Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Japan : Social Education Law promotes lifelong learning in community cultural learning centers (Kominkan)

In 1949 the Social Education Law was enacted under the direction of the American occupation as a part of the restructured post-World War II educational framework. Social education in Japan had a history of being manipulated for military purposes by the Imperial government before and during the war. The Social Education Law thus aimed to establish a comprehensive system that would ensure that learning outside the formal school system would be rooted in local communities. The law defined the scope of social education, and stipulated the roles of governments, Boards of Education, administrative staff, and local institutions (Kominkan, libraries, museums, youth houses, women's centres, etc.).

One of the distinct features of the 1949 Law, and the reason it is much appreciated by many Japanese adult educators as a symbol of democratic education, is located in Chapter 5. This chapter entrusts to the municipal Boards of Education all the decisions regarding the establishment and operation of the Kominkan (community cultural learning centres). It also obliges each Kominkan to set up an Unei Shingi-kai (operational council) consisting of the leaders of various local voluntary groups so that residents can participate in the management of learning taking place in their communities. Consequently, each local Kominkan independently decide the contents of its programs depending on the needs and interests of community residents. Although the first Kominkan had been built around 1946 on the Ministry of Education's initiative, the 1949 Law firmly established and ensured the Kominkan system, which has been promoting community-based learning ever since. By 1990, 17,347 Kominkan were established, and thousands of people took various low-priced lifelong learning courses in Kominkan across Japan (Aso & Hori, 1997).

The learning which takes place at the Kominkan today, however, does not necessarily realize the twofold principle of social education, which ensures the right of every citizen, in particular those who lack a proper school education, to learn, and to promote participatory democracy by enlightening people through learning in their own communities. Although some have argued that the courses provided by Kominkan reflect a self-less community in that they deal principally with cultural and local issues, others have criticized the recent trend toward leisure-oriented commodified self-interest courses in the Kominkan. Whereas the Kominkan played a role fostering democratic local movements in the late 1960s and 1970s, since the 1980s they have been depoliticized under the name of 'liberal education'. Moreover, the introduction of a "lifelong learning" policy in the mid 1980s has accelerated the delocalization of traditional social education practice.

The Social Education Law has gone through several revisions. Among them, the revisions in 1959, 1999, and 2001 are particular controversial in the history of social education in Japan. The 1959 revision was loudly criticized for paving the way for national government intervention by introducing a government subsidy system to support local organizations and projects related to adult education.

The 1999 revision was small-scale compared to the 2001 revision; yet, it had the potential to destroy the "democratic" principle of social education. It was conducted under the Chiho Bunken Ikkatsu-ho (Decentralization Law) as a part of the Japan's on-going large-scale administrative reform since 1995 to shrink the size of the central government. This revision removed the obligation of each Kominkan to set up a Kominkan Operation Coucil (Article 16), while the obligation of municipal Boards of Education to hear opinions about the selection of Kominkan directors from members of Kominkan Operation Council was also erased. These changes - accomplished by deleting just several lines from the original 1949 Law -- seem to be minor at first glance. Through these changes, however, municipalities -- in particular, those who are financially strained -- can now legally abolish the avenues through which local residents are involved in planning and developing the adult education practice in their communities.

The 2001 revision restructured the Social Education Law on the basis of recommendations proposed in the 1996 and 1998 National Lifelong Learning Councils' Reports. Its language was new, aimed at 'ensuring partnerships between the social education system and the school education system' (Article 3) and 'highlighting the development of new family education programs, community volunteering, and experiential learning types of activities among youth' (Article 5). The revision also broadened the requirements demanded of publicly certified adult educators so as to make adult education careers open to current volunteers in the field (Article 9).

The Ministry of Education rationalized this new national governmental intervention into social education practice by pointing out that educational activity in homes and local communities had declined to such an extent that social education had to be brought into play to restore historic educational levels. At the same time, after the nation-wide 5-day school week system was implemented in April 2002, it was expected that school children would spend Saturdays engaged in either community education or volunteering or other hands-on learning provided by social education facilities. The 2001 revision reflected the fact that the concept of community-based social education had finally regained the attention of the national government after the damaging privatization and delocalization of adult learning under the "lifelong learning" policies of the 1990s. On the other hand, however, this revision also has subordinated the role of social education as part of its attempt to mend the fraying public school education.

