October. 1986 TOKYO Business Today

Spare a tear for the poor Japanese education system. For years it has been accused of turning Japan's children into a generation of study-mad robots. Now the conservatives are weighing in and accusing it of producing a generation of nam-by-pambies devoid of guts, discipline, respect for their parents and love of the nation.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Nakasone, goes along with the conservative view. He, and the committee he appointed to consider education reforms, see a strong dose of moral education as the answer.

Meanwhile, many outsiders like to see the system as the fount of most Japanese virtues, including discipline, loyalty and morality. Many also see its high standards as the key toJapan's economic success.

The Source of the Problem

Who is right? As a parent with two young boys exposed to the system I give it quite good marks at the primary level. The schools do a good job instilling a sense of group cooperativeness. The education has a strong practical content and the teachers, for the most part, have some sense of responsibility.

True, progress is slow since dropouts are not allowed and even the dividing up of classes on the basis of ability is often seen as unfair to weaker students. But one can easily get round this problem by relying on after-hours private schools (juku).

Many Westerners, and quite a few Japanese, see the juku as a from of cruel and inhuman punishment. That is not my impression. Bright students get every encouragement from first-rate teachers. The children enjoy the challenge, and the chance to meet other children in a fairly relaxed atmosphere.

The source of most problems is not the schools, or the juku, but the universities and their absurdly difficult entrance exams.

So for 12 years, from 6 through to 18, the Japanese child has to break his mind preparing for these exams, and for the schools that will help him get through them. Little wonder some end up as psychological wrecks.

A Vacuum in Values

Someone, ideally the Education Ministry, should take a large stick to the universities and force them to do their jobs properly. They should be forced to take in more students, to fail the lazy ones and provide proper grading systems for the rest. That way a bright student from a second-rate university in Yamagata would have a just as good a chance in life as a mediocre student from an elite Tokyo university. The senseless race for status would be eased.

Speaking frankly, much of the education debate has an ugly political smell about it. The leftwing, working mainly through the still strong Japan Teachers Union, sees the schools as the crucible in which to create its image of the ideal Japanese society.

The conservatives see the current debate as a chance to break this influence once and for all. In particular, they say leftwing / U.S. Occupation efforts to inculcate the concept of individual rights have gone too far. Children must be taught firmly about their responsibilities to society.

And how, they ask, can children respect society if they are being reminded in every textbook about the atrocities and aggressions Japan committed in past wars? So the "left-wing" school textbooks are also being busily rewritten.

No one would argue that the new generation coming out of the school system is ideal. Many of the conservative criticisms - self-centered, hedonistic, weak-willed - are close to the mark. The businessmen say it takes at least two years of in-company indoctrination to produce people who can stand on their own feet.

Within the schools there is the problem of bullying and vandalism. The aimless boso-zoku bike and car gangs now pestering much of urban Japan reflect a vacuum in values that needs quickly to be filled.

Tradition without Responsibility

But is more conservative discipline / morality really the answer? On the outskirts of Tokyo stands Takushoku University, set up some years by rightwingers anxious to provide an alternative model based on Japanese tradition. Mr. Nakasone was its president for a while.

A month ago, just after Mr. Nakasone's committee recommended more morality, the university was hit by a scandal in its karate club. For years the club had been brutalising younger members; traditional values in Japan encourage this sort of closed hierarchical feeling. But this time the buggery get out of hand. One member died from hazing injuries and another was seriously injured. The university has since closed the karate club.

The schools are a milder version of the same problem: they see themselves as closed groups cut off from the outside world. At primary level this approach probably does more good than harm. But secondary level students need also to be taught to see themselves as responsible members of adult society. By treating them as children they remain as children. The conservative goal - to turn them into obedient, disciplined children - would do more harm than good.


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