Have you heard of the word, “Kominkan”? Kominkan, community learning centres in Japan, are facilities that conduct a variety of activities related to education, skills and culture directly connected to the community. Many were established just after World War II under the Social Education Act. In this article Takaaki Iwasa will refer to Japanese community learning centres as Kominkan. The author is the Director for Social Education, Lifelong Learning Bureau in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan.
As early as 1946, the Ministry of Education in Japan promoted the establishment of Kominkan across the country. When the Social Education Act was ratified in 1949, the establishment of Kominkan was positioned within the law. As a result of these initiatives, the construction of Kominkan across the nation proceeded at a rapid pace. As public facilities, they came to play an important role as accessible bases for community residents.
The Social Education Act, Article 2, defines social education as:
“Systematic activities of Education (including physical education and recreation), primarily for out-of-school young people and adults, other than such educational activities as are conducted as part of the curriculum in accordance with the School Education Act.”
I will use this definition for “social education” in this article and it is quite similar to the concept of “non-formal education”.
Kominkan activities are based on the concepts of mutual teaching and learning and support for voluntary learning by local residents. They were started in the 1940s and were quite unique in the world at that time. In order to promote the spread of Kominkan, the government of Japan made efforts to institute a variety of supportive policies.
The national government called for the establishment of Kominkan in order to meet residents’ needs to learn new values and improve their lives. Although people were suf fering from extreme poverty following the war, Kominkan quickly spread across the country and became social education facilities that took root in local communities.
The following are some of the reasons behind the successful spread of Kominkan:
During this period, popular activities at Kominkan includ ed raising the position of rural women, enhancing daily life by improving standards of health and hygiene, and increasing income through practical learning classes.
To cite one example, at Kominkan in agricultural areas, baking bread and selling it to residents were recom mended if the areas did not have bakeries. Through the activities, efforts could be made to improve nutrition of the residents and, although small, the proceeds could be used to support the activities of Kominkan. In another example, in communities where there was no dentist or barber, treatment of teeth and haircuts for residents would take place at Kominkan. One can see that func tions of Kominkan at that time were very broad and closely connected to quality of life of the residents.
Various Kominkan activities in the early days
Source: Takaaki Iwasa
The majority of Kominkan offer such things as space for classrooms and meeting spaces, reading rooms, kitchens, traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mats, tea ceremony rooms, day-care facilities, audio-visual rooms and sports facilities.
The Kominkan pursue their activities alongside schools and other social education facilities such as libraries and museums, social education organizations, non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations.
According to the most recent statistics, there were 15,943 Kominkan in Japan in October 2008. If we compare the numbers with primary schools (22,476) and lower secondary schools (10,915) in Japan – we can see that Kominkan are ac cessible facilities for residents.
There are 50,771 staff including Kominkan Directors, Kominkan Chief Coordina tors and other employees in Kominkan in Japan. On average, there are about 3 staff employed at each Kominkan.
Number of courses offered annually at Kominkan: 472,697
Learning activities at Kominkan can be broadly divided into those which Kominkan initiates and those which are initiated by groups or individuals who use Kominkan. The numbers shown here refer to courses that Kominkan plan and hold on their own. A course can take various forms – it may be a one-off class, comprise several sessions or be an education programme held over an entire year.
According to this same survey, the number of annual participants in Kominkan activities is 256,578,356. With a population of 120 million, this means that each person in Japan participates in Kominkan activities twice during the year, on average.
In the Basic Act on Education, the aims of education are stated as:
“Education shall aim for the full development of personality and strive to nurture the citizens, sound in mind and body, who are imbued with the qualities necessary for those who form a peaceful and democratic state and society.”
In the same law, social education is referred to as follows: (1)
The national and local governments shall encourage education carried out within society, in response to the demands of individuals and the community as a whole. (2) The national and local governments shall endeavor to promote social education by establishing libraries, museums, community learning centres (Kominkan) and other social education facilities, opening the usage of school facilities, providing opportunities to learn, relevant information, and other appropriate means.” (Basic Act on Education, Article 1 and 12)
The purpose of Kominkan is stated as to:
“provide the people living in specific areas such as a city, town or village with education adapted to meet the demands of actual life and implement academic and cultural activities. Kominkan shall contribute to the cultivation of residents, improve health, develop character, enliven daily culture, and enhance social welfare.” (Social Education Act, Article 20)
Under the Social Education Act, Kominkan are designated as falling under the government social education administration in municipalities of cities, towns, and villages.
In principle, Kominkan activities are funded by the municipality (city, town, or village). However, in some cases, a nominal participation fee, for example, is requested.
The upkeep and management of Kominkan buildings are the responsibility of the municipality.
