Out of Japan: Maverick minister blurts out home truths

TOKYO - A strange thing happened in Washington last week, where Japan's Education Minister, Kunio Hatoyama, was attending an international conference. As is usual for ministers the world over, he had arrived with a speech written for him by ministry bureaucrats. A large part of the speech was devoted to his ministry's success in improving standards of education in Japan by the constant fine-tuning of teaching guidelines and inspection of textbooks.

Mr Hatoyama could have delivered this speech and received the usual polite applause from his foreign colleagues, before they went on to give their own equally uninspired addresses. But for some reason he decided to depart from his prepared text. In what amounted to a frontal assault on everything his ministry stands for, Mr Hatoyama said the Japanese education system was too strict, placed too much emphasis on standardising teaching and left no scope for students to learn to think for themselves.

'While there is no one who cannot read or write, thanks to the nine-year compulsory education, the system is preventing the growth of free individual personalities,' he said.

As a result, about 10,000 primary pupils were refusing to go to school and 100,000 students dropped out of secondary school every year.

It turned out that the main reason Mr Hatoyama made his comments was the experience of his own three children. He had sent two of them to study in America for two years, thinking it would complement their Japanese schooling. But soon after they returned to school in Japan they told their father that they wanted to go back to the United States, because Japanese schools were too strict.

No doubt in true Yes Minister form, the bureaucrats at the ministry will paper over Mr Hatoyama's remarks. His comments will be 'clarified to avoid possible misinterpretations'. But the very fact that the Education Minister sees fit to criticise the system over which he presides suggests that all is not well in Japan's schools.

Most parents trying to steer their children through the school system towards a coveted university place describe the process in terms reminiscent of Dante's descent into hell, with relentless six-day school weeks, hours of private cram school in the evening and constant pressure to absorb an encyclopaedic knowledge of facts for the all-important exams. 'Exam hell' is so competitive that no pupil has the time to indulge his own interests or try to broaden his mind.

While living with a family in Nagoya, south of Tokyo, last year, I began to marvel at, and then finally to pity, their 16-year- old son, who was in that crucial run-up to university entrance. He got up at 7am every day and came home for a brief dinner at half-past six in the evening before heading out again to a local juku, or cram school, and then returning at about 10pm when he would spend some time doing homework.

Every night he would play a tape of the soundtrack of Cinema Paradiso with its haunting melody that had become his favourite lullaby before sleep. Sometimes I would meet him and his classmates in a train coming home, hanging on to straps and dozing on their feet, prototype salary-men with bags under their eyes before they had even reached the age of majority. His mother often remarked on the irony that he worked far longer hours than his father.

Change comes slowly in Japan and, as always, the perception that something is wrong is far ahead of measures to improve the situation. The Ministry of Education is aware of the proliferation of cram schools, which now cater for about 4.4 million students, including more than half of secondary school pupils preparing for university entrance exams. But despite attempts to lower class sizes and improve teaching standards, the jukus continue to prosper. Last weekend a survey conducted by the Ministry revealed that spending on jukus increased by 20 per cent last year.

Mr Hatoyama, by departing from his prepared text in Washington, may not have been speaking for the Ministry of Education. He is, after all, merely the minister. But by daring to bring up the experience of his own children and criticise a system that they dislike, he was certainly speaking for many other anguished Japanese parents.

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