How networking can help build global citizenship in Japan

Hideki Maruyama
National Institute for Educational Policy Research





Abstract– The article explains and outlines some of the challenges facing schools in Japan when teaching about sustainable development. These challenges are many and diverse. Concrete examples are given, and some proposals for action are presented.    

How do we teach people to become global citizens? How do we instil a sense of shared responsibility for the environment? How do we connect our classrooms to the rest of the world?

The Japanese teacher typically focus on improving his/her lessons. Being a teacher is something to be proud of, but there is always room for improvement. The question is: How? It seems like teachers in Japan need to open themselves, to become learners and citizens before they can teach in this age of communication. To see and understand the diversity in the class, the teacher may have to take one step back, and observe how learning occurs.

Many schools stand alone in Japan

In 1953, UNESCO founded the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPnet). During the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) from 2005 to 2014, Japan quickly became the country with the most ASPnets schools in the world (Figure 1). At the same time, the Japanese government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoted activities on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in schools.

While the number of ASPnet schools increased, and global issues and environmental education were integrated in the curricula, a major hurdle was the issue of networking. One third of Japanese ASPnet schools cooperated with other ASPnet schools in and outside of Japan in 2011. This had increased only slightly by 2014. As you can see in Table 1, 48


ASPnets applying for subsidy from the Japanese government cooperated with their local community and with external experts but not with schools at either the domestic or international levels. Table 2 shows that half of them had programmes with others in Japan, but only one in four had contacts to foreign schools. When asked about the future, the number becomes even lower; only one in five plan to have contact with foreign schools in the future. In other words, the Japanese ASPnet schools have limited collaboration with other schools. 

There are three main reasons why schools are not networking. More than half of the registered ASPnets in Japan are elementary schools and they prefer connecting with their local community rather than other schools. Language issues,  or the lack of English skills to be precise, is another major reason why Japanese schools are not communicating with schools abroad. The final structural point is about the evaluation system of lessons. Students usually receive subject lessons in their classroom and rarely collaborate with other classes and schools. Teachers feel they have to control lesson time to cover the contents of study, and never-ending interaction with outsiders is a pain for them because there is no official evaluation form for extra activities. In addition to the above three, ASPUnivNet, the national network of teachers colleges for ASPnet, assisted the offi cial registration process between the National Commission and applying schools but did not have a role in order to connect schools to others within Japan or across the world. 

Teachers and students expressing their comments in the evaluation workshop of the Student Forum, March 2015, © Hideki Maruyama

If the central government played an active role and supported schools with plenty of resources, we could set four strategic goals. They are: 1) develop the elementary school further, 2) teach English, 3) provide an official evaluation scheme, and 4) make ASPUnivNet function for global networks. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen anymore because of the recession and decreasing tax income due to population decline in Japan. Our response then, should be creative. The strength is in the network, and in our personal engagement. We should seek every opportunity to find meaning in learning because dynamic connections appear among us, like computers connected to the Internet.

Reflective interaction among students and teachers, evaluation workshop, March 2015, 
© Hideki Maruyama

The Student Forum at the World Conference on the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

Japan officially hosted a lot of participants at the World Conference on the UNDESD in November 2014. The related civil events included the Student Forum with 800 participants between 5 and 7 November, the Teacher Forum with 40 teachers, and the ESD Youth Conference with another 50 participants from 48 countries. Simultaneously, but at an-Reflective interaction among students and teachers, evaluation workshop, March 2015 other venue, the Global RCE Conference had 272 participants from 68 RCEs (Regional Centres of Expertise) from 47 countries. The official main conference had 1091 officials from 153 countries.1

Let us have a closer look at one of the ASPnet events, the three-day Student Forum in which 200 students from 32 countries participated. 600 Japanese students also participated in the forum after preparing for its management for more than three years. Many of these students were from Osaka ASPnet.

From the Baltic to Osaka 

The Osaka ASPnet officially started in 2001 after a visit to the Baltic Sea Project (BSP), which has established environmental and intercultural learning networks since 1989.2 Figure 2 shows education for sustainable development activities and ASPnet events since 2001. Professor Ii (2012), one of the core members and the former General Coordinator of Osaka ASPnet, explains that it started on a small scale, inspired by activities in the Philippines and Thailand, where interactive learning was common. The strength of ASPnet, according to Ii, lies in providing a space for “equal position” in mutual learning. 

The approach, unusual for Japanese schools, worked like this: Osaka ASPnet invited diverse students from various schools, grades, nationalities, and authorities. For example, high school students learned something from primary students, and the high-ranked school students cooperated with socalled troubled students.3 The former students at first never imagined they would learn something from the latter because they believed their academic score mattered more. As it turned out, ASPnet activities required a lot of cooperation to achieve the goals set: they changed their mindset during the events. This consistent attitude of “equal position” for learning or learning-from-everyone has been the base in Osaka ASPnet. 

The preparation of the Student Forum was tough, but it also made the students build stronger relationships among themselves. When staff in the Ministry of Education was rotated, the level of support and understanding towards the management staff also changed. Teachers who belonged to different local governments were confused when the governments were of diff erent minds. 

This required the students to be innovative and resourceful. They spent a lot of time together and developed new original terms such as “Sherlock” based on Sha-shin (photography) and Lok-on (voice recording) for a visual and audio archive. Their sense of belonging and involvement made the bond between the students stronger. The teachers and supporters were always impressed with their proactive attitude. The forum went through happiness and despair, according to the staff I observed and interviewed, but it was successful, and had a lot of commitment and support from the participants. 

