The first thing you see in the foyer of Shiba school in the Minato-ku district of Tokyo is a stack of unicycles. Whatever could they be for? Are circus skills on the curriculum? Surely not. Such levity does not fit easily with our preconceptions about the Japanese education system.
It is, after all, notorious for its rigour, devotion to rote learning and pushing students over exam hurdles. This stereotype is the envy of certain British educationists. Others decry it for the pressure it puts on children, at the expense of creativity and the development of the individual. Now the whole system is coming under scrutiny at home; there is nothing like dimming economic success to put education under the microscope.
Japan is also trying to improve its international relationships, although the approval this month of a history textbook that critics say whitewashes Japan's wartime activities has inflamed relations with neighbouring countries such as South Korea. Understanding of other cultures is now on the agenda for schools and, as Britain prepares for immersion in Japanese arts and customs, there is a new opportunity for exchange. The year-long arts festival, "Japan 2001: a new perspective", begins next month. It has a full education programme, from workshops on kabuki drama to haiku text-messaging and exchanges between British and Japanese families within the UK (see box overleaf).
Western assumptions about Japanese education are not completely inaccurate, but there is room for surprises. The Japanese, far from delighting in the regimentation of their teenagers, are worried by an upsurge of rebelliousness. Classroom discipline has broken down and crime is soaring. There have been several cases of "murder for kicks"; in the most notorious, a 14-year-old beheaded an 11-year-old acquaintance and placed his head at the gates of his school with a note in the mouth saying, "I can't help but enjoy killing".
Primary schools - the pupils at Shiba are aged seven to 12 - enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere than the test-oriented high schools. And Shiba is lucky for other reasons. It is in a wealthy district and the headteacher loves the arts. He has plenty of innovative ideas and is clearly liked and respected by staff and children.
As Mr Takeshi Sakae proudly offers a tour of his school, pupils bounce up to speak about what they are doing, with no hint of anxiety. English language is the only lesson where pupils sit formally in rows. Each has to jump up - which they do, smiling - say "Hello" in English and give his or her name as I bow politely.
It probably helps that their school is so spacious and enviably well equipped. There are only 103 pupils in a three-storey building big enough for three or four times that number. This is a popular public (in the sense of not private) school. But families are moving out of the centre of Tokyo, so Mr Takeshi is aware that he needs to keep attracting pupils. As things are, you may come across just a handful of children with a teacher in a vast science lab or home economics room where boys take classes too.
In the music room 16 of the youngest pupils watch a video of a recent concert, giggling to see themselves concentrating or caught off guard. Music is important to the school, and many children learn an instrument. The brass band has "huge numbers of instruments, the best in the area", says Mr Takeshi.
The art room is festooned with ink drawings on newspaper strips, and sculptures made of foam and wire. To make more time for art, Mr Takeshi has started early morning communal sessions. Each day begins at 8.20am, with the compulsory curriculum taught between 8.55am and 3.15pm.
Sometimes a class spreads into a second room - why waste the space? - with the teacher trusting those out of sight to get on with a task. They seem to do so. One such is a "comprehensive" lesson - not a chance to study the British system, but to choose any subject at all, research it, and prepare and deliver a presentation. Astronomy and natural history are popular choices. Encyclopedias are the preferred research tool, despite a room filled with banks of computers. This exercise is a result of the government's acknowledgement that many Japanese business people lack presentation skills.
At playtime there are suddenly children everywhere in the winter sunshine, playing football, skimming along on those unicycles and even trying out stilts. The adults don't seem to be fussing about safety, although the yard surface is treated to minimise damage to tumbling acrobats. There's a small chicken run to one side of the yard and a hen coop, home to two or three fat hens. Two girls are cleaning it energetically and looking for eggs, but the hens have not obliged today.
It all looks rather idyllic.
Well it would do, wouldn't it, because a journalist would be taken to a show school. But my visit was arranged informally through a series of contacts, beginning in London, not by any image-conscious authority. Nevertheless, I wouldn't claim that Shiba school or its children are typical. For a start, there is all that terrific equipment, not to mention space, the result of being cheek-by-jowl with some very rich businesses - Japanese schools are locally funded. The school yard is big enough to include a full-size athletics track, overlooked by the tower block offices of the companies that provided it. There's not much vegetation in view. But this is inner-city Tokyo and you sometimes feel a ruler couldn't be comfortably slipped between the buildings.
