I should have probably titled this post “A Rant About Education Via Little Witch Academia” because that is what is feels like, haha.
Anyway… I recently finished watching Little Witch Academia, and I loved it. The art, the surprising amount of depth, the different themes and motifs placed throughout the show… But what personally stuck out to me the most was the show’s underlying themes of education.
If you’re not aware, I used to work in education. I worked at a schooled, created educational content, and tutored students in Reading and Writing. (I am currently working as a full-time copywriter and write about tech.) One thing I am extremely passionate about is the different ways in which students learn. I even wrote an entire research proposal about catering to students’ needs in the Japanese school system, which I use as a basis for this post. The quoted areas in this piece are adapted from that research paper.
Before I start my discussion, I want to say that this is all based on research. I have never taught in Japan myself, though I would like to try it one day. However, Jennifer Sherman from Anime News Network, who taught English in Japan for four years, read my research and said it was mostly accurate. Please feel free to comment with your own personal experiences about whether or not you disagree 🙂
Author’s Note: Although the focus of this article is Japanese education, many of these issues exist in different forms in other countries. Since I had just written a research paper on Japanese education, it’s the first thing that came to mind when I watched LWA.
Problems In Japanese (And Luna Nova’s) Education
In Little Witch Academia, the main character Akko attends a magic academy called Luna Nova. Pretty early on in the series, a theme emerges: the school is archaic. Many characters comment that magic itself is outdated and useless. And it is pretty obvious that the way the school is run is very old-fashioned as well. The school is apparently a thousand years old. The teachers are mostly very old, strict, and often talk about tradition. In one flashback from many years earlier, the same principal is shown. It seems as though barely anything has changed in the school for many years, including its educational practices.
This is why it reminded me of Japanese education. Traditional Japanese culture is ingrained into the very fabric of the education system and dictates how things are run a daily basis.
One aspect of Japanese education is moral education, where Japanese morals are taught to students. This school subject teaches students good virtue, patriotism, love of school, respect for society, and established order. The moral curriculum also teaches the concept of group harmony and how individual needs are not important. In other words, conformity is highly valued. Because of historical and cultural influences, being different, even slightly, is considered dangerous in Japanese society. This concept is so deep-rooted in Japanese society that many instructors purposely avoid discussing the individual differences between students’ appearances, personalities, and behaviors (Schmid, 2012).
In the United States and other countries, there is a philosophy that every student learns differently and has diverse needs. This allows educators to modify instruction and try to help students learn to the best of their ability (Nolen, 2003). However, in Japan, minuscule differences aren’t even acknowledged (Schmid, 2012). Many schools go as far as making the students wear identical uniforms, and prohibit any alteration to their uniforms or belongings (Sato, 1990). In terms of academics, this means that many students in Japan may not be receiving the kind of instructional practices that cater to their personal strengths and will allow them to learn more efficiently. In fact, in his study, Sato (1990) witnessed teachers who feared that giving “special treatment” to certain students might disrupt the class’s sense of unity; therefore, teachers tended to avoid this, even when they knew some students needed individual attention.
This phenomenon is mirrored through Akko’s experiences at Luna Nova. She is a new student at the school, and the teachers know that she doesn’t have any experience in magic. Yet, they expect her to do just as well as the other students who have been doing magic for much longer. Yes, Ursula-sensei is her guidance counselor and sometimes helps her (I will talk more about this later). But it really isn’t enough to properly teach her everything she needs to know. She gets no in-class support, no tutoring, no extended time… nothing. Am I saying they should go easy on her? No, she should be expected to do the best she can do. However, the teachers have unrealistic expectations. In Episode 6, Akko is having trouble with transformation magic. Instead of helping her, the teacher gets mad and punishes her. But how is she supposed to know how to do it when no one is giving her the educational guidance she needs? Next, the teachers go a step further and threaten to expel Akko when she does terribly on her exams. Again, what do you expect? They want to expel her because they are not doing their jobs as teachers?
From my knowledge, the Japanese education isn’t this ridiculously strict. However, something similar happens. As mentioned, students aren’t given individual attention, so their needs may not be met. Then they are expected to take difficult exams. Even if students pass the exams, there may be no guarantee that they will retain the information they learned. For example, in English class, apparently many times students just do on-paper translation techniques rather than actually engaging in and communicating in English. In one study, students complained that they really didn’t learn any English because they barely spoke in class and didn’t really remember anything they were taught. Students take English class so they can pass their college entrance exams. Also, having a high college acceptance rate will help their high school have a good reputation (Brown and Kikuichi, 2009). It’s just like in Luna Nova, where they are more focused on the students’ grades and the school’s reputation than teaching practices.
Now, I am not knocking all teachers in Japan. I know there are wonderful, caring teachers in Japan. I just don’t like the way the system is run based on my own opinions of education. Jennifer Sherman told me that there are some teachers that will give individual attention to students, but there are also many who won’t. But think about it. In anime, how many times have you seen a teacher give individual attention to a student? Does the teacher ever go over to a struggling student and help them? Very rarely. In terms of anime, I can only think of a few instances where the teacher did this, like with Sakura-sensei in School-Live. Most of the time, students work in groups and friends end up helping each other with things they didn’t understand. Group learning isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it has its disadvantages (as I am sure many of us remember from being in high school). The best way for a student to fully understand something is to have the teacher or a tutor (who is presumably very knowledgeable in the subject) give individual help to a student and try to cater to their strengths.
