Question time for Japan's schools

A GIRL arrives seconds late for school, and is caught in the steel gate as it is closed. Her skull is crushed, but the teacher on the gate gets off with a one-year suspended sentence and the school is not criticised. In another part of Japan, a local education board is challenging a centrally-administered system of keeping secret records on each school pupil. Japan's education system is again under the spotlight.

Japan has one of the strictest education systems in the world. Designed with meticulous forethought to produce a workforce that is disciplined and socially cohesive, it takes a large share of the credit for Japan's post-war economic miracle. Japan's near-universal literacy, high level of mathematical ability and relatively small percentage of school dropouts are envied the world over.

But the cost has been high. From a young age pupils have been told what type of satchel to bring to school, to what height they should raise their hands in class, how short their hair should be cut and what time they should get up - even when on holiday. Teenage years are lived in the shadow of the infamous 'exam hell', when pupils put in up to 18 hours of work and study a day in an effort to win a place in a prestigious university. The system encourages people to develop good memories and reserves of stamina. Asking questions and forming opinions are regarded as disruptive and unnecessary.

The steamrollering of individualism has left little room for creativity, and recently even bureaucrats in the trade and finance ministries have begun to wonder whether Japan does not need a more open educational system for the next stage of its economic development. But the Ministry of Education, probably the most conservative of all the arms of the state, is reluctant to loosen its grip on the nation's children.

This month a local education board in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, has challenged one of the most controversial tools used by the Education Ministry for control. Every pupil has a secret file, or naishinsho, which records not only academic progress but subjective evaluations of character, a child's obedience and pace of socialisation. Neither pupils nor parents can see this file, which is crucial for decisions on progress from junior to middle and senior high schools and university.

So schoolchildren live in a Kafkaesque situation, knowing that their teachers are observing them and making notes on their behaviour, but never being allowed to see what has been written. An unfavourable judgement by an unaccountable teacher could affect their entire lives. The Kawasaki board of education has decided to open these files to pupils and parents from next year, despite objections by the Education Ministry.

'A student and his family should be able to find out what has been written about them,' said Makoto Hirano, a spokesman for the Kawasaki board. 'Then if they feel there is something unfair in it, they can discuss it with the teacher.'

As this news that someone was finally standing up to the system came out, a more sobering story of school discipline unfolded. Three years ago, a 15-year-old girl was rushing to get to school when a teacher slammed the gate on her. The pupils knew that the gates were closed punctually every day, and that those left outside would be punished for tardiness. The girl tried to squeeze through the gate as it was closing, but failed, and her skull was crushed.

For many, this illustrated the inhuman rigidity of the education system. Last week a court in Kobe judged the teacher's action as 'erroneous', and gave him a suspended sentence of one year. More controversial was the fact that the judges did not criticise the school's strict disciplinary system.

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