Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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    Contents of This Chapter
    1. 8-1-1    SPECIAL EDUCATION
      1. Special Schools
      2. Yuri Special School for Mentally Retarded Children
      3. Special Classes for Children with Disabilities
      4. A Special Class for Children with Disabilities in Ume Elementary School
      5. Regular Classes with Special Aids in the Resource Room
      6. Higher Education for Children with Disabilities
    3. 8-2-3    REMEDIAL EDUCATION
  4. NOTES

Children with disabilities attend special schools, special classes in mainstream schools, or regular classrooms with special assistance.  Recently, the educational rights of children with disabilities have been accorded more recognition under the promotion of human rights and integrated education.  Children in special education have many more opportunities than ever before to interact with children in regular classes, in exchange programs, and in integrated classes.  However, the integrated education is not obligatory and local governments can refuse to admit children with disabilities, citing inadequate accommodations and staff.  This chapter will discuss special education for children with disabilities.



Children with disabilities are children “whose daily life or life in society is substantially limited over the long term due to a physical disability, mental retardation, or mental disability” (Article 2 of the 1970 Fundamental Law for People With Disabilities).1  Learning disabilities (LD) have not been yet recognized as disabilities.  Most children with disabilities live at home with their parents or guardians and attend special schools, special classes or regular schools.  The welfare of children with disabilities is protected under the Child Welfare Law.  All people with physical and mental disabilities have been issued an identification handbook.  Appliances, allowances, and tax exemptions are determined according to the severity of disability.

The government provides a Special Child-Rearing Allowance and income-based benefits for the guardians of the children with disabilities.  Parents caring for children with severe disabilities under 20 years old receive a Special Child-Rearing Allowance (50,900 yen a month for children with profound disabilities, and 33,900 yen a month for children with severe disabilities).  Parents caring for children with severe disabilities received an additional 14,430 yen a month as a Disabled Child-Rearing Allowance (Naikakufu 2004b).

According to a 2001 survey, 81,900 children with physical disabilities were living at home.  The ratio of those children to all children under 18 years old was 3.6 children per 1,000.  Nearly 60 percent of the children had orthopedic disabilities, 17.3 percent had internal organ disorders, 18.6 percent had hearing impairments or speech impediments, 5.9 percent had visual impairments, and 7.3 percent had multiple disabilities.  Almost two-thirds (63.9%) had profound and severe disabilities.  The largest percentage, 37.6 percent, of disabilities were of undetermined origin, 17.3 percent were the result of complications during birth, 14.8 percent were illnesses, 11.2 percent were unknown, and 2.4 percent were from accidents.  The remaining 16.7 percent were “others.”  About half of these children can perform daily chores, such as eating meals (64.7%), going to the toilet (50.3%), taking a bath (47.0%), and dressing themselves (52.6%).  Most of them can tossing about in bed (82.1%) and moving around in the house (72.8%).  About half of them (56.3%) need help when they go outside.  Their parents, usually their mothers, help them when necessary (Kōseirōdōshō 2002).  In 2000, 8,115 physically disabled children under 18 years old were residents in assisted-living facilities.  According to 2002 surveys, among 103,000 mentally retarded children under 18 years old, 94,000 lived at home and 9,000 lived in assisted-living facilities (Naikakufu 2004b).  Mental retardation here is applied to people diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome or severe conditions, not to people with learning disabilities.

Recently, the right of children with disabilities to be educated has been formally acknowledged, as the Japanese government supports human rights, “normalization,” integrated education, and inclusion of people with disabilities.  In 1993, the government revised the 1970 Fundamental Law of People with Disabilities, and enacted the New Long-Term Program for Government Measures for Persons with Disabilities (1993-2002) under pressure from advocates for the disabled.  The 1994 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and other domestic laws guaranteed the right for all children without restriction to a free public education.

Since 1993, the government has introduced a system of integrated education for children with mild disabilities.  However, not all such children who seek integrated education have access to regular schools.  Many mainstream schools lack adequate facilities and services for children with disabilities.  School facilities are not barrier-free for children with wheel chairs or other mobility problems.  To decide which schools in their jurisdiction should make the renovations and accommodations for students with disabilities, each municipal board of education now appoint a Committee of Advisors for the Schooling for Disabled Children, consisting of teachers, physicians, and psychologists.  The Committee advises parents on the best interests of the child, and makes recommendations to the board as to the kind of school that disabled children should attend.  The board of education makes the final decision, and can legally deny access to the mainstream schools, citing inadequate accommodation and staff.  Regular schools have no obligation to accommodate all children with disabilities.

To date, the system of classroom aides and paraprofessionals for integrated education has not been fully developed.  Therefore, only a small portion of disabled children attend regular classes.  For example, six blind children entered the regular public school system for the first time in 1975.  More than 100 cases of integrated education for blind children had been reported by 1993.  Since 1984, the Tokyo government has allowed blind children to take high school entrance examinations in Braille, and provides free Braille textbooks (Sin 1993).

