An Interview with Ryoko Tsuneyoshi 

Chie Ogawa, Kyoto Sangyo University

For our second interview, we have an opportunity to share a wonderful discussion with Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, the vice president and specially appointed professor at Bunkyo Gakuin University, and formerly a professor of Comparative Education at the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Education (2000-2021). She is presently the executive board member of the Intercultural Education Society of Japan, the Japan Educational Research Association, and the Japan Association for the Study of Extraclass Activities (Nihon Tokubetsu Katsudo Gakkai). She has earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University in sociology. Her books include Tokkatsu: The Japanese Model of Holistic Education (2019), Minorities and Education in Multicultural Japan (2010), and The Japanese Model of Schooling: Comparisons with the United States (2013). She was interviewed by Chie Ogawa, an associate professor at Faculty of Cultural Studies in Kyoto Sangyo University. She has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Temple University. She currently teaches English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and English pedagogy. Now, to the second interview!


Chie Ogawa: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about your educational background, and why you wanted to be a scholar in sociology and comparative education?

Ryoko Tsuneyoshi: My parents went to the United States when I was four. Both of my parents had studied in the US, and they went back again with me. I started kindergarten in the US, returned to Japan for a time, and then went to the US again. I came back (to Japan) again when I was 11. Then I went back to the US for graduate school at Princeton.

I think I’ve always had, because of my background maybe, an interest in how societies work, how differences emerge in societies, and how that affects people, especially with respect to the education of children. I think that was part of why I was interested in sociology. I debated between anthropology and sociology but eventually chose sociology. I went to the sociology department at Princeton. I think that that’s where I got interested in minority schools because I started visiting schools in the United States. I started going to schools, observing them, and trying to form questions. I also started going to the minority schools. There, you see what schools can do and where the challenges are. I think you see it much more clearly than in the middle-class schools because the children bring in a lot of difficulties from the community because the communities and the families are struggling. That’s where I started thinking that if education can succeed there, despite the difficulties or environment, then you can see educational success. I did a comparison of Japan and the United States, but I did it in various schools to see differences in racial and social classes between Japan and the United States (Tsuneyoshi, 1992). But it’s just not clear-cut—Japan and the US. For example, you can see the variations in Japan as well as in American schools. You can also see the multitude of factors that led to those variations. Since then, I’ve always been interested in comparative field work—going to schools, going in and talking to people, looking at not just the classes but out of them, and looking at the community. So, sociology is usually macro, but for sociologists including myself and my students, we tend to go into a specific field.

In your plenary speech, you mentioned the idea that English is often associated with “global” and “global qualities,” but the image of “foreigners” usually refers to foreigners abroad, not the foreigners within, who are also non-English speakers. Also, you will give another presentation on strengths and weakness of Japanese education models. Could you tell us a bit more about your current research projects?

Right now, there are several things. One thing that is related to today’s talk (Plenary speech title: “The problematic role of ‘English’ in the internationalization of Japanese education”). That is trying to help teachers develop students’ link to the multicultural in the society, the perspective of diversity in the society with “global.” I think in the Japanese case, the emphasis on global is outside—without linking that to what is happening right around you. I think that’s a problem. I think that’s one of the reasons that issues in the world become so distant. Even with something that is happening around you but if you don’t see it, it becomes nonexistent. If the problem is outside, it looks like a very distant problem. If you can link it to what is near you, then it hits home—jibungoto (think as it is for yourself).

Also, I’m writing a textbook with the global perspective and the multicultural perspective for teachers. It’s not that easy. I find that lots of people are interested in global—and what they consider as global is helping out other countries such as making international donations or international development in other countries. But that does not come down to the realization that there is Asia inside, or communities of minority people in Japan. Hence, global becomes so distant. I think this is one of the reasons for the naivety that I was talking about in my speech. But it’s not even the fault of the students. It’s the social structure. Teachers do not have that perspective because they were brought up in Japan. If the teachers don’t have that perspective, it can’t be passed down to their students.

In other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) member countries, it’s very common to find the term global such as globalization and global competence as part of 21st century. But in Japan, “global” is very rare and almost non-existent. It is not an immigrant country, like your grandfather came from somewhere for a lot of people. I think it’s very hard for the students and even the teachers to feel that such issues, global diversity issues, are things that are very relevant to them.

How can teachers make diversity visible in schools?

I’m doing a project of trying to overcome the challenges and the problems of Japanese education through its strengths. For example, in the han (small groups), it’s heterogeneous by including various types of children. Teachers don’t think of heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity, but they’re certainly thinking about heterogeneity in terms of personality, achievement, and gender. It’s just one more step to include ethnicity, race, and religion, etc. Right now, the Japanese education model is trying to develop children holistically; that’s one of the strengths of Japanese education. If they can bring in the factors of diversity, not just the ones they have, but opening themselves to racial, ethnic, or religious diversity, that will be ideal. I think this is happening in some districts. Because the educational structure is holistic, it will allow teachers to address the whole child. If you’re talking about the whole child in class and its heterogeneous small groups, which they already think of anyway, then just add to that.