Individuality In Japanese Education
The whole concept of conformity in Japan creates other problems in education as well. As mentioned, individuality is not celebrated in Japan. But Akko is obviously very unique. However, the strict, traditional teaching methods at Luna Nova do not work for her. There are also other students whose individual strengths are being ignored. Amanda is an incredible flyer when it comes to her broom. She can do all kinds of tricks on her broom, but she is scolded for showing off her strengths rather than being praised. It doesn’t surprise me that she is so aloof when it comes to school because her talents aren’t recognized. Then there is Constanze. She has a knack for electronics and likes to make devices. During one of her exams, she uses her device to transform something into a robot. The teacher likes it, but tells her to make “something more useful.” Your student just used a device of her own creation. She deserves more credit. All of them deserve some credit for their individual strengths, but they are not receiving it.
On top of this, the idea that those who are different are bad has made bullying a frequent issue in Japan. According to an extensive study and examination of bullying in Japan by Rios-Ellis, Bellamy and Shoji (2000), bullying is very prevalent, but also extremely underestimated.
Bullying can be seen right away in Little Witch Academia. Some girls pick on Akko because she isn’t from a Witch family and is a “commoner.” On top of this, they constantly compare her to Diana (a magic prodigy) and insult her when she is having trouble with her magic. There are times where they go as far as to trip her or use magic on her. Many times the girls do this right in front of a teacher; however, the teachers don’t do anything about it. This just proves how the Japanese aspects of conformity exist within Luna Nova. In Japan, teachers apparently don’t do much either when they see bullying. This is truly upsetting, in my opinion. Not only is it wrong to ignore bullying, it could also severe affect the student. Akko is strong and enthusiastic, so the bullying doesn’t have a huge negative impact on her. But I am sure we can all think of times (in real life or in fiction) where persistent bullying has harmed someone physically or mentally.
Note: If you have been bullied or feel that your psychological needs are not being met in school, please seek help. Therapy helped me get through the anxiety and depression I felt in my teens.
Luckily, There Is Hope
After one of the professor scolds Akko for the umpteenth time and threatens to expel her, Professor Ursula finally stands up to her. She says that every student, including Akko, has their own strengths and individual worth. She also says that the school shouldn’t only care about their public reputation or students’ grades. She says exactly what I had been thinking throughout the whole series up until that point. After this incident, Professor Ursula devotes her time to giving Akko extra one-on-one lessons, so that she can learn about her own pace. This is the kind of change Japan needs.
Although I disagree with many of the current practices in Japanese education, there is hope.
Shinzo Abe (the Prime Minister of Japan) and his current administration are planning to improve the moral education curriculum to fight against some of the problems that exist in the Japanese education system. The new curriculum is supposed to include the concepts of accepting individual differences, tolerance, and “treating a person without prejudice and in a fair and equitable manner” (Japan Times, 2015).
On top of this, in recent years, Japan finally established a more universal special education system. It wasn’t until the 2007- 2008 school year that Japan implemented special education for children with learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and other disabilities. Prior to this, only students with severe physical handicaps like blindness, deafness, or serious mental retardation received special education in separate educational settings (Izutsu & Powell, 1961). Through this new system, children can receive separate and individualized support for their needs. Students that would not have been considered for extra help in the past are now receiving special education support, which is a step in the right direction.
In anime itself, I have noticed many theme combating the idea of conformity. I think change is in the air when it comes to Japanese society and accepting individual differences. Hopefully, the test-oriented system will begin to change as well. Little Witch Academia does a great job of bringing these problems to the surface. Maybe it can bring awareness to some of the Japanese public.
Outside of my rant about education, Little Witch Academia is worth REALLY watching. I have no yet watched the second half, so I apologize if there are some things I didn’t cover. However, I will update this post or write a follow-up piece once I finish it. But even if I only made it half way through, I truly love this anime. As I said, there is a lot of hidden depth. It also has plenty of the usual Trigger comedy as well as Trigger’s gorgeous animation. I am also personally interested in witchcraft, which makes the show even more enjoyable to me.
If more quality anime with important social themes like this are produced, maybe (just maybe) things can change for the better in Japan.
Academic Sources From Original Research Paper
Izutsu, S. & Powell, M. E. (1961). Special Education of Handicapped Children In Japan. Exceptional Children, 252-259.
Le Tendre, G. K. (1999). Community-Building Activities in Japanese Schools: Alternative Paradigms of the Democratic School. Comparative Education Review, 43(3), 283-310.
Moral education raises risks. (2015, February 10). Japan Times.
Nolen, J. L. (2003). MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES IN THE CLASSROOM. Education, 124(1), 115-119.
Rios-Ellis, B., Bellamy, L., & Shoji, J. (2000). An Examination of Specific Types of Ijime Within Japanese Schools. School Psychology International, 21(3), 227.
Sato, N. (1990). Teaching and Learning in Japanese Elementary Schools: A Context For Understanding. Peabody Journal of Education: Japanese Teacher Education, Part II.
Schmid, C. (2012). Pedagogical Essay: Teaching Japanese Culture and Education. Japan Studies Association Journal, 10177-183.