With the 21st century just around the corner, Japan is earnestly courting its creative muse. Forget the tightly scripted rules for everything from bowing to climbing the career ladder. Individualism and cutting-edge thinking are the buzzwords of the day.
From the halls of the Education Ministry to the R&D labs of industry, a consensus is emerging that Japan must do more to remove barriers to creative expression and initiative. Group effort and conformity helped produce a postwar economic miracle. But the qualities that put Japan front and center in the 1970s and '80s now look like an impediment in the Information Age.
What's needed, many say, is a new model, one with fewer blue-suited company men and more Silicon Valley-style free spirits.
"We're at a threshold for realizing that change is required," says Takami Kuwayama, associate professor of anthropology at Soka University in Tokyo. "If we let things continue as they have been, we will not have a bright future."
Japan is not about to toss away its bureaucratic code of conduct or rigid system of exams for entering top schools. But its vaunted ability to steer gradually in a new direction is cropping up in a variety of areas. A growing number of high-technology companies, for example, are experimenting with looser work schedules with an eye to spurring more creative moments:
* Toshiba Corp. has introduced flexible hours for research-and-development managers.
* NEC Corp. is giving select employees with promising startup proposals the financing and freedom to pursue them.
* Sony Corp. just announced it will offer employees who dream up new advances bonuses of up to $20,000 for up to a 10-year period.
* The Ministry of Education, in a recent report on curriculum reform, is promoting more elective classes and "self-learning and the ability to think for oneself."
Already, as part of an ongoing reform, gifted students can leapfrog over peers, separating from the pack in a way formerly considered unacceptable. Private universities are expanding their admissions criteria. About 25 percent of students now are admitted by recommendation, not standardized exam results. The practice allows for a broader assessment of talent and the admission of nontraditional students such as those who have been educated abroad.
The government is trying to boost advanced research by doubling the number of PhDs granted and underwriting 10,000 postdoctoral fellowships by 2000 - this in a country where most advanced training has been conducted within companies.
The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has established 24 Venture Business Laboratories at universities to encourage entrepreneurship.
Driving these efforts is a desire to stay competitive. Japan's confidence was at an all-time high as its economic growth outpaced the United States in the late 1980s. But in the 1990s, the country has struggled with recession as well as high corporate and household debt.
And there seems to be no end to the uncertainty. Many here are taking the imminent "big bang" of financial deregulation and the jarring fallout from bankruptcies such as huge Yamaichi Securities as handwriting on the wall. The conclusion: Maybe it's time to loosen up.
Whether - or how much - Japan will loosen up is debatable. But adaptability in the face of crisis is not a foreign concept. In the 1850s, Japanese were caught off guard by the threatening appearance of Western ships in its ports. Within a decade, however, the country had ushered in the Meiji era that disposed of hundreds of years of shogun rule, installed a civilian government, and embarked on a successful modernization program.
Some observers say the late 1990s is "Meiji II" and predict that Japan's past record of flexibility will help it encourage the greater individuality and creativity now deemed necessary.
"Change takes place slowly in this country," Professor Kuwayama says. "But once something gets in motion, it will change."
Japan does not have to reach too far into its past to unleash its individualistic impulses, he says. The collective behavior so closely associated with Japan is a 20th-century phenomenon, he says, a result both of the need to establish a modern identity independent of Western-style individualism and, after World War II, as a way to unite for a crash course in rebuilding.
Akinobu Kasumi, executive vice president of technology at Toshiba, is banking on Japanese innovation to spark new practices in his R&D facilities. In the past three years, he has pushed to flatten hierarchies and increase mobility for talented engineers, calculating that such changes will yield quicker breakthroughs. "A spirit that challenges the status quo is needed for the future," he says, noting that the new slogan for his group is "encouraging individual ability."
Kuniko Miyanaga, a professor at International Christian University in Tokyo and the author of "The Creative Edge," started a project on the topic three years ago. She had virtually no takers. Now, she says, her young students are more curious. "They are tired of groupism," she notes. "But when I push, they become defensive; they can't be critical of their own society. Teaching about individuality in a way that is not negative is very difficult, as it is often taken as something that brings disharmony into teamwork."
She is skeptical of the flurry of interest in cultivating nonconformity.
"People may recognize the problem and work to solve it," Professor Miyanaga says. "The trouble is that the results may not always come out the way they want."
To Instill Creativity, Get 'Em Young
Creating an interest in greater individual initiative starts with winning over hearts and minds - and that means taking a close look at Japan's classrooms.
"The concept of creativity has existed for years in Japan. It was just that no educator really took it seriously and applied it to [his or her] classes," says Koji Kato, a professor of education at Sophia University in Tokyo.
That's changing. A government council, charging that the current system is too uniform, will issue its final recommendations in December for fundamental changes to the nation's centrally run schools. Some of its proposals:
* Faster tracks for students gifted in math and science.
* More electives.
* A reduced number of class hours.
* More opportunities for lifelong learning, so the door is not shut to those who don't follow a traditional path.
Some of these changes are under way now. But it is unclear how much can be accomplished as long as students face entrance exams that emphasize memorization and rote learning in order to get into top high schools and colleges.
Some observers say the current hand wringing over Japan's schools is misguided. It is unfair, they charge, to label as uncreative a system that produces a well-educated nation where illiteracy is almost unheard of, despite a written language that is difficult to master.
Then, too, Japan has beaten the United States to the punch on several innovative practices. Catherine Lewis, senior researcher at the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, Calif., and an expert on Japanese elementary education, points to Japan's emphasis, particularly in science, on cooperative learning and problem-solving - two approaches now in vogue in the US.
The discussion of fundamental reform is also raising questions of "dumbing down" a system whose emphasis on the basics has kept its students near the top ranks in international comparisons. But Professor Kato is unconcerned. The curve may drop a bit, he says, but that won't be significant on a long-term basis because achievement is already high.
More important, he says, is that "children should be able to think on their own. They should learn what computers cannot."