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In the post World War II period, Japanese educational authorities made very conscious decisions about how to establish educational rituals. Some of these were carried over from the previous imperial regime with repurposed meaning. Others were created specifically to help build a new peaceful society. Classroom of the Elite performs the thought experiment: What if Tokyo decided to just undo it all?

Classroom of the Elite turns the very core purpose of public education on its head. Our protagonist, Ayanokoji Kiyotaka, has entered into a new and unique Tokyo prefectural school which seems to be ridiculously lavish at first glance. The students have a wide variety of social backgrounds, and some seem academically weak for such a well-funded school. For a variety of reasons, each is placed in one of four classes (Classes A to D), although we are not sure why each student in Kiyotaka’s class, Class D, has been placed there.

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It is generally believed that those in Class D belong in Class D because they are inherently inferior. On the first day, each of the students in the school receives around $1,000 (100,000 yen) in “points” that can be spent on whatever students may desire. Furthermore, teachers seem to be absolutely blasé about student behavior. Students have been told that they will receive points monthly. What they are not told is for what reason they will receive these points.

When the next month rolls around, Class D receives no points. Much to the students’ shock, the teachers have been carefully keeping track of each infraction, and it has cost the class all of their points. Class A, at the other end of the spectrum, has been extra diligent and has received extra points on top of their usual 100,000. Classes B and C are under, but not so much that as high school students they won’t see the money in their pockets as “free” money. The points also don’t just affect your “pocket money,” but also your standing in comparison with other classes. Should a class surpass another class, they take on the letter of that class. Implication is that the fallen class would be beyond humiliated.

Classroom of the Elite Gives Its Teenage Characters a Heavy Dose of Reality

If this sounds to you like the school is attempting to promote some kind of dystopian “capitalist meritocracy,” I’m right there with you. As a teacher in the Japanese public school system, I find this system (it’s called the “S System”) completely abhorrent. More than one student has said to me (and when I was a student, I had said myself more than once), “hey, if this is such hard work, why am I not getting paid?” The answer is because education is not a commodity.

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Education used to be seen as the property of only the very wealthy, but now is not and never again should be, a mere “product.” Education is a fundamental social right. Education of an entire national populous should not be subject to market forces in my professional and personal opinion. It is INFRASTRUCTURE. There are many other countries (I can think of the US with vouchers, or Australia with the Gonski report) where a giant debate over private vs. public education rages. And much of it is about the “playing field leveling” aspect of public education. I wish Japan were an exception. It’s not.

Let me be clear, I’m a vociferous, passionate, vehement proponent of public education. I’m the product of a mix of both public and private education (private elementary, public and private junior high schools, public high school, public and private universities), but it is my fundamental belief that every person is entitled to an equal, equitable (not the same thing) and comprehensive education. Every student deserves an equal shot at this education, and the system should do everything it can to keep students from being forced out or feeling that they must quit. And that this is a job for government specifically because only government has the resources and reach to do this.

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Why? Because a society is only as good as its widest level of education. That’s something I’ve always believed Japan understood, and it’s something I feel some in America and Australia have forgotten. To quote Aaron Sorkin’s character from The West Wing, Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe):

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to it citizens, just like national defense.

And education is not just a communicator of the various “subjects.” Education, especially modern education, is also about social values. It’s about producing a societal fabric in which people are the threads that bind. In Japan, this has been the watchword of the entire evolution of national education policy. The idea of widespread education in Japan is newer than in the “west.” My apologies to my fellow social studies teachers and Japanese history scholars, as I’m about to mark some trends broadly, which somewhat oversimplifies educational history in Japan.

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In the pre-war and war periods, only the elite were able to get an education. Especially if you sought a “western” style education (which was heavily based on German models). As Japan modernized, urban and middle class Japanese were able to attend. Eventually, even girls (consider Taisho Baseball Girls) were able to attend, but not very many. The majority of Japanese, the rural poor, still had no access to comprehensive elementary education, let alone junior high school, high school, or university. Even by World War II, the widespread nature of what education did exist in rural areas (usually just elementary or junior high) was in service to the military leadership.

While the uniform styles we associate with Japan today (the sailor uniform for girls and the “gakuran” choker blacks for boys) have their origin in British military uniforms of the 1900s—and they took on a very intentional purpose during the war years—they were repurposed when the modern, pacificist, and socialist Japan took shape in the occupation and post-occupation periods. As Japan worked with the United States to rebuild the war-ravaged archipelago, it built many thousands of elementary and junior schools all over the nation. The Japanese Constitution guarantees compulsory, free education through the ninth grade.