You also write about holistic education in Japan such as Special Activities: Tokubetsu Katsudo (in short, Tokkatsu), in which students engage in non-subject activities such as kyushoku (school lunch), cleaning of their own classrooms, club activities, and student councils (e.g., Tsuneyoshi et al., 2019). Could you explain a bit more about the strengths of Japanese educational models?

OK, usually in the Western education model, there’s a lot of emphasis on cognitive learning, which come from the subjects. But in the Japanese curriculum, you have not only the subjects but also learning hours outside the subjects. You have hours like tokubetsu katsudo and sogo teki na gakushuno jikan (the period for integrated studies), which are outside of the subjects but they’re in the curriculum. The idea is that you are balancing basically non-cognitive with cognitive and integrating them. I think doing that inside of the curriculum is very rare. That holistic model linking with non-cognitive areas, such as life skills, social and emotional skills, character education, citizenship education, are all put together. Career education is also one of them. Integrating non-cognitive areas with subjects is the real strength of Japanese education.

That could also apply to minorities and what they call foreigners. The problem which I observe is that when you say gaikokujin (foreigners), which they do, it means that it’s like “gaikokujin are different.” So, very often, I observed in the classrooms with nikkei Brazilian children (Brazilian of Japanese descent) in elementary schools is they do not have a recorder—they do not know how to use the recorder which every school in Japan uses for a music instrument. In the holistic way, if they can diversify, they will be able to bring in the things that the minority children experience, and what they are good at.

You have this category of gaikokujin, who is someone outside, a guest, who comes and goes, so they don’t have to do the same thing as everyone else. But the problem is that they stay. In the beginning of their stay, even the minority children’s parents thought they were going to leave the country soon. They were saying to the teacher that they don’t have to teach kanji that much because will be leaving, but they don’t. Japanese teachers are not used to that, like in other countries that are used to the phenomenon of immigration. These children would be considered immigrants but in Japan, it’s still the gaikokujin categories.

How should the teachers emphasize that inclusiveness of those racial ethnic minorities in the classroom. Do you have any suggestions to teachers?

What I’m trying to do is use the strength of the Japanese education system. As I said, because small groups are heterogeneous anyway, a different kind of heterogeneousness needs to be recognized. Realizing that Japan actually has diverse peoples coming in is important. I think if you don’t see it, then you can’t address it. There is inclusiveness for disabilities, aging, or gender. Seeing and recognizing that it’s there is important. I do think English teachers have a role in that because English is the language that is somehow associated to international or global issues in Japan.

Your projects also involve lesson study. What is lesson study and how do Japanese teachers incorporate it in their education model?

Lesson study is a collaborative teacher learning model. Teachers observe a certain lesson, and then they focus on the learning of the children. There are certain techniques—you look at the learning of the child rather than the teaching and criticizing. So, it’s a joint project of developing the children. It starts from questions such as, “What kind of child do we want?” or “What kind of society do we want?” In the lesson study, the teachers come together, they look at each other’s lessons, and they try to make it better for the children to develop in their vision.

One strength of lesson study is that it does not only target cognitive sides, but it also targets non-cognitive areas. It’s part of the holistic education such as gakkyuukai (classroom discussion) and school events. Regarding lesson study in international contexts, the cognitive part was taken. For example, math and science were emphasized so much. That was something that we brought up in September in the World Association of Lesson Studies (WALS) meetings (which was held in Kuala Lumpur from September 20-22, 2022). Japan has a very strong contribution they can make internationally. It brings the cognitive with the non-cognitive. Most traditional societies have both sides in their socialization of children. But in traditional societies, very often that holisticness goes together with a certain “we-ness”— a closed society excluding different people, people that are different from you, maybe linked with nationalism. In the Japanese case, I think it was like that before the war. But because of the democratization project after the war, that was when the non-cognitive was brought into the curriculum. So, the goals of holistic education are very clearly democratic such as listening to other students’ opinions (iken wo kiku), empathy (omoiyari), cooperativeness, diligence, or life skills. In that sense, it can cross national borders. Those are the strengths, but it needs to incorporate diversity for the perspective to be delivered. Because when there is a framework of teacher-learning in place, when teachers can become more aware of the diversity within, the different backgrounds and experiences of their students, those things will almost automatically come to be reflected into their teaching.

Thank you for your insightful talk.



Tsuneyoshi, R. (1992). Ningen Keisei no Nichibei Hikaku: Kakureta Karikyuramu [A comparison of human formation between Japan and the United States: The hidden curriculum]. Chuko Shinsho.

Tsuneyoshi, R. (2013). Japanese model of schooling: Comparisons with the US. Routledge.

Tsuneyoshi, R. (2022, September 21). The lesson study of noncognitive learning: Lesson study in the Japanese model of holistic education tokkatsu [Conference session]. WALS International Conference.

Tsuneyoshi, R., Okano, K. H., & Boocock, S. S. (2010). Minorities and education in multicultural Japan. Routledge.

Tsuneyoshi, R., Sugita, H., Kusanagi, K., & Takahashi, F. (Eds.). (2019). Tokkatsu: The Japanese educational model of holistic education. World Scientific.