Japan strives to reform strong but rigid educational system

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.

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.

The place to start, many say, is with education. ``We will not become a nation of creators if we are all the products of an educational system that pounds every last bit of individuality out of us,'' says Makato Kikuchi, director of research and development at Sony Corporation. ``Our approach to education is all-important in this regard.''

Few societies can boast of being more collectively dedicated to education. The sensei, or teacher, has traditionally been a revered figure in Japanese life, though there are signs that this is slipping. Parents often sacrifice considerably for their children's education. Students, in turn, carry the burden of their family's honor into the examination room.

The value placed on education is a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it means that the country comes close to being a pure meritocracy: Success in later life is very closely determined by academic achievement, and Japan is largely free from a sense of class consciousness. The board chairman's son will likely be surpassed in his career by the farmer's son if the latter performs better on the examinations that determine entrance to universities, high schools, and even some junior high and elementary schools.

Yet this kind of egalitarianism also means that an extreme pressure to excel is placed on children very early. ``In Japan, people's lives are determined at the age of 15,'' says Eiichi Yokoyama, a top official at the 650,000-member Japan Teachers' Union.

If the current activities of the reform panel are any guide, the alleviation of this pressure will be long in coming. The council is split into four committees: reform of education for the current century, social education, elementary and junior high school education, and higher education.

Already, the first committee -- advocating profound restructuring of the entire educational process, including a virtual privatization of every public school and university -- has clashed vigorously with the last committee, which is closely allied with the Education Ministry and urging gradual change. The last committee is also joined in its opposition to the first committee by the teachers' union.

For all the panel's efforts, many observers are skeptical that any reform inititated by the government can have the intended effect. Fourteen years ago the Education Ministry instigated a round of intended reforms. Among them was an attempt to allow individual teachers more latitude in selecting their courses. Most teachers refused to go along, choosing instead to stick with the old teaching standards.

The circumstances are different now. For one thing, there is a grass-roots consensus about the need for some kind of change where none previously existed. But few are awaiting the arrival of great changes.

``I don't expect to see any real changes come because of what the panel says or does,'' says Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of the University of Kyoto education faculty. The real change, he says, will have to come from the hiring practices of government and industry employers, who pick their choice employees almost exclusively on the basis of which university they attended. As a tradition with the force of many years, it will be one of the most difficult changes to effect.

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