2nd Quarterly, 2006 No.140

Evolution of Dowa Education and HRE in Japan: 1990s Onward

Yasumasa HIRASAWA, Professor, Osaka University

Since the 1990s, Dowa education has evolved significantly in a number of ways. The United Nations (UN) initiative to promote human rights education (HRE) worldwide through the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) was a major impetus that stimulated this evolution. In this article, I discuss several features of this evolution.

'No Discrimination' to 'Culture of Human Rights'

First, the main emphasis of Dowa education gradually shifted during the 1990s from 'No Discrimination' to 'Building a Culture of Human Rights.' This did not mean, however, that the traditional anti-discrimination orientation of Dowa education has to be set aside. Rather, it was assumed that the efforts and projects to build a universal culture of human rights would also become a proactive strategy to combat Buraku discrimination and other forms of discrimination.

In addition, Dowa education by tradition focused mainly on those who belong to discriminated-against social groups in Japan such as Burakumin, old-comer Koreans, disabled people and women. While this focus was legitimate given the socio-political character of discrimination, the Japanese society over the years developed a widely-accepted view that human rights are issues only for the discriminated-against. Those who were considered as 'non-minority' did not generally perceive human rights as their own issue. Therefore, the majority tended to regard human rights issues as 'their (minority people's) problem, not ours.' Also, Dowa education had the tendency to classify learners into two groups: the discriminated-against who were supposed to fight discrimination; the 'discriminators' who were supposed to get rid of their prejudice and try to sympathize with the discriminated-against.

Having symbolically described the issue in this manner, however, I have no intention of arguing that Dowa education was essentially misdirected. Rather, truly effective Dowa education practices succeeded in shaping sound self-concepts and high academic achievements among both Buraku and non-Buraku students.

I am simply saying that many Dowa education practices, particularly those carried out in areas where community Buraku liberation movement initiatives were not strong enough, unfortunately maintained a kind of double- standard and failed to promote a comprehensive and effective HRE.

However, as many HRE practitioners in the world have repeatedly pointed out, only when people consider human rights as their own issue that they begin to commit more seriously to the solution of human rights violations in general. The United Nations' call for the building of a culture of human rights was meant to place human rights as an important life concern for everyone, not just for those belonging to marginalized populations.

As a result, Dowa educators developed a more universal framework of HRE in the 1990s. The framework asserts that HRE should create sound self esteem and bring meaningful self-actualization for everyone; allow everyone to learn from and be enriched by engaging themselves in different cultures and different life experiences of other groups and individuals; empower everyone to become agents of social change and to participate as critical citizens in local, national and global affairs.

'Imposition of Knowledge' to 'Learner Oriented Approach'

Second, a learner-oriented human rights learning was encouraged through the introduction of various types of participatory methods and curricular materials into HRE. These methods and materials, mainly from Western countries, were introduced not only to Dowa education but also to environmental education, development education, international education, global education and other human rights-oriented educational initiatives in Japan.

Traditionally, Japanese schools mainly use methods of top-down teaching or 'banking education' (Freire). Dowa education and HRE were no exception. In many Dowa and HRE classes, teachers tended to preach the importance of anti-discrimination attitudes and behavior without really caring how the learners perceived and consumed their messages. In some cases, the students were simply alienated by teachers imposing certain values on them.

In this context, simulation, debate, games and other participatory methods of education were gradually brought into Dowa and HRE schools in the 1990s, and learners were placed more at the center of learning activities.

This is not to say that only Dowa and HRE classes began to infuse the learner-oriented pedagogy. The constructivist theory of learning started to attract more attention among educators in general in the 1990s in Japan.

Goals and Objectives of Dowa Education and HRE

Third, the goals and objectives of Dowa education and HRE began to be discussed more clearly in terms of knowledge, attitudes and skills. Traditionally, Dowa educators often said 'we will educate our students so that they will fight discrimination.' Videos were shown and stories were told mainly to stimulate emotions among students. The videos portrayed typical cases of discrimination (usually related to marriage and employment) where good guys (those who were discriminated-against) and bad guys (those who were prejudiced) were apparent. The students felt anger and sadness, but the storyline was often too simplistic to stimulate critical and comprehensive understanding of the background and mechanism of discrimination. Such approaches were not really effective in nurturing attitudes of rejecting and fighting discrimination.

