A trend comes and goes in Japan. It is not restricted to fashion but includes many areas that should be neither trendy nor passing. A recent phenomenon of the interest in Kyoyo (教養) might be another trend that comes and goes.
What is Kyoyo? It is a difficult word to translate, because depending on the historical context that you are using the word, the meaning changes. Like many more recently constructed words in Japan, the concept behind Kyoyo comes from the west. It has at least three distinct meanings.
The word Kyoyo was initially used in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras to connote the German concept of Bildung (“education” or “formation”). It was used among select university students and was a necessary part of intellectual and moral formulation of bureaucrats.
After World War II, the word Kyoyo still provided a moral and intellectual standard for university students and intellectuals. But the meaning began to shift in the late sixties and early seventies. During this period, it was used more or less interchangeably with “culture.” Kyoyo even extended to the knowledge of popular music and flower arrangement, for example. It thus lost the political connotation.
With the meaning of Kyoyo shifting to that of “culture,” many universities in the late seventies did not see the value of maintaining a separate Kyoyo curriculum. So it was often marginalized in Japanese academic settings.
More recently, however, the return of Kyoyo has been reported by various media. Many magazines have featured Kyoyo along with extensive booklists ranging from politics to art history (within last twelve months, all the major economic magazines have featured the topic of liberal arts education). In this recent context, Kyoyo began to be equated, more or less, with “liberal arts.”
Why then did another shift in the meaning of Kyoyo take place in recent years? The emphasis on liberal arts in Japanese schools was largely due to a paradigm shift in the mode of production in the late nineties and early 2000s. With IT technology and the emphasis on innovative products such as iPod, the traditional Japanese corporate culture started to struggle. The mass-produced and mass-consumed culture no longer worked especially when other developing nations like Korea, China, and India could do it much cheaper.
Also, with the end of the Cold War, the larger ideological framework vanished. Now the people had to think and decide for themselves. The victorious capitalism and liberal democracy gave more questions and uncertainties than before. In addition, as more global business opportunities became available, Japanese business people had to know about the world much more widely and deeply. Liberal arts education offers a good tool in this context. I am sure there are many more reasons why there is a renewed interest in Kyoyo as liberal arts in Japan. But let us ask how Japanese people understand liberal arts to be.
Unfortunately, there is a great confusion as to what liberal arts education in Japanese universities or in business world. Because of the recent trend in liberal arts, many universities and colleges try to sell that they offer liberal arts curriculum, often many schools simply offer what was considered “cultural” classes in the seventies.
As for the features on liberal arts in business magazines, they are no more than booklists on various topics. They do not have a clear and well-defined notion of liberal arts. Nor do they offer a good system or methodology in which various types of knowledge can be organized.
So the recent trend does seem like it is another passing trend or an attempt of the declining publishing industry to make a few bucks by featuring the currently hot topic of liberal arts. So would this “trend” in Kyoyo end up passing into oblivion in time? I certainly hope not. It not only deals with an aspect of economy and business but also the way Japanese people think about knowledge.
Japan, along with many Asian countries, is notorious for rote memorization. It works particularly well for economically developing nations. Developing nations need their citizens to have the basic knowledge of reading, mathematics, and physical science. It also works well for ruling regimes, for their citizens are not taught to question their authorities.
So the demand for a shift in school curriculums and educational systems even due to the economic paradigm-shift would slowly influence how people think about their lives and politics. The people would be eager to think for themselves. They might think beyond immediate economic transactions that only benefit their immediate surroundings.
Since the paradigm of business and economic model is definitely shifting in Japan, the mentality and education of the people must shift as well. Would this change be enacted with the emphasis in liberal arts for the betterment of Japanese social life and politics? I think it can if a clearer definition and conception of liberal arts is presented along with a good method to acquire liberal arts education. Of course, this takes a bit more than reading a few featured articles in business magazines, but it can be done. A trend can be a beginning. If we are lucky, the current trend of Kyoyo might be a catalyst for a bigger social and intellectual change in Japan.