Ministers hope a rapid shift away from rote learning will produce thinking children. Michael Fitzpatrick reports
To speed up a shift away from traditional rote learning, the Japanese government has ordered schools to adopt a new curriculum in April 2000, two years earlier than planned.
The move is a response to increasing criticism of the education system, particularly from industry, for being too rigid, too demanding, and - because of its predilection for rote learning - for stifling creativity.
The education ministry has said that the introduction of general studies will nurture "intellectual competence" and "raise children who can think for themselves".
Currently, lessons at junior and middle schools follow a strict national curriculum. The ministry of education, science and culture (Monbusho) has complete authority over the content of the curriculum, to the point of dictating which textbooks should be used for each grade and subject.
Guidelines issued by the government's curriculum council will allow teachers more control over the classroom, including deciding the time to be allotted to subjects.
The council also recommended an increase in child-centred learning through more individual instruction and group learning.
At junior schools, experts and "temporary teachers" will be invited into classrooms to introduce children to extra-curricular creative activities. Mandatory, teacher-run, after-school cultural and physical activities on school grounds will be replaced by voluntary alternatives.
The importance of beginning foreign language education at an early age is also recognised, and English conversation skills may be taught, the guidelines say. Foreign language conversation lessons are a rarity in Japan's exam-orientated school system.
In middle school, pupils will have a greater range of optional subjects to choose from.
Shinji Fukukawa, a leading industry spokesman and chief executive of the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, welcomed the changes.
He said: "The problem has been the rigidity of the teaching methods and curriculum. They have been standardised, place too much emphasis on memorisation and often fail to bring out the personality and creativity of a child. Instead of forcing children to conform to the same mould, we should have lessons that stimulate their desire to learn."
The new guidelines on teaching also suggest that the minimum number of credits required to graduate from high school will be reduced following the introduction of the five-day school week in 20023.
The government has adopted the new guidelines much sooner than expected and is keen to reap the benefit of any knock-on effect that the changes will have on the failing economy as early as possible.
However, the new curriculum has not been universally welcomed and is accused of "doing more harm than good". Critics say high educational standards could deteriorate, undermining one of the main pillars supporting society.