Japan mulls September start to school year amid coronavirus pandemic

"I will look at the situation for reopening schools," Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said at an April 30 Diet committee meeting. "We need to consider a range of options, including shifting the start of the school year to September."

Schools across Japan remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some say it is an opportunity to make a foundational change to the country's school system.

The matter was taken up at an online meeting of the National Governors' Association on April 29. Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko said the pandemic was a chance to bring Japan's educational system in line with global standards. Osaka Governor Yoshimura Hirofumi added that such a change would be a major turning point for Japanese society in general.

The shift has the support of some high school students. A group from Osaka started an online petition on change.org. It had more than 20,000 signatures as of May 2. Nishino Momoka, organizer of the movement, says settling on a September start would give students peace of mind. She says many are feeling deep anxiety as a result of the current uncertainty.

Pro and cons

Hirota Teruyuki, professor of education sociology at Nihon University, says the move would bring undeniable benefits to students. Not only would it provide a concrete start date to the school year, but a September-oriented academic calendar would bring Japan in line with much of the world and make it easier for students to study abroad.

But he notes that such a seismic change would bring challenges to society at large. One issue would be continuity with kindergartens and preschools, which end in March. These programs would also have to change their schedules to accommodate a September calendar.

Similarly, the move would disrupt entrance exam schedules and corporate recruiting. Japanese high schools and universities currently hold exams in February and March. Hirota says these would have to be moved to the summer to fit a September calendar. And Japanese companies currently conduct their hiring processes in the spring; this would also have to be adjusted.

Government to consider move

Talk of shifting to a September calendar is not new in Japan. Back in 2011, the University of Tokyo held serious discussions on making the shift, in the hopes that it would make the school more competitive for international students. However, after two years of talks, the plan was shelved. The university decided it was unlikely that such a shift would be accepted by society at large, and would only lead to inconveniences for its students.

Matsumoto Zen is the head of a research institute managed by career services firm Recruit Career. He says before such a massive change is considered, the government needs to make sure that students are aware of the scale of change they would face. He says the most important aspect of the move is to create a comfortable educational environment.

The government plans to study the change in a comprehensive manner. However, it will also need to convince the general public of the move before putting any serious plans into place.