The legalization of integrated education has created more accessibility for disabled children who wish to attend regular schools.  The government should direct municipal boards of education to provide integrated education and services for all children with disabilities, if parents request the services, as in the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the United States.  As a part of the movement for the rights of disabled people, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that public schools be prohibited from denying education to children with disabilities (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania).

Public schools in the United States are required to be barrier-free under the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act.  The landmark law for special education, the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and its amendments mandate that everyone with disabilities between the ages of three and 21 shall receive a free, appropriate public education.  If a public school lacks the services, the school district must pay for the child to attend a private school approved by the state.  The Supreme Court ruled in March 1999 that public schools must pay for in-class nursing care for severely disabled children.  Schools may hire paraprofessionals or aides to provide the service.

Since 1988, schools in the United States have found the inclusion of disabled children in the regular education classroom to be the “least restrictive environment” for an increasing number of students with disabilities.  In 2000-1 school year, 95.8 percent of disabled persons 6 to 21 years old receiving education service for the disabled attended regular school.  Among them, 46.5 percent spent at least 80 percent of the day in a regular classroom, 29.3 percent spent 40 to 79 percent, and 19.5 percent spent less than 40 percent of the day in a regular classroom.  Three percent spent time in separate facilities, 0.7 percent were in residential facilities, and 0.5 percent were at home or in a hospital (NCES 2004a).

The Japanese government provides free elementary and middle school education for all children with disabilities under the School Education Law.  In 2003, there were 172,000 students, 1.6 percent of the student population, who received special education in elementary and middle schools (Naikakufu 2004b).  In 2001, among 56,900 school age children with physical disabilities, 39.4 percent attended regular schools, 38.5 percent attended special schools, 18.3 percent were in special classes of regular schools, and 4.7 percent stayed at home (Kōseirōdōshō 2002).  Many mentally retarded children attend special classes in regular schools, and some children with epilepsy or children under medication may also go to special schools for mentally retarded children.  Regular classes are considered unsuitable for mentally retarded children.  They fare better in special classes or special schools for mentally retarded children (Takayama 2000).  The purpose of special education is to help children with disabilities to develop their individual abilities so that they become capable of living independently when they are adults.  These children are taught in classes of six to eight, and the instruction is tailored to their needs.

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Special Schools

There are three types of schools for children with disabilities: 1) schools for children with visual impairments (mōgakkō); 2) schools for children with hearing impairments (rōgakkō); and 3) schools for children with orthopedic disabilities, mentally retarded children and sickly children (yōgo gakkō).  Each prefecture has at least one of each type of special school.  Special schools include preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and residential high schools.  The schools for children with visual or hearing impairments have two- or three-year vocational training programs after high school.  The 1954 Law for the Promotion of School Attendance at Special Schools guarantees public subsidies for educational equipment, lunches, and transportation for its students.   In 2003, 3,900 students attend 71 schools for children with visual impairment, 6,700 students attend 106 schools for children with hearing impairments, and 85,900 students attend 818 schools for children with physical and mental disabilities, and sickly children.  Almost all middle school graduates from special schools went on to high school, mostly the high school section of special schools (Naikakufu 2004b).

The curriculum for children with physical disabilities and sickly children includes training courses for independent activities, in addition to a curriculum that is similar to that of regular schools.  In the independent-activities courses, children with visual impairments learn to read Braille and to walk, children with hearing impairments learn how to listen and pronounce words, while children with physical disabilities have physical therapy.  Classes in special schools are limited to six students for elementary and middle schools, to eight students with two teachers for high school, and to three students with physical and mental disabilities (Sōmuchō 2000a:350-351).

Since 1979, special education teachers have visited the homes and bedsides of elementary, middle school students, and since 2000, high school students (Monbukagakushō 2001b).  In 2003, 1,447 elementary, 803 middle school, and 1,038 high school students received this visitation education (Naikakufu 2004b).  If a child stays in the hospital, he or she receives correspondence education.

Prefectural special schools for children with visual impairments provide education from preschool to high school.  Since the 1923 imperial ordinance, each prefecture has to have at least one special school for children with visual and hearing impairments.  Since 1948, children with visual or hearing impairments have the right to attend special schools, special classes, or mainstream schools for nine years of compulsory education.  Students learn academic subjects in Braille.  Children with weak vision use corrective lenses and teaching materials in large print.   High school education has vocational-track courses for tuning pianos, public health and therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, and massage, in addition to the general high school courses.  These schools have three years of special vocational courses after high school, and more than one third of all high school graduates enroll in these programs (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

Children with hearing impairments can attend preschool, elementary, middle, and high schools, and special vocational courses in each prefecture.  In addition to academic courses, high schools have courses to train students for careers as hairdressers, dental technicians, printing technicians, and cleaners.  One third of all children enroll in two-year special vocational courses after graduating from high school (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

Special schools for children with disabilities provide special education for children with physical disabilities, mentally retarded children, and sickly children.  During the Taishō period (1912-1926), special classes for mentally retarded children were taught in regular elementary schools.  By 1935, 209 special classes for sickly children were established, and 14 special classes for children with physical disabilities were provided before 1945 (Monbushō 1992:87-88).  Not until 1979 did children with physical and mental disabilities finally have the right to complete compulsory education. 

