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Abe tying free education to Article 9 amendment raises hackles

Supporters of free higher education in Japan are crying foul over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent talk of tying revision of the Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 to ending tuition fees for colleges and universities, pointing out that the latter "can be accomplished without constitutional changes" and accusing Abe of using a likely popular measure as cover to push through his most cherished amendments.

The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to one 18-year-old student from Nagasaki who entered the University of Tokyo in April and is paying her way with a student loan offered through the school. Under the terms of the loan, she receives 51,000 yen monthly, 13,000 yen of which goes to cover her dorm room rent. She has no other allowances and, having arrived in the capital so recently, is still looking for a part-time job. She says she is just barely getting by on the loan and a cash gift from her relatives she received when she left Nagasaki in early April.

By the time she graduates from the elite institution in four years, she will be more than 2.4 million yen in debt.

"I'd like to go on to graduate school, but I'd pack on another 1.2 million yen in loans over that extra two years," she lamented. When she thinks that she will have to enter the workforce under such a heavy debt load, "it makes me feel like prioritizing stability when it comes to job hunting," she told the Mainichi. Abe has stated he is looking to pass changes to the Constitution -- including the free tuition provision -- by 2020, but "I want him to pay attention to today's students," she said.

According to a 2015 National Diet Library survey, university education is free in 13 of the OECD's 34 member nations, including in Sweden and Germany. Meanwhile, there is ample student financial support in Britain and the United States. Tuition fees in Japan are comparatively high and student financial aid skimpy.

The Japanese government has set up a 20,000-40,000 yen monthly stipend for children from orphanages or from families exempt from residential taxes due to low household income, and the system is set for full implementation next academic year starting April 2018. However, only about 20,000 students per grade across the country will qualify for the payments. The Tokyo-area student group "Right to Study" has actively called for a vast expansion of the program's scope.

"Even high school isn't yet entirely free. Even if we're told university education will become free, I remain uneasy," said Toshinori Suzuki, a 66-year-old former high school teacher who has counseled needy students for the past two decades.

One such student is a young man who graduated from a part-time high school in the Kanto region this past spring. He lived with his father after his parents divorced, but his father later died of illness. With money from part-time jobs and public assistance payments, he managed to just get by while also sending his younger brother to a full-time high school. The family's limited finances could, however, have collapsed at any time, said Suzuki.

During its time in government, the former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led administration made public high school free for all and also gradually introduced an enhanced scholarship program. However, there are serious differences in this latter system depending on the local government administering it, leading some students to drop out of school because they can't pay for school supplies or other related costs. In other words, some students' dreams of advancing to university or a vocational college are being choked off.

"While enshrining free tuition in the Constitution sounds plausible, I want the government to reach out and help kids in trouble right now, and not wait for constitutional amendments," said Suzuki.

Akio Watanabe, a professor at Kobe University's Faculty of Human Development researching methods for switching to a free education system, pointed out that "Japan is party to the International Covenants on Human Rights, which aims for gradual implementation of free education. Based on the principles of this agreement, Japan could move to make education free right away through passing laws and regulations, without changing the Constitution."

When Japan ratified the covenants in 1979, it withheld approval of the treaty's provisions calling for free junior and senior high school tuition. The DPJ administration ratified the provision in 2012, meaning Japan is now bound by it.

Watanabe also pointed out that Japan's Basic Act on Education both forbids discrimination based on economic status and demands the national and local governments "take measures to provide financial assistance to those who, in spite of their abilities, encounter difficulties in receiving education for economic reasons."

"The government's failure to communicate this fact while at the same time moving to make free education a constitutional revision issue seems dangerous," Watanabe said.

He also pointed out that Japanese society as a whole will have to discuss the fact that making education free would impose a significant financial burden on the country, and added, "Rather than making higher education free for everyone all at once, it would be appropriate to prioritize people in tough economic circumstances at first and then go from there. It's also very important for young people themselves to get in on this discussion."

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