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The Wizards of MEXT

‘MEXT’, or ‘Monkasho’, is the standard abbreviation for the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, Technology, and International Hot Air Ballooning. More importantly, MEXT is the scapegoat for everything that happens in any given education institution in Japan. Teachers at your school will now have to undergo eye-scans to gain entry? Sorry, MEXT says so. Coffee grounds are no longer allowed on the office extras budget? Direct order from the all-powerful, micro-managing hands of MEXT. The mere phrase: ‘MEXT says we must do it’ bears the same ominous tone that the name Keyser Soze did in ‘The Usual Suspects’ or that ‘Dear Leader’ does in You-Know-Where.


‘This all-powerful ‘MEXT’ is actually all smoke and mirrors


But now I’d like to reveal a secret to you. The identity of this all-powerful ‘MEXT’ is actually all smoke and mirrors. This is the story of how I found out the emperor had no clothes and was actually a shy, self-effacing…. Well, read on.


Several years back a circular appeared in my university email. It explained the way instructors were now required to input test data, especially the scheduling and providing records. I found the new standards a bit unwieldy and annoying. For example, this new protocol seemed to assume that every course had one official final summative test, that this was the ‘real’ test, and that these were to be administered in the final class, usually during a separate, prescribed testing period.


The problems were, 1) that my final assessment item carries only 30% of my full course grading weight (I have 4 items that are included in the overall course evaluation) and 2) that I never give a test in a final class because it is educational common sense to give students feedback on the test results, to help them become aware of their strengths and weaknesses and not just ‘get a score’. A follow-up week is necessary for this.


However, I was told that we had to comply with the new regulations because they were ‘ordered by MEXT’ and therefore nothing could be done about it. So, I followed the format as closely as I could without changing my principles of meaningful testing and grading. I bent (and, in practice, often ignored) the rules, but no one complained.


“We’re just following orders — from MEXT”


Then, just over a year back, another directive ‘from MEXT’ was circulated. This one involved the need for increased detail when inputting our syllabi. Now, I normally keep a rather flexible syllabus that takes into account how students are progressing. Further, I don’t know, and don’t want to know exactly, for example, what I will be teaching in my Dec. 5th class when it is still July. I am apt to decide a few weeks in advance that item X would be more appropriate at this time, for these students, than item Y. I don’t want to be locked into a micro-managed syllabus six months before actually carrying it out.


But this new format was full of fill-in spaces in which we were required to provide such information. And once again, when I brought up the incongruity of the new format, the name of almighty MEXT was invoked (in vain, it turns out). The office staff said so. Student affairs said so. Even the professor’s committee representative I mentioned it to said so. ‘It isn’t our choice — we’re just following orders — from MEXT.’ In fact, the submissive scenarios reminded of the obsequious way aspiring cooks are required to respond to Gordon Ramsay with, ‘Yes Chef!’.


But this time, I decided I would set out on the yellow brick road to see what MEXT had to say for himself. This, however, did not call for a trek to the Emerald City (Nagatacho) but a mere call (and a follow-up email) to a Tokyo University professor friend who not only has direct MEXT connections, but has served himself on MEXT policy committees in the past. 


‘I’m almost 100 percent certain that MEXT did not mandate that particular form,’ he told me. ‘Simply put, MEXT creates general guidelines with recommendations and asks that individual institutions be accountable for implementing them. But the specific manner of application of the guideline and the form of the related documents is almost always left up to the particular institution’.


I then sent him a copy of the supposedly MEXT-generated form.


‘We aren’t using that document here at Todai (Tokyo Univ.),’ he told me. ‘And if it was mandated nationally, all national universities would be using it. But we’re not. You should check with your own institution where that particular form came from.’


So that’s what I did.


‘MEXT was a single, unassuming junior office worker’


Being careful to not come across as self-righteous, pushy, or aggressive, I met with a lower-ranking officer on the educational affairs committee (on a separate campus). She told me that this was an order from MEXT. When I explained that other national universities were not, in fact, beholden to the same form, that this seemed to be a local job, she excused herself and invited me to talk with a higher-ranking member.


This (very congenial) person said that she herself had believed the form came from MEXT but, upon further investigation, had noted that the university had been asked to ‘implement more stringent controls in creating and recording course syllabi so that students have better access to accurate and helpful course information’ in order to ‘improve transparency and accountability.’ Further investigation revealed that the need to create a form that would meet the MEXT guidelines was agreed upon in general at an in-house educational committee meeting, with a 27-year old junior office staff member given the task of finalizing and producing the document. 


Now, 27-year old Japanese office workers are often tremendously skilled when creating EXCEL documents, but when the details of the request itself might be a little vague they tend towards the over-comprehensive. They are not educators. They are, generally speaking, junior bureaucrats who don’t know much about how educators actually go about creating and carrying out a syllabus. So, finally, I met the persona behind the MEXT curtain, the figure wearing the MEXT mask. He was a shy young man who had tried to make as complete a form as possible based on the loose guidance principles the committee had provided him with. He was the one who had actually created the form in question, which was subsequently okayed by his next-in-command. That was it.


I explained to him how the form was rather awkward for many educators to use, that it might be unhelpful in places, and may actually lead to greater confusion rather than increased accuracy. He listened closely and appeared to understand. He would try to incorporate a form using my suggestions (while meeting MEXT’s general guidelines) for the next academic year.


That’s it. I had confronted the monster of MEXT, and stared it down. ‘MEXT’ was a single, unassuming junior office worker. MEXT listened to me.


“MEXT is not dictating commandments onto tablets of stone from upon high”


About 30 years back, a non-Japanese speaking Dutch journalist, Karel Von Wolferen, wrote a then-controversial book called ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power‘. Much of the book was based upon horrible stereotypes and simplistic cultural dichotomies and has aged badly, but his main thesis was correct: It is very difficult to ascertain who holds power or is responsible for decision-making in the Japanese system. Responsibility and power are diffused throughout the system in what may seem to be contradictory ways. For example, the junior-senior relationship is sacrosanct and constantly reinforced — everybody knows who is of a higher/lower rank in any given interaction — which might indicate a top-down application of power.


Yet, Japan is also very much collectivist, concerned with gaining consensus, and not prone to imperative-laden directives and must-dos from self-important CEO-types. This is why, in Japan, many seemingly minor steps can take a long time to implement. This, then, hints at a bottom-up, inclusive approach. Hmmm. In other words, Japanese power is diffused, almost invisibly, in several direction at once. In short, no — MEXT is not dictating commandments onto tablets of stone from upon high.


For the average teacher in Japan, however, my story means this: One shouldn’t automatically accept the canned excuse that, ‘MEXT says we have to do it‘. Not only is this most often not the case, it is in many cases a cop-out. This feared and revered ‘Wizard of MEXT’ may well end up being a self-effacing, shy man (or woman) seated behind a cubicle (as opposed to a magic curtain) down the hall from you. A person who you can go and talk to and, if all goes well, will likely be open to your suggestions.


Fear MEXT not.


Shameless spam:


Mike Guest’s new (and recently revised) novel, The Aggrieved Parties is available here.


For a chapter sample of the novel please read The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers.

Mike’s literary blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’ can be seen here.



Mike Guest

2 Responses to The Wizards of MEXT

  1. Loved this one, too, Mike! Happened here at Fukudai last year as well. We were frustrated at having to plan the content of 15 classes each semester before knowing our students, but relieved to know that it was just a “plan”…

  2. Thanks Sean.

    Interestingly, the ‘system’, if investigated, is not nearly as top-down in Japan as many assume it to be. It’s bottom-up-top-down-sideways. front and reverse — sometimes all at once.

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