Some of the new curriculum requirements - such as developing individual skills and interests, respecting Japanese culture, looking outward to other countries and taking responsibility for oneself within the family - are already being addressed at Shiba. Mr Takeshi is keen that I put him in touch with English schools and, as for Japanese culture, like most schools this one teaches the traditional rituals, especially the tea ceremony. Some Japanese spend their lives learning the intricacies of the ceremony and its Zen-based philosophy, but most children know the outlines by the time they leave school.
Shiba children get taken to cultural events and have artists in school, but generally traditional theatre is less popular among the young than it once was. One theatre form, noh, is funereally slow and its language incomprehensible. But kabuki is more fun and so is kyogen, which is best known as a comic antidote to noh. As the Japanese analyse themselves critically and - interestingly from our perspective - begin to develop a more child-centred curriculum, we have the chance to learn about their culture, their contemporary art and their education system.
Mr Takeshi, on-the-ball, arts-loving headteacher that he is, will be hoping it's a learning experience for all concerned.
Mr Takeshi's email is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Japan Foundation is organising a study tour for 10 secondary teachers to Japan from September 18 to October 3 this year. Priority will be given to humanities and social studies staff who teach about Japan, to Japanese language teachers who have never visited the country, and to those with at least three years' experience who expect to stay in teaching for at least another 10 years. Information and application forms from The Japan Foundation, 17 Old Park Lane, London W1Y 3LG. Applications must be in by June 15
* JAPAN 2001
A spectacular matsuri (festival) in London's Hyde Park on May 19 and 20 will mark the start of Japan 2001. A jamboree of culture, entertainment, food, technology and sport, organisers say it will bring the sights, sounds and smells of Japan to the British public "both to enjoy and take part in". It will be followed by similar mini-matsuri throughout the UK during the year-long Japan 2001.
Events in the visual and performing arts include touring performances of noh and kabuki theatre, a major tour by the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, an exhibition of Shinto art at the British Museum and one on Japanese youth culture at the Barbican. A photographic exhibition of the history of Japanese in the UK will also travel to various venues.
Modern Japanese lifestyle will be a major element, with events planned in fashion, animation, industrial design, pop, film and TV. There will be demonstrations of Japanese food and sports exchanges, including martial arts. The educational exchange, Homestay UK, will give British children the opportunity to spend a weekend with a Japanese family living in the UK. Twenty English schools will take part in kabuki story workshops.
The kabuki play The Love Suicides of Sonezaki will be at Sadler's Wells, London, and the Lowry, Manchester, in May and June. The play is short, accessible, and the role of the 19-year-old courtesan Ohatsu is played by 70-year-old Nakamura Ganjiro III. All kabuki actors are male and the players of female roles, onnagata, the most famous and skilled. This may sound grotesque, but with the help of stylised gestures, an elaborate wig and white make-up, Ganjiro transforms himself.
There will be schools events related to performances of a kyogen version of Comedy of Errors - a kind of exaggerated, all-male commedia dell'arte, at Shakespeare's Globe in July. The visiting company stars a Japanese heart-throb, Namura Mansai, whose television appearances have won kyogen a teenage following.
Other events for young people among the 1,000 and more festival fixtures include internet link-ups, a presentation of a play based on Michael Morpurgo's Kensuke's Kingdom at the Polka Theatre, martial arts, a UK tour of kodo drumming and Two Becomes One, a multi-art form event that tackles bullying and is available to schools here and in Japan.
Other highlights include:
* Language weekends (March 2002).
A series of residential language weekends for students of Japanese. Students will be paired with Japanese partners to develop their language skills.
* Speech contest (final in December 2001).
Secondary school pupils are invited to participate in the first nationwide Japanese speech contest. Key stages 3, 4 and sixth-form categories.
* Contemporary art (Autumn 2001).
A major exhibition of Japanese contemporary art at London's Hayward Gallery. Includes painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance.
* Science, Creativity and the Young Mind.
A number of workshops will involve 60 sixth-formers from Japan and the UK in science and engineering projects.
* The Way We Are.
An exhibition of photographs taken by Japanese teenagers. Available on free loan to schools. British students will be invited to submit photographs to be shown in Japan.
* Nina and Frederick.
An internet project in which 100 six and seven-year-olds from Coventry primary schools will be linked with children in Tokyo.
For more information on events, see the Japan 2001 website (www.japan2001.org.uk) or call the education information line: 020 7499 9644