Japan's schools

Japan's educational system frequently is cited as one reason that nation has been able to build such a robust economy. Japanese students, these admirers point out, spend more time in classrooms than the average American youth, take more rigorous courses of instruction, and learn more facts. As Americans have debated in recent months how to improve their own schools, one of the educational systems frequently identified as worth emulating is Japan's.

True enough.

Yet stirrings now under way within Japan should make Americans wary of adopting too readily the approach of that nation, or of any other nation, in policy areas such as education. Japan now is undergoing the same kind of probing educational self-criticism that the United States has endured for the past 18 months.

The lesson is that a nation's educational approach cannot be borrowed in whole cloth from somewhere else, but must evolve in its own way as its society progresses.

At the request of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the parliament has established an early stage of what promises to be a long effort to reform Japan's educational system: It has set up the adminstrative structure for a fundamental three-year study of the way Japanese children now are educated.

The situation is ironic. One charge Japanese education critics make is that their educational system is too heavily based on American values; that it ignores traditional Japanese religious and cultural values.

During the postwar Allied occupation the system was substantially changed to mirror the US educational structure, under pressure from American occupiers for Japan to adopt Western ways. Education was made mandatory through junior high school, and the school system was divided into four American-style units: elementary, junior high, high school, and college.

Since his election campaign last year Mr. Nakasone has pushed to restore Japan's cultural values - based on that country's traditional religions of Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism - as a part of the foundation of his nation's educational system, by combining them with Western ideals.

He and other critics say this would help to focus attention on the importance of discipline, now frequently identified as a problem in Japanese schools as it is in their American counterparts. And they say it would help the schools reassert the importance of individual responsibility and obligations: In an accusation familiar to Americans, they charge that many students are interested only in freedom and rights.

An additional problem is one with which students in the very top American high schools and colleges could identify: too much pressure. In Japan the pressure begins in kindergarten, to the point that kindergarten cram courses are part of the education landscape.

Extraordinary pressure continues through the educational system so that students may gain advancement to the best schools at the next level - and, ultimately, be hired by top business firms. Far too much pressure, say critics.

And too much uniformity, they charge: It stifles the creativity Japan needs to compete in the international sphere over the long haul. They want education to deemphasize rote learning and to put more stress on creative thinking.

No one expects sudden widespread reform in Japanese education; change could take years.

But already the growing Japanese debate is instructive. Education should be closely watched, yes, and reformed as needed. But the reforms need to seek a balance between motivation, discipline, and creativity that takes any culture continuing effort to attain.

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