Today, nurturing critical thinking and rational reasoning based on facts and figures is encouraged on the knowledge front. Nurturing ability to communicate feelings and ideas effectively to others is encouraged on the skills front (communication skills). Nurturing one's disposition to relate to others on an equal footing irrespective of their background (social status, wealth, race, gender, culture, etc.) is encouraged on the attitude front. In this way, it has become easier to translate the goals and objectives of HRE in school events, activities and subjects in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Systematic Practice of HRE

Fourth, systematic approaches and strategies to practice Dowa education and HRE have grown compared to the past where the importance of individual teacher's commitment was more emphasized. Today, school-based planning and practices of Dowa education and HRE are becoming more popular. Many HRE schools develop HRE plans for a year, a semester, a month, and a week. These plans include things to do in school events as well as in subject teaching, assigning responsibilities to respective teachers and their teams. Regular evaluation is conducted to check whether or not plans were actually and meaningfully implemented. In this way, a PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Action) cycle is clearly working in effective Dowa education and HRE programs.

Academic Achievement and Human Rights Skills

Fifth, effective academic achievement and nurturing of key competencies are more consciously placed as goals of HRE schools. Closing the academic achievement gap between minority students and other students has been a major concern for Dowa and HRE educators. Even today, the achievement gap between Buraku students and non-Buraku students certainly exists and the ratio of Buraku students advancing to universities and colleges is significantly lower than that of non-Buraku students. Prevalent unemployment among Buraku and other minority youth is believed to be caused by their lower academic achievement and sense of self-esteem. HRE schools are now trying to achieve both successful academic achievement and key competencies among students as vital life skills.

The concept of key competencies originally comes from OECD. Key competencies are categorized in terms of such abilities as 1) interacting in socially heterogeneous groups, 2) acting autonomously, and 3) using tools interactively.

First, individuals need to learn how to function in groups and social orders whose members are from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, the ability to interact in socially heterogeneous groups allows one to relate well to others, to cooperate, and to manage and resolve conflicts. This ability is particularly relevant in pluralistic and multicultural societies.

Second, the ability to act autonomously empowers individuals to manage their lives in meaningful and responsible ways. Being able to act within the big picture, and to assert one's rights, interests, limits, and needs is crucial for effective participation in different spheres of life (in the workplace, in personal and family life, and in civil and political life).

Third, the ability to use tools interactively is necessary in the global economy and the information society. The present times require us to master socio-cultural tools such as language, information and knowledge as well as computers. Using tools interactively does not only mean technical skills, but also a familiarity with the tool itself and an understanding of how the tool allows one to interact with the world differently to accomplish goals.

These abilities and competencies require the mobilization of knowledge, practical skills as well as attitudes, emotions and motivations. We may call these abilities and competencies as vital human rights skills.

Dowa education and HRE schools need to nurture not only basic academic achievement but also these human rights skills that one needs in order to live in a global, multicultural world as a critical, autonomous citizen.

Networking with Other Movements

Sixth, Dowa educators have realized the strategic importance of networking with other HRE initiatives and with other marginalized populations, both domestically and globally. The Buraku movements are now engaged in a dialogue with educators and NGOs committed to multicultural education, gender equality, global education and development education, which aims to increase awareness by children and adults of the structural inequality between economically developed and developing countries. Dowa educators are now developing strategies based on a conception of HRE in its four dimensions: education as a human right (providing equal educational opportunities and quality education); education about human rights (improving awareness of the significance and implications of human rights); education through human rights (creating democratic learning environments); and education for human rights (developing knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for active citizenship).

Collaborating with Government Initiative

Finally, Dowa education and HRE movement have successfully negotiated with the Japanese government to formulate the first law to promote human rights education and human rights awareness-raising in Japan. The law took effect in 2000 and is named "Law on the Promotion of Human Rights Education and Human Rights Awareness-Raising." The law stipulates as follows:


Article 1: Considering the rising awareness about the importance of respecting human rights, current state of human rights violations including the occurrences of unjust cases of discrimination based on social status, descent, race, creed or sex, as well as the current developments surrounding human rights protection in and outside Japan, this law defines the responsibilities of the national and local governments and individual citizens, and stipulates necessary measures, thereby contributing to human rights protection.


Article 2: In this law, human rights education is defined as educational activities aimed at the nurturing of spirit of respecting human rights and human rights awareness-raising is defined as public relations and other awareness-raising activities (excluding human rights education) aimed at popularizing the idea of respecting human rights among citizens and deepening their understanding of it.

(Basic Idea)

Article 3: Human rights education and human rights awareness-raising should be carried out by the national and local governments in such a way as to allow citizens to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the idea of respecting human rights depending on their developmental stages by providing diverse opportunities, adopting effective methods, respecting the voluntary will, and securing the neutrality of the implementing institutions.

(Responsibility of National Government)

Article 4: The national government is responsible for formulating and implementing the measures of human rights education and human rights awareness-raising according to the basic idea of human rights education and human rights awareness-raising (basic idea) as stipulated in Article 3.

(Responsibility of Local Governments)

Article 5: Local governments are responsible for formulating and implementing measures of human rights education and human rights awareness-raising following the basic idea by coordinating efforts with the national government and considering the local circumstances.