In 2003, in addition to the aforementioned three major revision of the Social Education Law, the Ministry of Education issued a policy document regarding the administration of social education facilities including the Kominkan, museums, and public libraries. Given the general trend to devalue public social services, the new policy allows municipalities to turn over the management of public facilities to not only non-profit but also for-profit organizations. This inherently contains the risk of accelerating the privatization and the commodification of adult learning in the Kominkan. 


Aso, M. & T. Hori. (1997). Shogai gakushu shakai no kanosei to kadai [The possibility and the problems of a lifelong learning society]. In Aso, M. & Hori, T. (1997). Lifelong development and lifelong learning. Tokyo: Nippon Hoso Publishing Association. 177-196.

Nagasawa, S. (2001). Shakai kyoiku gainen no henshitsu to aratana kokka tosei:Shakai Kyoikuho ichibu kaiseian nado no hoteki shomondai [The transformation in the concept of social education and a new form of the state control: the legal problems of the partial revision of the Social Education Law]. Monthly Social Education, 45(5),64-67.

Prepared by Miya Narushima (Asian Institute, Munk Centre/University of Toronto), 2004


1) The concept and principle of social education

Liberal and vocational education of adults, traditionally known in the West as adult education, is called "shakai kyoiku [social education]" in Japan, a term which was first introduced in Japanese newspapers and journals around 1887. The foundation of the current social education system, however, was established when the Social Education Law was enacted in 1949 under the direction of the American occupation. Although the practice of Social Education in Japan doesn't emphasize basic education and vocational training, it embraces a wide range of cultural, leisure, sports and community learning activities for youth and adults in non-formal settings.

The main principles behind Social Education policy are twofold; (1) to ensure the right of every citizen to learn, in particular those who lack a proper school education, and (2) to promote participatory democracy by enlightening people through learning in their own communities. This policy is traditionally embodied through free or low-cost learning activities at the local Kominkan (community cultural and learning centres) located across Japan.


2) The impact of lifelong learning policy 

The concept of "shogai kyoiku [lifelong education]" was introduced to Japan around the end of the 1960s. The 1972 UNESCO's Faure Report justified the concept as relevant to Japanese society, where there had been loud criticism of an overemphasis on school education. Ogawa (1991) divided the process of the development of lifelong learning in Japan into three periods: (1) the introductory period (from the late 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s), (2) the development period (from the 1970s to the mid 1980s), and (3) the turning period (from the mid 1980s up to now). He argued that the aim of "lifelong education" during the first two periods was to enrich learning throughout life, and that the development of locally governed Kominkan programs and the idea of the "recurrent education" were emphasized. During the third period, however, the concept of "shogai gakushu [lifelong learning]" has been twisted and incorporated into national policy as a means of coping with the social and economic problems confronting society. It is in this context that Wilson (2001) suggested that 'lifelong learning' might be seen as a 'lifeline' in today's Japan. The name change from "lifelong education" to "lifelong learning" indicated a new emphasis on individuals as self-directed agents of their own learning.

It was also suggested that the use of the word "learning" would break the Ministry of Education's monopoly in education and would encourage other Ministries to collaborate in an all embracing system (Thomas, Uesugi, & Shimada, 1997). In 1990, the Japanese government passed the "Law Concerning the Development of Mechanisms and Measures for Promoting Lifelong Learning" (the Lifelong Learning Promotion Law) in 1990.

The 1990 law promotes the bureaucratization and privatization of public adult learning by strengthening the role of national and prefectural governments as well as by introducing market values. For example, through this law, the Ministry of Education has allowed the private sector to provide courses in the Kominkan at commercial rates, which are out of the reach of the economically disadvantaged. Moreover, this type of commodified adult learning is marketed across the country with little if any reference to local communities. As a result, the connection between adult learning and the community, which social education had developed to a certain extent through the "Kominkan movement" until the mid 1980s, has largely been severed.


Ogawa, T. (1991). Gendai Shogai Kyoiku Dokuhon [The modern lifelong learning reader]. Tokyo: Eidell Institute.

Thomas, J.E., Uesugi, T. & Shimada, S. (1997). New lifelong learning law in Japan: promise or threat? International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol. 16, No. 2, 132-140.

Wilson, J. D. (2001). Lifelong learning in Japan - a lifeline for a 'maturing' society? International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol. 20, No. 4, 297-343.


Citation: Author (2004). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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