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"Double file! Keep in line! Stand straight! Quiet in the ranks! Raise the flag! Silence!" On a flagpole in the Daini Hikari centre, in the suburbs of Tokyo, the Japanese flag is raised. An instructor blows a whistle; a battalion of half-naked bodies begins its morning exercise routine. Afterwards, the 375 participants are sent off for a brisk run.

A Japanese special-forces military training camp? Not quite. As the shouts and laughter that punctuate the session betray, these macho types are children. The training ground is part of a school, for three to six-year- olds. But anything less like the unruly schools that are currently baffling the best British educational minds would be hard to imagine. This is a place, not of terrifying indiscipline, but of terrifying discipline.

They call it "bare-chested education". It's a simple mixture of vigorous exercise, rigorous discipline, lots of music and singing, and fanatical attention to morale. Rewards for good behaviour are handed out every morning, to the applause of the assembled pupils.

The school uniform is shorts and white shoes - and little else. Classes take place with the windows open wide; heating is out of the question, even when temperatures drop below freezing. Whatever the weather, the bare-chested pupils gather daily in the playground to recite their maxims: "I promise to be good, to obey my parents and my instructors, never to lie, to respect my fellow classmates and to work hard and do my best."

Soji Matsumoto, the headmaster, explains the school's philosophy: "Here, the children rediscover their bodies: they are more relaxed, more outgoing, less introverted. Bare-chested, they are naturally more active, especially when it gets cold; they become more resilient. If they happen to get sick, we let them put on a T-shirt. But in the winter, some children will tell me they're not cold, even though they're shivering. That's the essential: they don't wish to be defeated by the cold." Asthma and other respiratory problems are, he claims, unknown at the school.

Parents are queuing up to pay the pounds 1,500-a-year fees. Competition for places at Japan's best secondary schools is ferocious, and, as one Daini Hikari parent says, "The major secondary schools look well on this method of education." The director's desk boasts piles of letters from such schools congratulating him on his "educated, attentive and obedient" alumni.

The rigorous regime reflects the enormous pressure under which even very young Japanese children find themselves. Half of all children in Japan, in addition to going to school, are enrolled in jukus (extra-curricular night classes) or yokibos (special schools for exam-preparation). Attempts by the government to curb this frenzied enthusiasm by, for example, limiting the school week to five days, provoked an outcry. What would parents do with their children on Saturdays? A parent-teacher association survey found that only three per cent of children spent their free time in unorganised extra-curricular activities. The rest were all involved with reading clubs or scholastic support groups.

In this context, the obsessive character-building approach at Daini Hikari may seem slightly less strange, though no more human. Just as a certain kind of public school evolved to supply Britain with disciplined young men to administrate her empire, so schools like Daini Hikari provide fodder for the Japanese economy, in which only obedient, energetic, reliable employees can hope to thrive.

Is it not rather brutal? "Yes," says one mother, Eiko, "but only for the parents. You see how proud they are to be here. It's true that the first year my son caught a cold, but in the end he was the stronger for it. Last year he got sick only once." Another beaming mother boasts: "In a few years we will be ever so grateful for all the good they've learnt here." Whether or not the children will be grateful is a different matter. !