope they do so voluntarily.