ONCE A powerhouse of modern industry, the dawning of the information age threatens to dim the brilliance of the Land of the Rising Sun. A radical makeover for its education system, say many, is its only hope.
Fears that Japan - already slow to catch up with the US and Europe in terms of computer usage - might become a "digital refugee" in the 21st century have at last spurred the education ministry to act. Next year, high-school students will be able to design their own course schedules. And in 2001 the ministry plans to put all schools on the Internet.
Some say the changes are too late to cope with global competition. There are also the looming crises of a declining birth rate and an ageing population. It will be a tough century for the Japanese. But ironically this may lead to a better deal for its long-suffering children scarred by "exam hell".
"Japan now wants more creative, individualistic and imaginative employees. The kind of homogeneous, conformist individual who could be easily moulded for the prosperous corporate post-war period won't succeed in today's world," says business leader Mikio Fujiki.
Some cyber-crusaders see a move away from the rigidity of learning at traditional brick-and-mortar schools and the ise of virtual learning at home.
Atmark Inter high is one such "e-school" recently set up to cash in on the predicted move towards home study using computers. And as more children, disenchanted by the prevailing system, opt to stay away from school, remote learning may well become the norm in the newly-wired Japan.
According to Tomio Yanagisawa, Atmark's director, the shift from school learning to home study will mirror the move towards home working for adults.
"Other triggers for such changes will be the reversal of the balance between supply and demand due to the decrease of student population. And second, the invasion of the global education standard influenced by the Internet," said Mr Yanagisawa.
No one understands this better than the businessmen who have for years been urging the government to dismantle the old top-down, rigid education structure.
Professor Takamitsu Sawa, of the Institute of Economic Research, said recently:
"Japan will face the hard task of transforming its administrative, educational and management systems in the post-industrial society."
So will it be goodbye to moulding, rote learning, the tyranny of exams, and hello to "nurturing" in the next century? The Curriculum Council, which advises the education minister, hopes so. It has called for teaching to be focused on an "education of the heart".