Japan casts critical eye on high-pressure academics

Suguro Nishizawa, who has just snared an entry position with the prestigious Ministry of Finance, is the sort of person ambitious Japanese mothers dream their sons will grow up to be. Hard work and diligence enabled Mr. Nishizawa to sail through the grueling entrance examinations for Tokyo University. A diploma from Tokyo University means the pick of prestigious jobs for young graduates in Japan. Nishizawa chose the Finance Ministry, where more than 90 percent of its top officials call Tokyo University their alma mater.

Thus, Nishizawa's future path is virtually assured -- loyalty and more diligence will bring him an honored and secure career with this most prestigious of government ministries.

And in that tale lies the nub of what many observers are calling a crisis in Japan's educational system.

Japan may be the world's purest meritocracy: Success in later life is linked very closely with academic success, and one's professional prospects have traditionally been determined by the university one attended. Yet with role models like Nishizawa in mind, experts here believe that many Japanese schoolchildren are driving themselves at too blistering a pace in pursuit of admission to a top university.

The burden can be enormous. It is not unheard of for a 12-year-old Japanese student to spend eight hours in his public school and then three hours in a special cramming school, or juku, only to log four more hours on homework that night.

``I have seen 14-year-old burnouts,'' says Hiroshi Adzuma, dean of the education faculty at Tokyo University. ``Our schoolchildren have far too much pressure brought on them.''

The debate over the character and magnitude of the problem has become central to talk about the reform of the nation's educational system. Academic pressure is nothing new to the Japanese; entrance to the country's universities has long been determined solely on the basis of entrance examinations that test knowledge on a broad range of subjects which may or may not have been covered in school. But many observers charge it is getting worse. They worry that the pressure-cooker environment may drain some of the most talented students of creativity and initiative.

``The current situation is disastrous,'' says Makato Kikuchi, director of research and development at Sony Corporation. ``We can't expect to develop young minds for the future under a system that crushes their spirit at an early age.''

Many observers take issue with such analysis. Others who are inclined to agree argue about the causes. Some say they reflect a crisis of rising expectations in a newly affluent land of limited resources. A few point to a crisis of traditional family values, nurtured through generations of agrarian life, in a 20th-century urban culture.

What is certain is that it is getting tougher to squeeze into places like Tokyo University, and the effect has been felt on college-bound youngsters down the line. There is only enough space in Japan's four-year colleges to accommodate about one-third of the country's high school graduates. Yet fully 94 percent of Japanese schoolchildren finish high school -- one of the highest rates in the world. Many universities doubled their capacity for students during the mid-'60s, when the growth in numbers of high school graduates reached its peak, but it has not been enough to stem the demand for places in their entering class.

The result: an entrance scramble for the most prestigious colleges and universities so severe that the most renowned American universities seem almost noncompetitive by comparison. While Harvard University accepted 17 percent of the applicants for its freshman class last year, for example, Mr. Adzuma estimates that less than 1 percent of those who took Tokyo University's entrance examination managed to qualify for admission.

With those odds, the pressure to triumph on university entrance exams is not limited to students in their final years of high school.

``It runs throughout the system,'' says Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of the education faculty at the Kyoto University, a national university considered second only to Tokyo in prestige. ``Students in lower secondary schools worry about getting into the upper secondary schools that send the highest number of young people to top universities. Even children in primary school are now worried about gaining entrance into the lower secondary schools that have the best record of placing students in good upper secondary schools.''

Despite a widespread consensus that these are symptoms of an underlying problem, there is little agreement on what that problem may be, much less its remedy. Many parents are torn between their desire to see their children succeed in an increasingly competitive society and, at the same time, enjoy normal childhoods.

``It wasn't like this when I was young,'' observes a Tokyo executive, who is contemplating juku for his children. ``But if they have to go to juku, they will go.''

Yet attendance at an academic juku may not mean a child is abdicating his right to a normal childhood. ``Everyone goes to juku,'' says Rako Momomoto, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Tokyo's Komaba High School. By some accounts, the juku has become the equivalent of the playgrounds from a less driven age. ``If I didn't go to juku,'' explains Seigi Ohmae, ``I wouldn't be able to see my friends.''

Others, while noting the spread of juku in Japan, question whether life has changed for the brightest students. ``One important thing has stayed the same,'' insists Michiyaku Uenohara of NEC Corporation. ``The really smart ones get into the good universities no matter what.''

As the debate continues, several possible solutions have surfaced during discussions by the Committee on Educational Reform, established seven months ago by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to explore possible solutions to an array of educational dilemmas. But few have met with broad support, which shows how difficult true educational reform will be.

One plan would abolish the separation between junior high and senior high and link them together in one continuum. The idea is to remove at least one sequence of the entrance exams that riddle a Japanese pupil's life -- the sequence determining admission to secondary schools.

The proposal has run into opposition because it cuts to the heart of one school of educational thought that predominates in Japan: motivation by examination. Advocates of the change say it would reduce obsessive cramming for tests and provide students with more opportunity to explore other interests. Detractors claim it would reduce their incentive to study.

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