Some special schools are designed for children with physical disabilities, mentally retarded children, or for sickly children.  Many special schools take both physical disabled and mentally retarded children together because many children have both physical and mental disabilities.  Most of children with mild and moderate degrees of physical disabilities or mental retardation prefer attending special classes for children with disabilities (yōgo gakkyū) in regular elementary and middle schools in their communities because it is much more convenient for their parents to take them to nearby schools, and children have more interaction with friends in their neighborhoods after school.  Therefore, the majority of elementary and middle school students in special schools have severe disabilities.  Most children who graduate from special classes in regular middle schools attend high school in special schools for physically and mentally disabled children. 

For mentally retarded children, subject matter can be arranged in accordance with their individual cognitive abilities.  In 1962, the Course of Study outlined its first educational guideline for children with IQs between 50 and 60, in order to help them lead independent adult lives (Monbushō 1991:14-15).  As the number of children with severe mental retardation grew, a new course, called the “Course of Daily Living (seikatsuka)” was created in the 1970 Course of Study.  This course teaches children how to handle their daily chores, such as going to a toilet, eating, and changing clothes. 

Since 1972, the Course of Study has set guidelines for high school education for mentally retarded children.  The goal of high school education for these children is to teach reading, writing, listening, counting, and shopping.  High school education includes one or more vocational subjects, one special course designed by the school, a comprehensive learning course, and a training course for independent activities.  In addition, there are elective foreign language and information science courses.  Vocational courses teach sewing, cleaning, handicrafts, cooking, interior design, home care, planting, animal husbandry, food processing, ceramics, wood working, metal working, stone working, weaving, printing, the management of commodities, sales, cleaning, and clerical work (Monbushō 1999c).

Special education teachers design a curriculum that considers the individual needs of students.  They may consult informally with parents and/or medical professionals, but they are not required to confer with parents or medical professionals as in the United States.  The legalization of the individualized education program (IEP) modeled on that of the United States is desirable, because the IEP has made appropriate instruction available for individual special-education students in the United States.  The IEP, created by a team of teachers, parents, professionals, and if possible, children, helps teachers create an appropriate instruction plan by considering the advice of parents and of professionals.

The parent-approved IEP of the United States is legally mandated by the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.  A child-study team is formed to develop an IEP (which is not legally binding) and must renew the IEP at least annually.  The team consists of the child’s teacher(s), a representative from the local school district, the child’s parents or guardians, school psychologists and therapists, and the children themselves, when appropriate (Heward and Cavanaugh 1997:312-313).  In practice, parents are seldom provided an opportunity to meet with the entire team, despite the theoretical importance of their input (Meyer, Harry and Sapon-Shevin 1997:339). 

In actual special education classes, the instruction seldom follows the IEP (Heward and Cavanaugh 1997:314).  Furthermore, many schools and districts cannot afford to provide the classroom aides, specialized materials, and extra services that are mandated by law to their special-education students.  Nearly one in three special-education teachers in California lacks full credentials, and many special-education teachers are not trained as special-education teachers (Los Angeles Times December 12, 1999).  Teachers with low expectations tend to underestimate the abilities of students and to deliver an inferior quality of teaching.  Though there are obvious flaws in the system, the basic IEP model can be adapted into the Japanese educational system.

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Yuri Special School for Mentally Retarded Children

In April 2000, the Yuri Special School for mentally retarded children, established in 1985, had 33 students, 21 teachers, and one nurse teacher in the elementary school department, as well as 30 students and 21 teachers in the middle school department.2  The high school department had 59 students and 30 teachers, two non-faculty teachers, and three assistant teachers.  Two middle school students and one high school student who have difficulty attending school have a home study program with two visiting teachers.  Most of the teachers are special-education specialists.  Small class sizes and a 1:1.6 teacher-student ratio keep teachers attentive to the needs of individual students.  For children with profound disabilities, the ratio of teachers to students can be no more than 1:3.

The total of 122 students includes 29 children with autism, 17 with epilepsy, and 12 with Down’s syndrome.  Most children in the elementary- and middle-school departments have severe retardation because children with mild retardation usually attend special classes for disabled children in the regular elementary and middle schools in their communities.  About half of all high school students are graduates from the special classes for disabled children in the regular middle schools. 

The school emphasizes physical education and sports to develop healthy bodies and minds.  All middle and high school students jog around the school grounds or adjacent mountain roads every morning.  In 2001, they won first prize in a long-distance relay race in the prefectural contest of special schools for disabled children.  That raised the self-esteem and confidence of these students.  The school also assists middle and high school students in taking public transportation, instead of school buses.

All students have a class on “guidance for daily life” in the first period of every school day.  Elementary school students usually have two hours for “guidance for daily life,” one hour for “daily life activities,” one hour for physical education, and one hour for “language/counting/independent activities” every day, in addition to music and plays once or twice a week.   Independent activities are taught in the language and counting courses, and moral education is a component of all school activities and courses.  The middle school department allocates seven hours a week to “guidance for daily life,” six hours to “daily life activities,” six hours to vocational training workshops, two hours each for Japanese language arts, mathematics, music, arts, and home economics, three hours for physical education, and one hour for special activities.  The high school department dedicates three hours to “guidance for daily life,” three hours for “daily life activities,” nine hours for vocational-training workshops, two hours each for Japanese language arts, mathematics, music, arts, home economics, and vocational-training courses, five hours for physical education, and two hours for special activities. 