(Responsibility of Citizens)

Article 6: Citizens must endeavor to nurture the spirit of respecting human rights and contribute to the realization of the society respecting human rights.

(Formulation of Basic Plan)

Article 7: The national government shall formulate the basic plan on human rights education and human rights awareness-raising in order to promote measures of human rights education and human rights awareness-raising comprehensively and systematically.

(Annual Report)

Article 8: The national government shall present its report to the Diet every year on measures that it has implemented to promote human rights education and human rights awareness-raising.

(Financial Measures)

Article 9: The national government can provide financial measures to local governments, which implement measures on human rights education and human rights awareness-raising, by entrusting related projects and other means.

In this way, Dowa education and HRE movement in Japan now have a strong backing from the government in promoting HRE as far as the legal framework is concerned. However, this does not mean that the Japanese government is enthusiastically promoting HRE and HR awareness. Only when grassroots HR initiatives and HRE movements had powerfully negotiated and demonstrated effective cases of HRE, would the government, by necessity, begin to take a more progressive position.

MOE Report on HRE

In this context, the Second Report from the Ministry of Education Panel on the Promotion of Human Rights Education in Schools is an important milestone. The Report was issued in January 2006. The preparation of the Report was called for by the Basic Plan for the Promotion of HRE and Human Rights Awareness- Raising (2002).

I welcome, first of all, the preparation of the Report and its distribution to schools nationwide because it stipulates the basic strategies to promote HRE in Japanese schools and has, at least, the following ten commendable characteristics.

First, the Report is written clearly and in concrete terms, so educators should find it rather easy to read.

Second, the conceptual structure of the Report is clear. It discusses the importance of nurturing the 'sense of human rights' as well as intellectual understanding of human rights. According to the Report, 'sense of human rights' means 'sensitivity to what is wrong when encountering an incident in daily life that appears to violate or dishonor human rights, and the readiness to show care for human rights through proper attitude and concrete behavior.' In short, it means a 'sense of recognizing the dignity of others as well as one's own dignity.' Also, the Report discusses the major pillars of HRE curriculum in terms of knowledge, skills and values/attitudes.

Third, the Report describes two concrete approaches to nurture the 'sense of human rights': one, in terms of creating human rights-supportive environment of 'hidden curriculum' in schools; the other, in terms of respecting the voluntary initiative and lived experiences of students.

Fourth, it concretely describes how schools can plan and carry out HRE plans, projects and curriculum systematically. It illustrates model curricula for primary and junior-high schools as well as model programs for teacher training in HRE.

Fifth, it provides concrete examples of HRE in school events, moral education, student guidance, integrated studies, and subject teaching. Schools should find these examples very helpful in planning and implementing their own HRE curriculum.

Sixth, it argues that it is important to promote legal literacy as well as knowledge and skills to practice human rights as stipulated in law.

Seventh, it emphasizes the importance of formulating HRE curriculum by taking due consideration of the level of development of students.

Eighth, it includes statements such as 'a school where the ethos of justice prevails' and 'human rights education is the most fundamental of all,' which are extremely encouraging for grassroots Dowa and HRE educators.

Ninth, it refers to examples of 'effective schools' and 'building education-oriented communities.' These examples are based on innovative approaches to HRE in Osaka which have played key roles in demonstrating the evolution of Dowa education into HRE. This reference indicates that the MOE panel evaluated highly the practice of Dowa education in Osaka.

Tenth, the World Program for HRE and the UN Decade for HRE are referred to as constituting a context in preparing the Report.

These are some of the major points that I find quite useful for Dowa and HRE educators to promote HRE in schools further.

However, I also have some negative comments on the MOE Panel Report.

First, the word 'others' in terms of 'respect for others' as indicated in the Report seems to be very narrowly defined. The Report uses "others" only in the classroom or school contexts. Various kinds of victims of discrimination and oppression in the world as well as in Japan seem to be out of the picture. Therefore, HRE as envisaged in this Report may fall short of educating students as global-minded critical citizens.

Second, model HRE curricula are presented for some school subjects such as social studies and integrated studies, but not for others. My view is that every school subject including language, mathematics, science, music, PE (physical exercise), etc. should be so strategically taught to be able to develop human rights knowledge, skills and attitudes because subject teaching occupies much of the school hours. Also, the approach to integrate human rights across subjects supports the idea that time and school resources should be more effectively used to promote HRE.

Third, the need to maintain neutrality in education is too much emphasized in the Report. Education is political in nature, and HRE is particularly so. In promoting HRE in Japanese schools, educators need to collaborate more with non-profit organizations (NPOs)/non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups that are engaged in human rights-related matters. In this sense, the emphasis on neutrality should not hamper such collaboration, which is vital in promoting effective and attractive HRE in schools.

