Beyond Formal Setting: Kominkan in the Lens of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

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Beyond Formal Setting: Kominkan in the Lens of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Reni Juwitasari
Disaster Resilience and Environmental Sustainability
Asian Research Center for International Development (ARCID)
School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University

Education is a prominent tool for development and the strongest element in reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability (The World Bank, 2023). Classically, education is perceived in a setting as a formal institution per se as traditional Platonist ideas have profoundly influenced it, "the Academy," to institutionalize teachers and students (Kalligas, 2016). Moderately, education is utilized to reach its function beyond its traditional perspective. The social and cultural aspects are apparently attributed to the sharpening of education realities. As a result, the types of education have become applied in more-than-traditional educational realms, for example, through the symbolic capital of Pierre Bourdieu by learning from museums, music, languages, and arts (Sadovnik, 2011). Moreover, social capital or the social network from James Coleman and Robert Putnam, is also important in building community education to reify the more-than-institutionalized education system (Sadovnik, 2011), which reinvigorate education concepts in modernism and postmodernism.

Regarding education as symbolic and social capital, Japan has determined these two concepts into lifelong learning. Lifelong learning in Japan is recognized as a cultural model (Ogawa, 2015), gathering people to learn from each other as a tangible example of other educational realms, which Kominkan accommodates. Kominkan is recognized as a community center learning that has been presented since the Second World War in its history. In the previous article, Community Resilience Building: How is it Embedded among Japanese? (Juwitasari, 2021), Kominkan is slightly described by the author from the perspective of Japanese resilience building. Nevertheless, in this article, Kominkan will be an in-depth description of the epistemology with lifelong learning and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) lens in modernism and postmodernism. This article aims to promote other educational realms existing beyond formal settings.

Other Educational Dimensions: "Non-Formal Education,Social Capital, and The Powerful Kominkan

Since the 1970s, the formal, non-formal, and informal conceptual taxonomies of education have been widely accepted (Ahmed, 1983) in order to fit in modernity, along with the three primary elements of education: teacher, student, and institution, as well as its traditional curricula and measurement settings (Dib, 1988). Based on the system, formal education necessitates the rigorous presence of three elements of teacher, student and institution with common overarching educational objectives: knowledge-based, skills-based and affective-based settings by top-down higher authority (Bloom, 1956). The transformed education in modernism led to adjust industrialization, rapid social changes and advances in science and social science (Kestel & Korkmaz, 2019). In fact, modernist education focuses on 'students' being highly self-motivated and self-directed as they become free from and free forregarding rationality and autonomy (Cobussen, 2002). As a result, the presence of other formed education is involved.

The non-formal and informal education is founded to fill individual needs as it confronts formal education's missing point (Dib, 1998). Non-formal education has endowed with flexible curricula and methodology, capable of adapting to the needs and interests of students (Dib, 1998). Informal education (as developed in the sharpening distinction, also called informal learning) is defined as an activity for understanding the pursuit outside formal and non-formal education curricula (Dib, 1998; Schugurensky, 2000). However, defining non-formal and informal education in terms of narratives remains debatable, but both types derive from self-motivation or self-intentionality. Although informal education tends to be haphazard regarding performed activity, non-formal and informal education strive to place the learner at the center (Souto-Otero, 2021). Hence, the non-informal and informal education prevails in modernism as both derive from self-motivation.       

In non-formal and informal education, intentionality has become crucial aforementioned. It develops "selves," utilizing interpersonal relations and relationships with trust to gain support (Smith, 2006).      Having mentioned trust as a core of intentionality, trust is fundamental to social capital. With trust, social activities such as volunteering and participation are well-executed (Algan, 2018); consequently, non-formal and informal education in Japan operate effectively. Non-formal education in Japan flourished from the late 1950s to the 1970s, admitted as Social Education. Deriving from intentionality and trust among Japanese, this non-formal education prevailed in a community space or facility known as Kominkan (Wang, 2019). Since then, Kominkan has become a uniquely Japanese social education (Wang, 2019). Prior to the establishment of Kominkan, learning with intentionality and trust from residents was a highlighting activity to engage people's participation, particularly devaluing, de-improving, and redirecting their lives after severe war impacts, for instance, extreme poverty, non-democratic and militaristic education after Second World War (Nier, 2011). From this spirit, the community learning activity has gradually been a culture. Consequently, the social education enactment was established in 1949 under the Social Education Law in accordance with the Fundamental Law of Education of 1947, when there were over 10,000 institutionalized Kominkan in Japan (Wang, 2019). It is a common practice of learning in Kominkan to involve senior citizens.