All students are divided into homeroom classes, according to their grade level.  Each homeroom class has a small number of students and several homeroom teachers.  Teachers provide instruction on the basis of their abilities.  Teachers record the daily activities of these students in a journal for their parents.   The school does not have a mandatory child-study group for the individualized educational plan.  Homeroom teachers usually design an educational plan for individual students and then informally solicit the parents’ comments.  For children with physical and mental disabilities, the teacher creates a detailed individualized educational plan that incorporates the requests from the parents.  The teachers obtain medical advice from physicians and psychiatrists.  However, in practice, the doctors usually do not have the time for consultations.  Scheduled meetings of teachers, parents, medical professionals, counselors, and psychologists can allow teachers to refine their understanding of the complexity of  mental disabilities, and to design an appropriate educational plan for each student.

The school values vocational-training courses, which show students how to become self-sufficient.  Middle school students have three-hour vocational-training courses on Mondays and Thursdays, and high school students have three-hour vocational-training courses on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Middle school students are divided into groups for gardening, sewing and light work, and high school students are divided into groups for gardening, sewing, wood-crafting, pottery-making, textile-making, and light work.  The students, except for the twelfth-graders, are rotated every six months into a different workshop.  High school seniors choose a single workshop for a year.  The teachers treat the students as employees and give them a glimpse of life in the working world.  The students learn to take responsibility, to be patient, and to cooperate.  When I visited the workshops, I found the students to be very quiet and diligent workers. 

The school arranges two-to-three-week long internships for high school juniors and seniors in June and November.  The teacher responsible for job placement finds local employers who are willing to take these internees for job training.  The school asks these employers to assign a mentor for the internees and to make them feel welcome during their breaks.  The students usually go to an internship with their teachers and occasionally with their parents.  The internship system helps students to acquire work experience in actual workplaces. 

Because of the prolonged recession, teachers have had a harder time finding jobs for their students.  More students have obtained jobs in the service industry than in manufacturing.  Among 20 graduates in March 2000, 11 obtained jobs in supermarkets, food-processing plants, factories, a janitorial company, a hospital, and at a family store.  Five students went on to work at daily workshops for disabled people, three students went to institutions for disabled people, and one student went to a vocational-training center.  The teachers visit the students during spring and summer vacations for three years after their graduation, in order to make sure that the students are becoming accustomed to their new lives.  The school provides a lifetime consulting for all graduates so that they can always go to the school for assistance in job placement. 

Recently, exchange programs between special schools and regular schools have been promoted as a part of human rights education.  Yuri’s middle school department has an exchange program with a special class in a neighboring middle school.  Also, nearby fourth graders visited the Yuri special school three times in one trimester as part of their integrated study class.  The students played with the disabled students, and became friends.  The students in the special school enjoyed making new friends, and the parents were also favorably impressed by the exchange programs.  The teacher I interviewed said that the exchange program was a success.  Moreover, there is a parents’ association at the school, and volunteer groups are active in organizing special activities for disabled children. 

Special Classes for Children with Disabilities

Special classes for children with disabilities (shōgaiji gakkyū) in mainstream elementary and middle schools are formed for children who have mild physical or mental disabilities.  Most of the students have mild mental retardation and emotional disturbance, and others have physical disabilities, health problems, speech impediments, and hearing or visual impairment.  Parents and the municipal board of education decide whether children with mild disabilities attend regular classes, special classes in regular school, or special schools.  In 2003, 59,400 students attended 21,400 special classes in regular elementary schools, while 26,500 attended 9,500 special classes in regular middle schools.  Most of them (87.3%) went to high schools after graduation (Naikakufu 2004b).

Children with disabilities are taught from the same curriculum as regular schools, but have special courses based on their individual abilities.  For example, the children with amblyopia in the class for disabled children learn how to use the equipment that they need, learn to improve their eyesight, and also study general academic subjects.

Exchange programs between disabled children in special-education programs and children in regular classes have been recently promoted as part of human rights education.  Interaction with disabled children helps children learn tolerance and acceptance of people with disabilities, and to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.  It takes time for able-bodied children to become accustomed to children with disabilities.  However, children must have direct contact with disabled children in order to understand and respect them.  The exchange programs also help disabled children meet and befriend other students.  However, despite the support of the board of education and the government, these exchange programs are more like annual special events, and the children have little time to build friendships with each other.

For teacher training, the government enacted the Special Law for Social Welfare Experience and Caring in 1997 in order to acquaint teachers with the human rights of disabled children.  The Law requires one week of practical training in special schools or in social welfare facilities in order for elementary and middle school teachers to obtain their teaching credentials.