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Unlike other countries, the Japanese educational system was largely an immediate, massive scale project to go from “classrooms of the elite” to “classrooms of every child.” However, many of the school traditions of the imperial period were associated with radical ultranationalism. Thus, those traditions that were kept were assigned social values, and specifically the social values of equality and intentional suppression of class differences. Uniforms and military style movement (loosely enforced) encourage association with the school, and thus, with your “micro-society.” The uniforms themselves (which are admittedly very expensive but do last for three years. Mine cost nearly $350) down to the socks, shoes, and even possibly hair accessories or belts serve to avoid conspicuous displays of wealth or conspicuous displays of lack of it.

Furthermore, classes often focus, in addition to the standards of literacy, numeracy, English, art, and music, on socially important topics. Home economics teaches real world skills like how to repair one’s own uniform (so a student with less access at home could do it themselves and claim it as homework rather than poverty) or how to prepare standard Japanese meals inexpensively. Social studies and moral education courses, while sometimes overtly Japan-centric, cover topics on the importance of taxes and the necessity of public accommodations of people with special needs (both classes I actually took).

With the help of the United States occupational forces, school lunches (specifically with small cartons of milk, which General Douglas MacArthur thought was a fundamental part of any school lunch) also became the norm. These school lunches, called kyuushoku, made sure that no matter the level of poverty in a child’s home, every student would have one solid meal in a day specifically designed for nutrition and energy. While kyuushoku sometimes has a cost associated with it depending on the school, it’s usually extremely cheap for the quality of the meal. Some schools also have an established breakfast program.

High schools operate under similar principles, especially if prefectural and therefore public. There usually is a tuition cost that is minimal because high school is not constitutionally guaranteed. However, public schools are funded primarily not by tuition payments, of course, and there is further advertised government assistance for impoverished families of high school students. Most of the traditions to be found in junior high schools carry over into senior high schools, although they are sometimes less restrictive. However, not always. Some high schools are very, very strict. Also, unlike elementary and junior high school which you cannot fail in Japan, you actually can fail or not graduate from a senior high school. This is still incredibly rare.

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In Classroom of the Elite differences are encouraged or even facilitated. And not, unfortunately, in the “individualism matters!” sort of way. Since this is a public, prefectural high school in Tokyo (it looks to be built in either Minato or Koto wards, perhaps), the “S System” appears to be a rejection of everything Japanese education policy previously was. When Kiyotaka confronts his homeroom teacher, it sounds as though they’ve both given up on the very idea that people should be treated as, and offered the chance to be, “equal.” As this is the fundamental underpinning of so much of Japanese education ritual, this would represent a massive shift.

Students in Classroom of the Elite actively conspire against each other, not because of mere bullying—which is, unfortunately, still quite common in Japan. While the students are not clear on what infractions are cause for loss of points, there is incentive in making sure that other classes engage in infractions. Even if the infractions are actually set-ups. This is simply not how Japanese schools operate, and I can’t imagine most of my Japanese peers thinking such is a good idea. While it is true that identifying with your class is important, it is more important to identify with your entire school.

Healthy competition in Japanese schools can be found in the way classes compete during the choir contest or sports day. Sometimes there is a strong sense of competition during cultural festivals as each class tries to outdo another’s play, booth, cafe, or haunted house. However, this competition doesn’t bleed out into the wider feeling around belonging to your particular school.

While the cutthroat (perhaps close to literally) competition in Classroom of the Elite is perhaps realistic when compared to the darker parts of the adult world, it also reinforces getting ahead by any means necessary. This is absolutely antithetical to why Japanese educational norms were first established, where often students are specifically placed in classes with varying degrees of ability so smarter students can learn the value of helping those who may naturally have less ability.

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I don’t know if we’ll see the purpose or outcome of this experiment, but everything I know, everything I’ve learned, and everything I believe means this idea is already a failure. Japan’s strength has always been in its collectivism. That strength has been used for evil, of course, but it has also been used for great good. That fundamental belief that your neighbor and yourself are part of the same social fabric, that your success or failure is tied to their success or failure, has produced a country that went from low levels of literacy to one of the highest literacy rates in the world in the blink of an eye. And that widespread education led to trains everywhere and nearly always on time, clean streets, technical innovation, and really cool giant robot anime.

It also created a country where the majority of the population declares and believes itself to be middle class. A nation where everyone has health insurance and pension access. And a society where from Sapporo to Kumamoto, you’ll figure out how to get where you need to go. That Japan exists because of the current educational system. If widely spread, the “S System” of Classroom of the Elite would destroy it.

Classroom of the Elite can be watched on Crunchyroll, FUNimation, and Hulu.

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