Senior citizens played a crucial role in non-formal education in Japan. Senior citizens are resourceful in education practices, especially vital teachersof the pursuit of understanding, especially societal progress. This significance led to the preservation of education for the elderly to everlasting education provision, known as lifelong learning (Le & Billet, 2022). A year after Social Education Law was enacted in Japan, in the 1950s, Senior Citizen Clubs proliferated, and it was maintained until the 1990s when the Lifelong Learning Promotion Law was established (Le & Billet, 2022). Lifelong learning has eventually directed the expansion of Kominkan, later known as "People's University," with three constructive theories of the Kominkan of education, the place to learn, and the place of counseling (Maruyama, 2009). According to Ogawa in 1965, quoted by Wang (2019), there are three levels of Kominkan functional theory, such as the 1st level is constructing a space where locals can socialize, exchange information, and learn about social issues; the 2nd level emphasizes support and esteem for self-designed and self-directed learning initiatives initiated by various local groups and the 3rd level seeks to develop educational programs based on the active collaboration of residents and Kominkan staff (Wang, 2019).

Through volunteering spirit, kominkan bonds local people to learn with adults, teenagers and children. For instance, through Kominkan, the local residents can obtain information and self-learning from local groups, including counseling cultivated by volunteers (Maruyama, 2009). Notwithstanding, Kominkan also bridges other stakeholders in bolstering non-formal education, e.g., private enterprises, Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs), civil organizations, etc. (Matsuda, 2015). Therefore, the number of Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs) is growing in Japan to underpin social education with social missions to increase awareness of social problems (Kariya, 2001). The immense social capital reflects the existence of Kominkan, where Kominkan can be a medium to bridge various stakeholders in attaining 'people's needs as the first priority. In other words, social education and social capital in the context of the Kominkan system are inseparable characteristics to promote the grassroots or power of society on self-help as      Japan's philosophy and spirit of democracy (Matsuda, 2015). Because in Kominkan, people learn about democracy as empowering the autonomy of their own rights (Arai & Fuse, 2011).

In the case of Kumamoto-shi, a city in southern Japan with a population of 730,000 and an increase in the adult population, the Kominkan or Community Center is constructed in collaboration with local residents and the local government for primary counseling and other adult activities. In Kumamoto, the author visited two community centers. The initial Kominkan resides in the local residency. This Kominkan is primarily used for counseling, particularly health consultations and other domestic affairs cases. Intriguingly, the origin of Kominkan is the Machizukuri or "town-making" ethos. Consequently, along the area of local residency, where local markets and temples are constructed, Kominkan is the most common place for community gatherings. As the author witness, local residents are familiar with one another. The second community center is located in the heart of Kumamoto City, close to the Shirakawa River. This community center serves both adults and children in the neighborhood. This community center reflects the 3-theory of Kominkan functions mentioned above; counseling, learning and education. Activities range from learning languages, cultures, disasters, and environmental issues, including water preservation and developing non-profit organizations. Numerous archival records of social education and social actions are stored at this community center.      

