Tokyo — If an American junior high student visited the Adachi Seventh Middle School in Tokyo, he would probably think he had stumbled onto a different planet. The junior high students in this working-class area are all identically clothed -- the boys in black uniforms with old-style high collars and the girls in navy-blue blazers and skirts. The halls of the drab, 40-year-old school are quiet, the bathroom walls unmarred by graffiti.
Inside the classroom, the students hunch over their notebooks, making sure they record their teacher's blackboard lessons faithfully. Aside from an occasional whisper to a neighbor, no one speaks unless addressed by the teacher. When school is over, the kids do not rush to the local hangout. In fact, many of them spend their afternoons in special juku (``cram'') schools, preparing for high school entrance exams.
The uniformity and relative order of Japan's schools seems worlds apart from the anarchic individualism of the crazy-quilt US educational structure.
Yet it has consistently produced results that have brought United States educators here to search for answers to their education woes. Nine out of 10 Japanese children graduate from high school (compared with 4 in 10 in the US), and Japanese students score much higher on international tests in areas such as math and science.
Many of those American admirers are surprised to find Japan in the throes of a major debate on education reform. Discontent with the system is widespread, making it a hot political issue. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has adopted the cause, pledging fundamental reform. A year and a half ago he formed an independent ad hoc Council on Education to draw up reform recommendations. The council has issued several interim reports, the most recent last month, and it will issue a final report late this spring.
The demand for change comes from two constituencies. Japanese business circles want the system to produce more-creative people who can help them meet the increasing demands of international competition. Japanese parents, on the other hand, are worried about the rise in violence, delinquency, and disobedience among youth -- relatively recent phenomena stemming from postwar Japanese affluence.
The goals of the 25-member reform council reflect those twin concerns. It is calling for a ``transformation from uniformist education to individualistic education.'' At the same time, the reform is to strengthen ``Japan's traditional values,'' including introducing ``moral education classes'' aimed at ``helping students to develop good manners and skills required to interact with others.''
This formulation seems to beg the question of whether it's possible to have more individual diversity in this society without increasing social conflict. ``It is a contradictory request,'' concedes Hiroshi Kida, a former vice-minister of education and an adviser to the reform group.
Economic leaders are concerned that without attention to individual development, Japan will not be able to produce the talented work force needed to progress.
``We have been depending on the inventions and innovations in other countries,'' says Naohiro Amaya, former vice-minister of international trade and industry and head of one of the reform council's four subcommittees. ``Now we have to do much more in such areas as basic science, basic technologies.''
As the reformers see it, creative people must also be ``internationalists.'' ``We have to cope with various kinds of foreign people and foreign countries,'' Mr. Kida says. ``We have to know more about those people, and for this we have to introduce more individual activity in our schools.''
More broadly, the council proposes to introduce flexibility into a highly structured, standardized system. Unlike the local-control system in the US, Japan's system is centralized: Its curriculum, textbooks, and methods of instruction are tightly controlled by the National Ministry of Education. Students in all parts of the country receive standardized instruction.
Within the classroom, ``groupism'' prevails in the name of giving all children ``equal'' treatment.
``Generally speaking, Japanese teachers teach their kids as a group and want those of lesser ability to `level up' to the average,'' says Kida. Instruction emphasizes lectures and memorization.
The entire edifice rests on the pressure to pass two exam hurdles that determine a child's future in Japanese society. The first exam, at the end of junior high, sorts students for the first time into a tracked system of ranked academic high schools, vocational schools, and private schools. Those who make it into the academic high schools -- and there is no second chance -- spend their next three years preparing for college entrance exams that are virtually the sole determinant for entrance.
Passage through these exam pressures is a national obsession. Parents push their children to study, and failure to achieve a high enough score results yearly in a number of well publicized teen-age suicides.
Entry into one of a handful of elite universities is a ticket to assured career success. It virtually guarantees a job with a top corporation or government ministry.
There is little allowance in this rite of passage for the late bloomer or for a child whose creativity is not channeled into taking and passing the exams. ``We have to select very early in a child's development,'' says Hiro Kato, a teacher at Adachi.
There is little agreement about how to fix the exam system. The Japan Teachers Union, which has not cooperated with the reform council, calls for eliminating the high school entry exam and making promotion to high school automatic. It says the council seeks to create an elite system only for the most intelligent students.
Many educators see the controversy as the beginning of a long process, likening it to the transformation Japan underwent 100 years ago, when the first wholesale reform took place.
``Education is not like making an automobile,'' says Mr. Amaya. ``It's much more complicated.''