A Special Class for Children with Disabilities in Ume Elementary School

Ume Elementary School has three special classes for disabled children: mentally retarded children (seven students and two teachers), emotionally disturbed children (three students and one teacher) and physically disabled children (one student and one teacher) in two separate classrooms.3  In one classroom, a teacher delivers instruction to three emotionally disturbed children individually in an informal manner.  In a corner, another teacher speaks to one child with cerebral palsy on a tatami-mat.  In another classroom, two teachers are responsible for seven mentally retarded children.  These students attend regular arts and music classes as often as possible in order to have contact with the students in the mainstream classes. They also participate in exchange programs with special-education students from other elementary schools.  There are 45 special-education students in Marugame’s elementary schools.  All of them meet four times a year to make artwork for the annual Marugame Castle Festival, go to the beach, visit an amusement park, and participate in a graduation party.  When I observed their classes, the students were practicing songs, and learning sign language for the upcoming graduation party.  These students are well cared for by their teachers in small classes.

Special education teachers design their lesson plans for individual students, and then informally talk to the parents.  They do not have formal meetings with parents or specialists to discuss individualized education programs.  Not all special-education teachers in mainstream schools are experts in special education, unlike their counterparts in special schools.  Many of these teachers have been transferred from regular classes.  They participate in workshops and conferences, sponsored by the Marugame board of education.  Their specialized training is developed through on-the-job teaching special-education students in mainstream schools.  Teachers’ training workshops, regular communication between teachers and parents, and advice from medical professionals and psychiatrists make the teaching methods of special-education teachers more effective.

Regular Classes with Special Aids in the Resource Room

Advocates for the rights of disabled children have lobbied for the inclusion of disabled children in regular schools.  Since 1993, the government has begun to integrate children with mild disabilities into regular classrooms.  Children with mild disabilities are placed in regular homeroom classes and learn general subjects.  These disabled children also have access to a resource room, special classes, or special schools, depending on the severity of their disabilities.  For example, children with hearing difficulties in the regular class attend the special class for hearing-impaired children where they learn how to speak, listen, and use a hearing aid.  Special supplementary lessons cannot exceed more than eight unit-hours a week (Zenkoku 2000:7).  The number of these children reached 33,700 (including 930 middle school students) in 2003.  These children had been diagnosed with speech impediments (82.4%), emotional disturbances (12.4%), hearing difficulties (4.7%), and amblyopia (0.5%) (Naikakufu 2004b).

Higher Education for Children with Disabilities

In 2003, a half of all students with visual or hearing impairments entered two- or three-year vocational courses in special schools, colleges, or specialized training colleges.  Only 1.5% of 11,500 graduates from schools for children with physical and mental disabilities were admitted to colleges, including specialized training colleges (Naikakufu 2004b).

According to the 1986-1989 survey of four-year universities, colleges accept students with physical disabilities through affirmative action measures (2.4%), with some conditions (6.6%), according to the same criteria as other students (50.9%), and depending on the degree of disabilities (29.2%), while 7.5 percent of them categorically reject students with physical disabilities.  In many cases, the disabled students consult the admissions office at the university and the department before taking the entrance examination.  Private, large-scale denominational colleges, and those that have a tradition of accepting students with physical disabilities, tend to have a higher rate of acceptance of students with physical disabilities than do public, small-scale nondenominational colleges, and those that have never admitted disabled students.  Also, the departments of humanities and social sciences are more likely to take students with physical disabilities than are other departments (Shōgaisha 1992:80-81, 109). 


People with disabilities are legally guaranteed equal employment opportunity.  The 1993 revision to the 1970 Fundamental Law of People with Disabilities was amended as follows: “[People with Disabilities] are guaranteed to have an opportunity to participate in all kinds of social, economic and cultural activities as members of society.”  In addition, people with disabilities are eligible for a special employment quota.  The 1960 Law for the Employment Promotion of People with Disabilities and its revisions stipulate that public and private employers hire a certain percentage of people with disabilities.  Employers who do not meet this requirement are liable to be fined, and employers who do meet the requirement receive subsidies.  The revised Law of 1997 requires public organizations to meet a 2.1 percent quota, and obligates private corporations of 56 full-time employees and more to meet a 1.8 percent quota for people with physical and mental disabilities.  People with mental disabilities were, for the first time, included in the quota system.  In June 2003, 2.19 to 2.49 percent of state, prefectural and municipal employees and 1.47 percent of employees in private companies were people with disabilities.  Regular employees with severe disabilities are counted twice.  Employers have to report the number of disabled workers to the Public Employment Security Office annually. The Office identifies companies that have failed to meet their quota and releases the information to the public.  Almost 60 percent of private companies failed to meet the 1.8 percent quota (Naikakufu 2004b).

Companies with 301 or more employees that do not meet the quota requirements have to pay a fine of 50,000 yen a month to the Levy and Grant System for each person that is short of the quota.  The funds collected by the System are used for the payment of rewards, 27,000 yen a month per disabled employee to the companies with 301 or more employees that exceeded their quota, and 21,000 yen a month per disabled employee to the companies with fewer than 301 employees.  The funds also provide grant money to companies with disabled employees in order to make the facilities accessible to those employees and to provide them with assistants (Naikakufu 2004b).