Strategies of Dowa Education and HRE Movements to Utilize the MOE Report

Though the MOE Panel Report on HRE contains these shortcomings, I would like to state again that it is an historical document in the sense that the MOE has, for the first time, designed such a comprehensive and practical document for promoting HRE and distributed its copies to schools nationwide.

School administrators and leadership teams are expected to read the Report thoroughly in order to design effective HRE strategies and programs that can meet the specific needs of their schools. Dowa education and HRE movements should demonstrate models of using the Report as a useful guide for promoting HRE as well as for overcoming its shortcomings. Otherwise, there is a possibility that the Report will be used only as a tool to impose more administrative control over school practices, which eventually could hinder the development of effective HRE.

We have now entered a new stage in the history of Dowa education and HRE in Japanese schools. Because Buraku discrimination still exists and because there are a number of serious problems in schools with Buraku and other marginalized students who have lower academic achievement, lower level of self-esteem, and limited perception of a better future, we recognize the specific needs of Dowa education clearly. However, as I have pointed out earlier, Dowa education should not isolate itself from the general framework of HRE and other HRE initiatives. Rather, Dowa education needs to incorporate universal frameworks and concepts of HRE so that its specific and universal objectives are effectively integrated.

The MOE Report lays out a general framework and structure of HRE. Dowa education should therefore translate and enrich its own strategies and needs following the framework and structure of the Report. At the same time, Dowa education needs to promote its critical and social transformation-oriented perspective more sharply in the network of HRE educators to overcome the shortcomings of the Report.

World Program for HRE

In the wake of the UN Decade for HRE, the UN adopted the World Program for HRE starting in 2005. The program is intended to further promote a universal culture of human rights in the global context.

The objectives of the World Program are: to promote the development of a culture of human rights; to promote a common understanding of basic principles and methodologies for human rights education; to ensure a focus on human rights education at the national, regional and international levels; to provide a common collective framework for action by all relevant actors; to enhance partnership and cooperation at all levels; and to take stock of and support existing human rights education programs, as well as to develop new ones.

The first phase of the World Program, running from 2005 to 2007, focuses on the primary and secondary school systems. The plan aims to achieve specific objectives such as: inclusion and practice of human rights in the primary and secondary school systems; provide guidelines on key components of human rights education in the school system; and facilitate the provision of support to Member States by international, regional, national and local organizations. The plan provides: a definition of human rights education in the school system based on internationally agreed principles; a user-friendly guide to developing or improving human rights education in the school system; and a flexible guide which can be adapted to different contexts and situations.

In this way, the World Program can be a powerful tool to further promote HRE in the world, particularly in primary and secondary schools.

Despite the fact that the Japanese representative to the UN made a speech enthusiastically supporting the World Program, the Japanese government and the Ministry of Education have not done much so far to implement the program effectively. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has translated the original English text of the Program into Japanese, but no concrete guidance has been given by the Ministry of Education to local governments, boards of education and schools as to how the Program can be implemented in Japanese schools. It appears that the Second MOE Panel Report on HRE supplements the implementation of the World Program.

The Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute in Osaka and the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Documentation Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA) took the initiative of translating the World Program into Japanese language much earlier than the government and began to call for its implementation by the central and local governments as well as by educational institutions including primary and secondary schools.

The World Program has much to offer regarding concepts and effective practices of HRE, and it is strongly suggested that the Ministry of Education and local boards of education (both prefectural and municipal) come up with their strategies and plans to implement it in addition to the Second MOE Panel Report on HRE. The World Program is valuable because it highlights the importance of promoting awareness and practice of the global international human rights standards as well as concrete ideas on how HRE can be effectively implemented in schools and communities.


Undoubtedly, we now live in a global, multicultural world. Human rights standards have developed and been strengthened further since the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. On the other hand, however, we continue to observe serious conflicts between nations, cultures and social groups, and the need to promote awareness of the importance of human rights and to empower all groups and individuals, particularly those who are marginalized, is ever growing.

Dowa education in Japan has been a significant initiative in bringing human rights principles into educational reality, and in empowering Buraku and other minority students as well as non-minority students.

There are a number of obstacles to overcome, however. Dowa education has evolved now into a key HRE initiative in Japan and strengthened its network with other HRE initiatives. Dowa education is now seeking a new horizon where a more universal framework of HRE can be shared and a more effective HRE can be practiced in collaboration with other educators and grassroots human rights forces.

The UN initiatives on HRE and the HRE experiences in other parts of the world have definitely guided this powerful evolution. This article is an attempt to portray the recent evolution of Dowa education in the context of growing networking among diverse agents of HRE. It is my sincere hope that HRE in Japan and in other parts of the world will communicate their concerns and strategies more closely, so that both the quality and quantity of HRE will develop further in the future.

(A full text of "Dowa Education" is available at our website)

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