Retooling Japanese education

Japan's image is that of a highly successful economic power in the forefront of the global technological revolution. But many schoolteachers are voicing concern that the current educational system is not keeping pace, that the curriculum is outdated and no longer able to meet the increasingly complex needs of the nation's young.

The crunch is already being felt by this year's crop of high school graduates.

Japan's continued economic downturn, coupled with rapid advances in factory and office automation, has cast a dark cloud over the employment prospects of these 18-year-olds. Many are finding that what they slaved so hard to memorize for tough entrance examinations along the way from kindergarten is virtually useless in fitting them for a useful life in a rapidly changing technological society.

What is more, in the past, proof of specific specialized academic or practical skills was less important with most employers than being a graduate of a prestigious school.

As a result, most youngsters and their parents have come to regard education as merely a conveyor belt leading ultimately to the ''right'' school or university offering a passport to employment with lifetime security in one of the country's big name firms.

This year provides a rude awakening. Traditional big employers, such as steelmakers, chemical petrochemical and light metal industries, and the national railways and airlines have already announced they will freeze or drastically scale down their customary spring recruitment quotas for high school graduates. Some have even projected this freeze will continue for three more years.

Girls are particularly hard hit because of office automation - commonly known here as ''OA'' - making huge inroads in the banking and service industries that traditionally employed large numbers of female high school graduates. Many leading banks have cut their new staff intake by half this year.

The bulk of Japanese companies are small- and medium-sized enterprises which have traditionally been spurned by ambitious youngsters. Ironically, they are currently suffering from a drastic shortage of manpower. Equally important, however, is a dearth of the right sort of skilled and specialized labor coming out of the nation's schools.

Big companies traditionally have favored graduates from elite schools who are taken in as ''raw material,'' which the firms then train and mold to exactly fit their own requirements - particularly in ''white collar'' jobs. Experts say, however, the dividing line between ''blue collar'' and ''white collar'' occupations is becoming blurred by the rapid robotization and computerization of factory and office.

In 1980, for example, an estimated 66 percent of university and college graduates were receiving in-company specialized training. This is a luxury few small- and medium-sized enterprises can afford.

If Japan is not to suffer the same sort of unemployment levels, particularly among school leavers, as are now being experienced in Europe and the United States, for example, then schools have got to turn out a different breed of trained youngsters able to cope with the 21st century, critical teachers argue.

Respected educationist Hiroshi Kida commented: ''In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the primary purpose of education was to provided Japanese with practical knowledge and skills, mainly from abroad, necessary for national modernization.

''But the methods have failed to keep pace with social change. Education today concentrates even more than ever on memorization of knowledge, much of it irrelevant, to the exclusion of the other ends of education. Totally neglected is the development of an independent creative reasoning ability that can form the basis of a lifelong education system.''

Critical teachers cite the example of the computer, now an essential tool of modern life. Even some kindergartens use computers in the classroom. But the machines are used merely as an additional teaching aid for inculcating traditional knowledge, not as part of a national program for developing new high technology skills.

Despite criticism, the Education Ministry says it has no intention of changing the curriculum at this stage.

What it is doing is to fine tune the entire school system to guietly try to steer more youngsters away from a generalist education at an elite school to more practical learning at one of the growing number of ''professional'' schools. At the university level, for example, it is discouraging expansion of humanities faculties in favor of more science and engineering departments.

And there are signs that a growing number of children are getting the message. In April 1981, for example, a ministry survey found that 36.9 percent of high school graduates went to university while 9.6 percent entered professional schools.

The university attendance is the lowest since the survey was first conducted in 1975, while the numbers attending technical schools have been increasing steadily.

Analysts say this is attributable to the university degree beginning to carry less weight in career decisions, especially as the gap between lifelong wages for high school and university graduates has narrowed. At last count, there were just over 470,000 youngsters in some 2,745 technical schools, compared with 1.8 million at universities.

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