Kominkan for Lifelong Learning and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Lens

As a space of adult education, Kominkan exists with an emphasis on lifelong learning. In postmodernism, the complexity of social transformation and social movement related to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality frames the education concept diversely from traditional educational settings, in which lifelong learning is presented to engage with those issues as a continuous successor of modernist education (Edwards & Usher, 2001). In the depth of educational comprehension, lifelong learning has become the international agenda in coping with the world's complex challenges through Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education (Webb et al., 2019; Kumar & Mohapatra, 2021). The goals of number 4, mentioning ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, highlight on development of quality of life in relevance to building a knowledgeable society, originating the idea of post-schoolin the 1960s (Vieira, 2019). Lifelong learning in the context of Japan is to provide continuing education as one kind of human rights, partly aiming at reducing social isolation among the Japanese elderly. Lifelong learning in Kominkan is interesting in non-economical education manifestation, but it covers social prosperity, life satisfaction, individual well-being, civic engagement and health. It inspires the creation of educational quality to more-than-traditional measurement, learning values, lifestyle, and actions claimed for positive social transformation as key driving of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (English, 2015). In relevance to SDGs, 'Kominkan's substance of lifelong learning bolsters other SDGs, such as health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), and climate mitigation (SDG 13) (English & Carslen, 2019). For instance, in Okayama City, Kominkan is used to conduct discussions of environmental conservation, overemphasizing 'women's group participation in order to have clean water for health and to strengthen local natural knowledge in preserving the environment (English, 2015).

Japan is classified as a country with high levels of social capital (Okutomo, 2003), and as Ogawa (1965) noted, Kominkan serves as a symbol of Japan's tremendous social capital. As previously stated, Kominkan is inextricably linked to social education, social capital, and lifelong learning. On the other hand, throughout its history, Kominkan has been recognized as a symbol of democracy due to its organization by the local government and local residents of the decentralized national government (Maruyama, 2019). Kominkan demonstrates the "breakdown of heavy top-down approach and political interest" as evidence of grassroots movement, local initiatives, and bottom-up transformation (Rajshree, 2012). Moreover, in connection with Kominkan's activity of socializing and sharing, knowledge production predominates because it is a component of postmodern education (Hosseini & Khalili, 2011).  From a progressivist education viewpoint, Kominkan, through its lifelong learning concept, is essential to construct the experiences of local residents by involving them in problem-solving and developing knowledge and skills, while from a humanist education viewpoint, Kominkan has promoted individual freedom, liberation, participation, and trust (Vieira, 2019). Therefore, Kominkan is relevant to progressivist educational implementation as engaging people to solve problems and learning from experience and to humanist educational implementation referring to self-freedom, liberation and participatory practice, which is entailed in postmodernism.

In actuality, the Kominkan is an evolving concept of social education and lifelong learning, combining the presence of grassroots authority with many stakeholders in meeting certain requirements. The sharing of senior citizens' experiences with the younger generation has existed in Japan since the end of World War II, long prior to the international SDG agenda (2015-2030). In fact, this tradition of sharing experiences among Japanese society has successfully demonstrated to support sustainable development using education.


Kominkan, or Community Center, has flourished since 1949 post-war in Japan. Kominkan is considered a uniquely Japanese entity of non-formal education, a proliferated substance of social education toward lifelong learning. Social capital becomes a core of 'Kominkan's core to perform non-formal educational activities. Kominkan bonds local residents and bridges other stakeholders, forming individual freedom, liberation, participation, and trust. In Kominkan, people learn from each other, especially between senior citizens and the young generation, as lifelong learning. In addition, learning resources in Kominkan derive from the spirit of volunteerism. As a result, social capital is important in bolstering Kominkan to reify lifelong learning. In addition, Kominkan has an immunity-triggering Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) which focuses on more-than-economical education cultivation in accordance with postmodernist education relevance, such as social prosperity, life satisfaction, individual well-being, civic engagement and health in alignment with SDG 3 health and well-being, SDG 4 quality education, SDG 5 gender equality and SDG 13 climate action. In conclusion, Kominkan, which has existed for more than 50 years, has fostered the development of a sustainable society, which today requires a response to the world's complex challenges.

Thanks to Dr. Yuki Miyake, the Head of the Disaster Resilience and Environmental Sustainability (DRES) Program, Asian Research Center for International Development, School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, for supervising this article. Also, thanks Sumitomo Foundation Japan-Related Research Project 2021 for supporting the field research.


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