Photo/IllutrationA tablet device is used in the speaking session of a private-sector English language test. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Talk with bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s bureaucratic nerve center, and you will realize that they think the most important factor for being a good minister is the ability to understand what they want and intend to do very quickly.

They love a minister who quickly grasps the essence of policies they are promoting without needing any long explanation.

In a sense, education minister Koichi Hagiuda seems to be such a quick-witted minister.

He clearly understood and then voiced one essential problem with the ministry’s plan to introduce private-sector English language tests as part of a new standardized university admission exam program starting in fiscal 2020.

Acknowledging that students of well-to-do families can take many trial tests, which can be very costly, he said, “I hope the students will do their best while selecting the two occasions that are most befitting their financial standing.”

He actually used the Japanese phrase “minotake ni awasete” (in line with one’s station in life), which could mean “within one’s means.”

It is hardly surprising that Hagiuda’s blunt and unsympathetic remarks sparked a public outrage, prompting many critics to ask if he is saying geographical and economic disparities among students taking the exam are a fact of life that should be just accepted.

Partly because the new English test system had already caused a degree of confusion, the ministry was forced to put off the plan.

One question that Japanese should ask themselves is whether Hagiuda’s controversial remarks only represent a minority view.

The results of an education survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun and the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute indicated otherwise.

In a survey of parents of public elementary and junior high school students nationwide, whose results were announced last year, the respondents were asked what they thought about the fact that children of high-income families tend to receive a better education. More than 60 percent of the respondents answered they thought that was either “inevitable” or something that “has to be accepted.”

Hagiuda’s words may only have been a grotesque reflection of the widespread social perception that disparities in education are just a reality that needs to be accepted.

Hagiuda also said complaining about the inequality of the new English test system is like saying that students who can afford to attend cram schools enjoy unfair advantages.

He appears to think that people including students who are in a better position have every right to take advantage of it.

The proposal to use private-sector English language tests as part of university entrance exams would have widened the gap further.

The English test snafu should at least lead to constructive debate on what should be done to narrow the existing disparities. Otherwise, its only legacy will be unpleasant memories of confusion the plan caused among students and teachers.

But it may not be realistic to expect political leadership for such debate from this minister or this Cabinet.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 3

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.