The Impact of Covid-19 on Education Inequality in Japan

The CSIS Japan Chair’s Debating Japan newsletter series previously covered the Coronavirus pandemic with perspectives on the prudence of the Japanese government’s response. This post seeks to carry the conversation further by focusing on Covid-19’s impact on education inequality in Japan. Research by the Nippon Foundation shows that education inequality directly impacts national economic performance. As the new government in Japan focuses on the Covid-19 response and reviving the economy, it will be important to note how education policy figures into these priorities moving forward.

In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought attention to the issue of child poverty in Japan. During voluntary school closures in Japan this past spring, disadvantaged student populations struggled to receive food and other social services. Government data shows that in Japan in 2015, one in every seven children under 18 years of age were living in households that earned less than half the national median disposable income, putting them under the child poverty line. Many of these children rely on schools for access to nutritious meals. While schools remained closed in Japan earlier this year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) received 18.9 billion yen (US$170.6 million) in emergency funding, some of which was used to reimburse school lunch fees to families. Several school districts had school lunches delivered to families, with the Osaka local government offering free school lunches to all of its public elementary and junior high school students from April possibly into fiscal year 2021 in order to alleviate the financial burden placed on households by Covid-19. Although schools are currently open in Japan, experts warn of a possible resurgence in Covid-19 cases, which could exacerbate the challenges associated with providing meals for children. Nippon Foundation research shows that if childhood poverty in Japan is unaddressed, the economic costs could be severe. Covid-19 and future pandemics could compound these economic losses.

Another challenge that Covid-19 has highlighted is student access to financial support for higher education. In 2017, about 39 percent of current university students had taken out loans and the number of student loans has tripled over the past 15 years. Many students pursuing higher education have been hit hard financially due to either their own loss of income or family members’ loss of income as a result of pandemic-related job losses. Over 100 universities in Japan have taken measures to financially support students impacted by Covid-19 through scholarships, grants, or loans, and some are providing financial assistance to students that need education-related items for online learning. As for the government, MEXT is currently providing cash hand-outs of 200,000 yen to “those who face difficulties continuing their studies at their university or other educational institutions so that they do not abandon their studies.” The recession in Japan could damage the economic outlook for the less than one fifth of low-income students that make it to university. The affordability of higher education in Japan merits continued attention.

Covid-19 has also demonstrated to the world that online learning may become more important in the future. Yet about one in twenty Japanese children lack the amenities necessary for online learning such as a quiet study space, a computer, or textbooks. Japan is the fourth worst performer on this indicator across the OECD, better only than Greece, Turkey and Mexico. Japan also lags significantly behind other OECD countries in its ability to effectively incorporate information communication technology (ICT) into school curriculum. A survey by the education ministry in April 2020 showed how little Japanese public schools were able to adapt: only 5% of local governing bodies across the country planned online classes while schools were shut due to the pandemic. The digital divide between urban and rural areas and across socio-economic lines further complicated the transition to the online environment. In a promising public-private partnership developed at the behest of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan's top three mobile phone companies announced they will eliminate some additional charges for data plans for users aged 25 and under. In March 2020, Japanese tech giant Rakuten announced a partnership with MEXT under GIGA, or Global and Innovation Gateway for All, to support schools in installing high-speed Internet and provide students in need with laptops or tablets for accessing the web. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s intention to prioritize government digitization is promising in this context and there is room for education to be included in the administration’s agenda.

Japan is not alone in facing these challenges. The G20 Education Ministers’ Statement on Covid-19 squarely acknowledges how disadvantaged groups are disproportionately impacted. Japan can assume a leadership role in coordinating strategies for reducing education inequality and connecting domestic policy and educational diplomacy to build a foundation for a stable and prosperous future.

Jada Fraser is a research assistant with the Japan Chair.