However, employers are not legally obligated to make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities.  Such accommodation may be prohibitively expensive, especially in small- and medium-size companies where most disabled people work.  The funds from the Levy and Grant System and public subsidies help these companies the necessary renovations that make their facilities accessible. 

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) demands that businesses provide their employees and customers with disabilities with “reasonable accommodations.”  The business does not have to change its existing facilities to make them ADA-accessible.  However, when the business builds or expands a new facility, it must make its entrances, exits, and restrooms accessible to people with disabilities.  Unlike the Japanese system, there is not a quota system for people with disabilities in the employment recruitment process; however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits discrimination in hiring on the basis of disability. 

The Public Employment Security Offices and the Regional Employment Centers for People with Disabilities provide employment counseling, vocational training, and employment rehabilitation measures for all disabled adults and children.  They learn in vocational training schools for disabled people and the Centers for the Development of Abilities and Skills.

In 2003, 11.9 percent of the graduates of special schools for children with visual impairments, 25.5 percent of the graduates of special schools for children with hearing impairments, and 19.3 percent of the graduates of special schools for children with physical and mental disabilities entered the workforce (Naikakufu 2004b).  The rate of employment for high school graduates from special schools has always been low, and the recession has only made their employment more difficult.  Even those who have obtained certificates to work in massage, acupuncture, and moxibustion through vocational courses in special schools have trouble passing the national examinations because these occupations have become more popular among those without disabilities.

Responding to the low rate of employment, high school sections plan to introduce more vocational courses.  The MOE added courses in information science to the Course of Study in 1999.  Follow-up service for job hunting is necessary to provide children with disabilities with the opportunity to find a job.  For example, the municipal government of Kunitachi City provides after-care classes for disabled high school graduates who have not obtained a job.  They learn vocational skills, participate in exchange programs, and join a network of youths with disabilities (Nihon Shakai 1988:407). 

According to a 2001 survey, 42 percent of people with physical disabilities from ages 15 to 64 are employed.  They work as full-time employees (17%), self-employed workers (8%), family workers (2%), board members of a company or an organization (4%), temporary workers (3%), home workers (1%), workers at a vocational aid center (1%), and workers at a workshop (1%).  Among mentally retarded people from 15 to 64 years old, half of them (49%) work as full-time employees (12%), temporary workers (5%), self-employed workers (0.4%), family workers (2%), workers at a workshop (15%), and workers at a vocational aid center (12%)(Kōseirōdōsho 2003a).  According to a 2003 survey, 41 percent of people with mental disabilities between 20 and 64 years old work as full-time workers (10%), temporary workers (9%), self-employed workers (4%), family workers (4%), board members of a company or an organization (3%), home workers (0.2%), workers at a vocational aid center (6%), and workers at a company with vocational training (3%) (Kōseirōdōsho 2003b).

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The MOE plans to provide nation-wide special education for children with learning disabilities, based on the United States model of special education for LD children.  A MOE-sponsored research group of specialists and principals submitted a preliminary report about screening and teaching LD children on July 2, 1999 (Monbushō 1999d).  The report defines LD children as children who have extreme difficulties in hearing, speaking, reading, writing, counting, and reasoning, even though they have average or above average intelligence. 

In the United States, the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (Public Law 94-142) recognized “learning disabilities” as a disability, and stated that LD children have the right to receive special education and special services as a free and appropriate part of public education, after amending the original “Education for All Handicapped Children Act.”  “Learning Disorders are diagnosed when the individual’s achievement on individually administered, standardized tests in reading, mathematics, or written expression is substantially below that expected for age, schooling, and level of intelligence” (APA 1994:46).

Learning disabilities are believed to result from a problem in the central nervous system.  Learning disabilities are not caused by visual, hearing, mental, or emotional problems, or by environmental factors.  Nevertheless, some learning disabilities resemble mental disabilities, autism, and communication disabilities.  For example, emotional disturbances such as attention deficit disorder and autism often coexist with learning disabilities.

In the United States, 15 to 20 percent of children with learning disabilities have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), while 45 to 50 percent of the children with ADD have trouble reading.  According to the American Psychiatric Association (1994), “Estimates of the prevalence of Learning Disorders range from 2 to 10 percent depending on the nature of ascertainment and the definition applied.  Approximately 5 percent of students in public schools in the United States are identified as having a Learning Disorder” (APA 1994:47).  Among children 3 to 21 years old in federally-supported programs for the disabled in 2000-01 (6,293,000), 45.2 percent were children with learning disabilities, consisting of 6 percent of public school students (NCES 2003a).

The MOE-sponsored Report proposes screening for a LD child, modeled on the screening methods for LD children in the United States (Monbushō 1999d).   The Report proposes that an in-school committee of the principal, vice-principal, and a homeroom teacher, possibly including outside professionals, be formed when the homeroom teacher recognizes learning difficulties in a student or when parents inform the school that their child has learning difficulties.  The in-school committee decides whether or not to see a professional evaluation in collaboration with the parents.  The child has learning disabilities if

1)    The child has the average or above average IQ and average or above average educational achievement in one and more academic subjects;

2)    The child does not need the type of care required by children with disabilities.  Also, the learning difficulties cannot be caused by environmental factors.  However, children with physical and mental disabilities and children from disadvantaged environments may also have learning disabilities.

