Each Thursday afternoon, Mami Akiyama slips quietly out of her suburban Tokyo home, hoping to be unobserved by family and neighbors. Not that there is any real reason to be secretive -- the white-haired grandmother is just a bit shy about her weekly excursions.
In fact, she has gone back to school: for two hours each week trying to master the strict rules and techniques of Japanese- style painting.
In her small way, this Tokyo grandmother is part of a nationwide cultural boom.
Her painting class with 25 students is one of thousands across the nation in some 100 "bunka" (culture) centers that have sprung up in recent years.
What is unique about them is that they are not attached to formal centers of learning. Their sponsors are broadcasting and newspaper companies, leading department stores, and religious organizations.
Mrs. Akiyama is attending one of the newest, opened in April 1980 in Tokyo's central business district of Nihonbashi by one of the nation's most famous department stores, Mitsukoshi.
In its white eight-story building, the Mitsukoshi bunka center offers some 200 classes a day ranging from jazz gymnastics to proper deportment at funeral services.
"When we decided to build the center, the original idea was to provide training facilities for our 3,000 staff," explains Hajime Niikura, head of the center.
"But then we realized we would only be using the classrooms in the early morning and evening, before and after working hours. So we decided to offer daytime classes to the public."
By the end of 1980 it had some 7,000 students (there are some 320,000 enrolled in bunka centers nationwide).
Masahiro Fujita, manager of the center says the "bunka" boom is due to several factors:
With smaller families, smaller homes, and labor-saving devices now available, housewives, for example, have more time which they want to use in a constructive , intellectual manner. Older, retired people also want to remain physically and mentally active.
Japanese also have a great deal more cash available for leisure activities these days. Interest in purely physical pursuits like 10-pin bowling have waned , and the trend now is toward worthwhile hobbies and self-improvement projects.
There are virtually no educational facilities outside the traditional school structure for those beyond the normal university attendance age (up to about 25 ). University classes are not open to the public, there are no "night schools," and there is nothing like, say, Britain's highly successful Open University offering home courses to all age groups. So other businesses have stepped in to fill the educational void.
Mr. Niikura says the Mitsukoshi center is not making a profit, and really isn't intended to. He candidly admits there is an ulterior motive: "We're trying to lure more customers to the department store [two blocks away]. We see this as an extra customer service, creating a more warm relationship between the store and the public."
But he admits the students have a different approach. "Older people, for example, are not good at normal social intercourse and it's hard for them to make friends. Working together in the classroom breaks down the barriers."
Another reason for the success of the bunka centers is that although many neighborhoods probably have small schools offering classes in some specific areas, like Japanese calligraphy, the students are always youngsters. No adult wants to be sitting at the same desk at their son or grandson.
Some centers stress the "culture" aspect more strongly than others, offering more courses in art appreciation, or French and English literature, for example. The Mitsukoshi center emphasizes the practical arts and crafts side, as well as health and fitness classes that barely come under a cultural heading.
The most popular course is jazz gymnastics and dance yoga for young girls. Strictly Japanese is the second most popular: "karaoke," literally "empty orchestra," in which famous songs are recorded with the voice left out for people to sing in place of their favorite performer.
Mitsukoshi offers a three-month course for $80.
Also growing in popularity are "how to" classes dealing with social behavior. Students of all ages learn how to cope with the rigid demands imposed by traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies.
And with Western habits invading all aspects of Japanese life, such courses now encompass even which knife and fork to use with each course in Western-style meals -- something many older Japanese raise d on nothing but chopsticks seem to be grateful for.