Tokyo — Japan's Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone promises a ''thoroughgoing educational reform'' that will meld Western-imported individualism and democracy with traditional values like Confucianism and Buddhism.
This is one of the ebullient prime minister's major commitments during his whirlwind campaign tour leading up to the Dec. 18 general election.
The issue is deep-rooted, and many observers do not believe that one or two election campaigns will be sufficient to bring about the needed reforms.
Cram schools for kindergarten tots and ''examination hell'' at each stage of the ladder from primary school to university are characteristics of Japan's education system. High school suicides are frequent.
In his campaign speeches, Mr. Nakasone gets the biggest hand from parents of teen-agers in his audience when he says it is wrong for children to have their whole future lives decided by paper tests.
''Education should emphasize the whole man,'' he said in a recent speech. ''Every child has some good in him. He may not be quick in mathematics, but he may participate enthusiastically in campaigns to pick up empty cans. Let us look at the whole child and add points for every positive factor we find in him.''
Under the postwar American occupation, education was made compulsory through middle school, instead of just through primary school. Nakasone thinks that today, when 94 percent of middle school graduates go on to high school, it is too much of a burden for these graduates to have to submit to written tests as the sole admission criteria.
He proposes a seven-point reform plan featuring changes in the system, especially in the practice of relying on nationwide statistical averages for judging scholastic performance.
The point of the postwar reforms was to make education more universal. The number of schools has increased sharply, but education has remained just as elitist as it was before World War II, and competition to get into a handful of top-rated universities is perhaps keener than ever.
Nakasone thinks one reason for the shortcomings of the present system is that Western values such as individualism and the emphasis on rights as opposed to duties were imported into Japan.
''Individualism and democracy work in American society because they are backed up by religion, by Christianity,'' he says.
''In Japan, we have traditional values also, but these were discredited in the wake of our [World War II] defeat. But we need the compassion of Buddhism, the sense of purity of Shintoism, the respect for parents and elders taught by Confucianism, the love of Christianity.
''When the individualism and the democracy imported from the West are melded with these values, then and only then can we overcome the emptiness, the violence, the dropouts that we find in our schools today.''
Nakasone is sometimes accused of being an unreconstructed rightist who wants simply to restore traditional nationalist values to the educational system. He has praised the imperial rescript on education composed by Confucian scholar-bureaucrats during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and read out on major occasions in the academic year by prewar school principals. But what he seems to be looking for is more complicated than reviving old traditions. He is for a melding of Western and Eastern values, building an educational system appropriate for a Japan that is integrating itself more and more with the international community.