3)    The second or third grader is at least a year behind, and the fourth grader or older is at least two years behind in Japanese language arts or mathematics.  He or she may also be behind in hearing, speaking, reading, writing, counting, or reasoning abilities, based on his or her school records, classroom attitudes, homework, notes, and attitudes at home.

The in-school committee weighs these criteria and ensures that the learning disabilities persist for at least one trimester.  The committee needs parental permission before requesting a professional evaluation.  The committee can ask permission from the parents after any initial refusal, if the committee finds that the child still needs special education.  When behavioral and interpersonal problems also occur, the in-school committee studies the behavioral history, home environment, and attitudes of the child.  The in-school committee trusts the professional team to decide whether or not the child needs special education.  The professional team consists of specialists, a special-education teacher, a homeroom teacher, psychologists, and physicians.  The professional team decides whether the student has learning disabilities, and decides on the kind of pedagogy is most appropriate for the child (Monbushō 1999d).

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According to the criteria that the Report suggests, children with learning disabilities are indistinguishable from children with low educational achievement, the so-called “ochikobore” and “slow learners” without any discernible medical issues that could indicate central nervous system problems.  There have been always students who lag behind academically when they take more demanding classes.  In elementary school, “slow learners” are usually behind in arithmetic, and in middle school in mathematics and English.  Most slow-learners come from dysfunctional environmental factors or from homes that do not place a priority upon learning.  A regression analysis of educational attainment confirmed that parents’ education, occupation, and household income have a strong influence upon their children’s educational performance (e.g., Aramaki 2000).  Many children from poorer families with low socioeconomic status and relatively uneducated parents miss opportunities to learn effective study habits and to value education. 

Elementary and middle schools did not have ability-grouped classes until 2002, when the MOE implemented a program of special education classes in English, mathematics, and science for advanced elementary and middle school students.  All children, including high achievers and “slow learners,” usually learn the same lessons in the same classrooms.  Discrepancies in educational achievement begin to appear as early as the first or second grade.  Some elementary schools have a homeroom teacher who helps students catch up with assignments after school.4  However, most “slow learners” in elementary and middle schools do not receive much special attention. 

Low-achievers in middle schools are more likely to have behavioral problems.  Teachers in the student guidance programs monitor them closely in order to modify their conduct.  However, few teachers can help them catch up with their class work.  The students who enter middle school at an academic disadvantage have a hard time catching up, and sitting still in a class where they have no comprehension of the course material.  According to the 1987 survey, almost 60 percent of middle school teachers said that it is too difficult to help the students who are already behind to catch up with their classmates (Kudomi 1994b:329). 

It is believed that the heavy workloads for high school entrance examinations make “slow-learners” fall even farther behind.  According to a 1978 survey, middle school teachers blamed problems upon excessive content in academic subjects, lecture-style classes, and unmotivated or inept students (Kitao and Kajita 1984).  Worried about the students who were overloaded with schoolwork and the increasing number of children who were struggling in their classes, the 1977 Course of Study lightened the academic burden of students.  However, it did not help reduce the students’ stress and workload because they still had to undergo “examination hell.”  Therefore, the number of “slow learners” has remained constant.

Researchers in the United States note the ambiguity between LD children and low-achievers caused by unsupportive homes.  Screening methods in the United States have recently been criticized as flawed because of arbitrary and biased methods.  Schools classify children with LD through IQ tests and reading comprehension.  If the IQ test scores are significantly higher than reading scores, the students are designated as LD (Los Angeles Times December 12, 1999).  Many students are incorrectly labeled as LD because they were not properly taught how to read.  According to the survey, only 15 percent of LD students meet the clinical definition, and most LD students were poor children with low achievement and low scores on in tests that measured cognitive ability (Meyer, Harry and Sapon-Shevin 1997:337).  Minority and disadvantaged children are over-represented in special education because of poverty, educational disadvantage, the lack of early education, and culturally biased IQ tests (Agbenyega and Jiggetts 1999). 

The discrepancies between intelligence and school performance emerge when students are in the third or fourth grade.  LD children receive special treatment from professionals through special-education funding.  However, labeling stigmatizes LD children as “slow children,” and LD children are equipped with less-qualified teachers and lower expectations.  LD children have less self-esteem and little educational aspiration because they are underestimated by their teachers and ridiculed by their peers (Heward and Cavanaugh 1997:305-306). 

The majority of LD children cannot integrate into mainstream classrooms, and face constant obstacles to education and employment.  Fewer than 10 percent of LD students return from special education to mainstream classrooms, and 75 percent of third graders with LD continue to have trouble reading through high school.  Recent studies have shown, however, that if LD students received regular, intensive instruction in reading and basic phonics beginning in kindergarten, their reading problems would be reduced or corrected (Los Angeles Times December 12, 1999).  Remedial programs such as Head Start help to prevent these children from being placed in special education. 

