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Japan strives to reform strong but rigid educational system

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 1985


It would be easy to look to Japan as the be-all and end-all of modern education. Japanese students regularly wallop their Western counterparts in examinations measuring mathematical ability and general scientific prowess. Youngsters here spend up to three times as long on homework as their American counterparts. School delinquency and violence are, by Western standards, almost nonexistent.

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And, of course, it is the graduates of Japanese education who have raised their island nation from wartime devastation to economic superpower.

Yet for all these undeniable strengths, there is a feeling here that something is deeply wrong with Japan's educational system at nearly every level. There is no consensus on what the shortcomings are, though complaints about the enormous academic pressure seem to be on everyone's lips. But the issue dominates newspaper headlines here as well as the conversations of parents, teachers, and businessmen.

It has also become a hot political topic. The discussions of the Education Reform Council, set up six months ago by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to plan vast changes in Japan's educational system, are being followed by many with an avidity usually saved for sumo wrestling matches. The council is scheduled to issue a report in 1987, and the already-high intensity of public interest is bound to keep rising.

``I would not only say that education reform is a critical issue for modern Japan,'' says Hiroshi Adzuma, dean of the University of Tokyo education faculty; ``I would say it is the critical issue.''

The talk in Japan of a ``crisis in education'' only vaguely parallels similar discussions in the United States and Europe. In the US, for example, concern has been sparked by falling academic standards and the perception of a growing lack of discipline in schools.

In Japan the situation is just the opposite. There is a superficial resemblance between US and Japanese school systems, thanks to a team of postwar education reformers from the US. Schoolchildren in both countries spend the same amount of time in primary, junior high school, senior high school, and college. But respective approaches differ completely.

``Our students are often working too hard and the system can drive them to extremes,'' says Hiroshi Kida, a former vice-minister of education and director general of the National Institute for Educational Research.

The concern extends beyond the protests of parents to the heart of a debate over national destiny. As Japan closes the technological gap with the US and Europe, and as its older industries begin to stagnate, so goes the thinking, it must become a center of ideas as well as production and marketing savvy. Yet a society that values conformity over individualism and does not look favorably on risk-takers with bold ideas may have a hard time conjuring the sort of freewheeling creativity that distinguishes some Western societies.