Four months later, Osaka ASPnet held a workshop reviewing the forum.5 All participating students, teachers and adults from Osaka reported their experiences from the forum and expressed their plans and commitments for the next step for further ESD practice, mainly focusing on daily activities.6

Meaning of learning: self-reflection and intergenerational communication

What was learnt in the process of the Student Forum for adults as citizens? The adults here include teachers and university students who supported the students to manage the forum. 

The adults emphasised that the aims of UNESCO (e.g. four pillars of learning) and the purposes of ASPnet (e.g. to embody the UNESCO aims) were important for the Forum and explained the “equal position” approach as a method for mutual learning in diverse backgrounds. 

It is somewhat difficult to show, but the adults also learned and changed in the process. Teachers and staff always took the back seat behind the students in preparation and during the forum. This must be hard for some Japanese teachers, who tend to lead and/or teach what to do properly or efficiently for big events. But when they saw their students develop themselves in the process and taking the Osaka ASPnet attitude to heart, they started to reflect on new learning opportunities among adults. The younger adults who study pedagogy at university confessed they found a new viewpoint from the students. 

Osaka ASPnet tried hard to build a clear bridge between ESD and daily life and to develop communication skills among different people. The point is that learning should occur without borders for subject, curriculum, location, age, and design. Although they rarely used the word citizen, they confirmed the need to take active roles to sustain common values for the future. Nagata et al (2012) introduced four approaches; value-transformation, infusion, whole-institute, and issue-exploring, when working toward a sustainable society. These approaches support a holistic perspective on learning. UNESCO (2013) has also mapped the relationships between ESD and components in the personal and professional world. As we can see there are many overlaps (Figure 3). 

Do you remember where I started this story? It was with the fact that half of the Japanese ASPnet schools stand alone. This might sound like a low number, but it is actually remarkable. In the Japanese education system most schools are never required to communicate with other schools and teachers must concentrate on efficient instruction within the limited lesson time. That is the situation at schools.

UNDESD World Conference: Students Forum Joint Declaration, November 2014, © Hideki Maruyama.

Lifestyles are something completely different, although always based on daily life. Therefore, learning has more meanings when it connects directly to the everyday life of the learners. When teachers and staff find a way to learn from younger and older people, they become citizens, no matter what academic levels or social positions they belong to.

Building a sustainable future 

Japanese teachers are well-trained professionals. But the official system lacks the possibility to share their learning opportunities out of school contexts with teachers of other schools, especially those outside of Japan. The Japanese ESD activities enlarged the number of ASPnet schools and the contents of ESD practices but still are poor in networking. There are advantages of more efficient ways of learning and effective teaching in ASPnet activities, according to the teachers’ experience in Osaka. They learned from the youth, participants from other countries, and other teachers. They also reflected on how they found learning opportunities in the process of collaboration with others who have different backgrounds. They have kept “equal position” for sustainable learning conditions, which are sometimes forgotten in Japan but required for global citizenship. 



1 / This included 76 ministers from 69 countries and international organisations for the World Conference with limited-access. More than 2000 general participants could join the open parts of the conference.

2 / For details, check

3 / The Japanese public education system filters students based on their academic score by entrance examination at G10.

4 / This was recognised a good practice by UNESCO Headquarters and MEXT.

5 / It was a one day workshop on 15 March 2015. I was invited as an adviser and observed all the programmes.

6 / The Japanese people must recognise any occasions for diversity because only 2% of the population have different backgrounds such as language and culture, and they tend to miss an important learning opportunity from the difference in educational settings.


Ii, N. (2012): Osaka ASPnet no Ajia tono Renkei kara Mieru Seika to Kadai. In: Nagata, Y. (Ed.): Higashi Ajia niokeru “Jizokukanouna Kaihatsu notameno Kyouiku” no Gakkou Nettowaku Kouchiku ni Muketa Kenkyu Saishu Hokokusho. Pp.57–60.

Japanese National Commission for UNESCO (n.d.): Yunesoko Sukuru.

Japanese National Commission for UNESCO (2014): Heisei 25 Nendo Yunesuko Sukuru (ASPNet) Anketo.

Maruyama, H. (2011): Yunesuko Sukuru niokeru ESD Katsudo no Seika to Kadai ni Kansuru Ichi Kosatsu. In: Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO: Hirogari Tsunagaru ESD Jissen Jirei 48. Pp 148–166.

Maruyama, H. (2013): Education for Sustainable Development and ASPnet in Japan: Toward the 2014 Conference. Education in Japan. NIER.

Maruyama, H. (2014): Sustainable Security for Lifelong Learners and Societies. In: Journal of International Cooperation in Education, 15(4). Pp 139–155.

Nagata, Y. et al. (2012): ESD to Kokusai Rikai Kyouiku. In: Kokusai Rikai Kyouiku 18. PP 43–89.

UNESCO (2009): Review of Contexts and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development. UNESCO.

UNESCO (2013): ESD and TVET-Promoting Skills for Sustainable Development. UNESCO.

UNESCO ASPnet in Japan Official Web site (n.d.): Yunesuko Sukuru Toha. 

About the author

Dr. Hideki Maruyama is a Senior Researcher, Department for International Research & Co-operation, National Institute for Educational Policy Research of the Japanese Government. His research themes are migration and education and education for sustainability. His latest book, co-edited with M. Otha, is Possibility of Non-Formal Education (published by Shinhyoron, 2013).

National Institute for Educational
Policy Research (NIER) 3-2-2 Kasumigaseki,

Adult Education and Development


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