Labeling Japanese children as LD may be more detrimental than beneficial.  Giving elementary- and middle-school children such a label definitely stigmatizes them in the eyes of their teachers and peers because of the absence of ability grouping.  Since the criteria and screening methods for identifying LD children are questioned by leading studies in the United States, and the distinction between LD children and “slow learners” from disadvantaged families is blurry, labeling Japanese children as LD children may be unnecessary.  However, it is necessary to provide remedial education for students who are lagging behind in their classes.


The Report proposed remedial education for LD children (Monbushō 1999d).  LD children need to have supplementary lessons for particular subjects in which they are having difficulty.  The National Institute for Special Education has shown that supplementary materials, incremental teaching methods, team-teaching, and tutoring help LD children master the subjects in which they are behind.  Each LD child will be given personalized educational plan based on his or her needs.  These students can be taught in the regular classroom with special attention from a homeroom teacher, or by a team of teachers.  Under the team-teaching system introduced in 1993, two or more teachers share a class by dividing students into small groups or by tutoring individual students who need extra attention.

When LD children need tutoring, a team teacher helps them in the class or meets privately with them.  LD children can also attend after-school tutorials from a homeroom teacher or from part-time teachers.  These tutorials can be open to all children, not only those with LD.  LD children may go to the resource room to have special education, similar to that offered to children with mild physical and emotional disabilities.  The deployment of specialists to teach LD children and advise teachers is also possible.  If children with physical disabilities also have learning disabilities, they may enroll in special schools.  If children with attention deficit disorder, emotional problems, or communication disabilities also have learning disabilities, they can be enrolled either in a special class for children with emotional disabilities in the regular schools or in a regular class with special aids in the resource room (Monbushō 1999d).

The Report acknowledges that LD children and “slow children” need remedial instruction to catch up with their classes, and proposes opening supplementary lessons for LD children to other low-achievers (Monbushō 1999d).  The proposed special education for LD children should take the form of remedial education for all low-achievers, but without labeling any children as LD.  Not only supplementary lessons, but also additional teaching aids for LD children should be made available to all low-achieving children.  Tutoring should start as early as the first grade, the first indication that a student is not performing at grade level.  Homeroom teachers, subject teachers, classroom aides, part-time teachers and volunteers can provide this tutoring in after-school classes, regular classes and private sessions.  Furthermore, schools should make an appeal for people from the community to come forward and volunteer as classroom aides or part-time teachers.  Finally, teachers and tutors should communicate a sense of confidence in their students’ abilities so that the students will believe in their own ability to learn.  Teachers need to see these students as more than a set of academic abilities or disabilities.  Teachers should likewise encourage their parents to make a greater emotional investment in their children’s education. 

Many low achievers, including LD children, go to low-ranked academic or vocational high schools, evening high schools, correspondence high schools, and vocational-training schools.  Others enter the workforce.  Therefore, it is important for them to realize their potential in high school.  These high schools need to emphasize vocational training, and provide the necessary remedial courses, because most of these students plan to seek employment following graduation. 

An ID handbook for people with disabilities does not yet exist for LD children because learning disabilities have not yet been recognized as disabilities.  Therefore, LD children are not eligible for employment under the quotas for people with disabilities, nor are they qualified for special benefits.  LD children and other “slow learners” generally find dead-end jobs in small firms as unskilled or semi-skilled workers.  Breaking the vicious cycle of low achievement can be accomplished through early remedial education, and practical vocational training.     

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Children with disabilities can receive instruction in special schools, special classes in mainstream schools, or in specially equipped regular classrooms.  Recently, the Japanese government has promoted integrated education for children with disabilities.  Since 1993, children with mild disabilities, such as communication disabilities, learn general subjects in regular classrooms, and occasionally take supplementary lessons in a resource room.  However, the municipal boards of education can legally deny access to children with disabilities, citing inadequate school facilities and staff.  A mandate for integrated education, like the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in the United States, would open up access to education for disabled children who wish to attend regular schools.  The Grant and Levy System, a mandatory quota system for the employment of people with disabilities, has improved the employment of people with disabilities since 1960.  Public and private employers who do not meet these quotas are fined.

The Ministry of Education plans to implement special education for LD children, modeled on special education for LD children in the United States.  The criteria of diagnosing LD children have been challenged by studies in the United States, and there is no clear distinction between LD children and “slow learners” from disadvantaged families.  Early remedial education gives disadvantaged children better learning habits and keeps them performing at grade level.


1.    The Disabilities Information Resource provides information in English on the Internet.  Goldberg reports on the observation of special education cases in Tokyo (Goldberg 1989).

2.    This case study is based on classroom observations, and interviews with teachers in Yuri Special School on February 27, 2001, in addition to examination of school brochures and documents provided by teachers.

3.    This case study is based on my classroom observation of special classes and my interviews with special education teachers in Ume Elementary School on February 21, 2001. 

4.    Some schools provide after-school tutoring for low-achievers.  One elementary school teacher said homeroom teachers in her school tutor struggling students after school and during recess.  When she has time, she tutors two boys from her 16-student second grade class from 3:00 to 4:00 three times a week and during recess (Interview on December 26, 2000).

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