In order to promote the desired development of Kominkan, necessary standards for their establishment and management have been set by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan. The current standards (based on the Ministry notice from 2003) cover to the following areas:
In order to fulfill Kominkan’s specialized functions, a system was established under the Social Education Act to provide official certification for experts in social educa tion. This system plays a significant role in supporting and developing Kominkan activities.
Kominkan have staff members including a Director, a Kominkan Chief Coordina tor and others. The law stipulates that the Director is responsible for such things as the planning and implementation of various projects and directing other staff members. The Kominkan Chief Coordinator, under the supervision of the Director, is responsible for implementing Kominkan activities. There are also additional part time staff and their numbers are increasing.
Various types of Kominkan buildings, Source: Takaaki Iwasa
Kominkan staff members must be employed as civil servants in the same municipal ity. Also, while not mandatory, it is desirable for employees to have studied social education at a higher education level.
Various training opportunities are provided for current employees at the national, prefectural and municipal level based on different themes and years of service.
The main duties of Kominkan Staff are as follows:
A certification system for the position of Social Education Coordinator has been set up under the Social Education Act. To obtain this certification, one needs to take prescribed course units at a university or other institution or needs to undergo a training course offered by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan. According to the law, a Social Education Coordinator must be stationed in all municipal agencies. (However, towns or villages with populations of less than 10,000 are exempted from this requirement for the time being.) The duty of the coordinator is to provide expertise and technical advice concerning social education activities within the relevant municipality. The number of Social Education Coordinators was 3,004 in 2008. In reality, the Social Education Coordinator is often stationed at the Kominkan, usually at the central Kominkan in the cities, towns and villages, where he/she plans the Kominkan’s major projects.
We are confronting many social issues, including the aging society, information technology and environmental concerns. In order to address social issues within each community, Kominkan work with related institutions and organizations to seek solutions.
In order to create a safe and comfort able environment for children to go to after school and on weekends, the national government uses Kominkan and school buildings as bases for ac tivities and is implementing a national
“Programme to promote After-School Classes for Children”. Directors and staff of Kominkan are responsible for coordinating with their local boards of education and schools. Families and community volunteers have been active in planning and management of these after-school classes.
Tsuchido Kominkan, Onomichi City, Hiroshima
Source: Takaaki Iwasa
In Japan, there have been many natu ral disasters such as earthquakes, floods and eruptions of volcanoes. Many Kominkan are designated shel ters in the event of a natural disaster. Among these Kominkan, some im plement training involving overnight stays in order to have people actu ally experience living in a shelter. This training is premised on lifelines being cut off, and the participants themselves practice everything from emergency cooking to setting up of simple toilets.
Tsuchido Kominkan, Hatano City, Kanagawa
Source: Takaaki Iwasa
The Kominkan system, which covers the entire country and was set up directly follow ing World War II, as I mentioned, was established in order to maintain national stand ards for social education. I would like to stress that this system was not completed with the construction of the Kominkan buildings. The regulation and establishment, under the law, of the staff positions of Social Education Coordinator and Kominkan Chief Coordinator are in a large part responsible for the significant results that have been produced by Japan’s Kominkan. The Kominkan activities, which have been at the core of social education in Japan, have occurred because of a system of support through the planning of courses and management of the Kominkan by the Kominkan Chief Coordinators and the specialized knowledge of the Social Education Coor dinators within local governments, as well as the needs of residents, which change substantially based on their age or the region in which they live.
One of the special characteristics of social education in Japan is that the govern ment, including the Kominkan, and local residents, cooperate to incorporate the people’s voices into the activities.
To conclude this article, I would like to mention the new role of Kominkan. One of the Kominkan’s merits is that local governments themselves build and manage Kominkan, and this kind of direct operation made them sustainable. Many years have passed since the start of the Kominkan system and some of the advantages of Kominkan may have changed into disadvantages. These days, more and more people think that the role of government, whether national or local, should be smaller. Because of the severe financial circumstances, many local governments decided to cut budgets for Kominkan. Moreover, there are a variety of wider learn ing choices, which did not exist 60 years ago, so people do not have to come to Kominkan to learn something.
For these reasons, the proportion of the Kominkan’s activities among total learning opportunities tends to be smaller. It is time for all those concerned about Kominkan to re-think their new roles. If people think that Kominkan do not provide an attractive learning opportunity, then try to change the learning contents. If people think that Kominkan’s activities do not pursue residents’ quality of life, then they need to know the learning demands of the local people. If some people hesitate to join Kominkan’s activities, then remove barriers against universal access. Kominkan are, of course, not exclusive facilities for specific people. There are many highly motivated people or groups such as NPOs and NGOs outside of Kominkan and they sometimes have little knowledge of Kominkan or think that they have nothing to do with them. It is indispensable for Kominkan to collaborate with the private sector to their full capacity. I expect that Kominkan will play an important role in the future as well, as accessible, core facilities for social education.
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