Economy drives move for reform
Many opinion-makers put the blame for the present economic malaise on the country's "outdated" education system, which they feel does not prepare students for work in an increasingly competitive, globalised and computerised world.
This may seem an odd state of affairs, considering that the results from Japan's somewhat rigid education system consistently top the international league tables. But the government seems keen for change, mainly because the most vocal and persuasive pleas for reform come from the all-important business sector, which complains that the type of graduate it takes on to train is no longer of the right calibre.
Japan Inc, it seems, wants more creative, individualistic and imaginative employees. The kind of homogeneous, conformist individuals who could be easily moulded for the prosperous corporate post-war period will not succeed in today's world, say business leaders.
Accordingly, prime minister Ryutaro Hasimoto has told the education minister, Takashi Kosugi, to fix a timetable by the end of this month to reform the educational system.
He has urged Mr Kosugi to be "open and flexible" when considering options for reform and to look at ways of combining the middle and high-school curriculums, to lower the age limit for admission to colleges and universities and to devise a more diversified system of higher education.
The response of teaching unions has been one of resigned chagrin as teachers have long fought the government for a more liberal, individual-friendly education policy.
The Japanese education system, however, is already giving way to the greater diversity the nation's educators have been demanding for years.
One recent transformation was the opening of 45 new "comprehensive high schools" across Japan that offer a broader curriculum choice and allow students to choose their coursework - a far cry from the conventional Japanese system of dividing students into groups that stay together all year and learn, usually by rote. Educators have also succeeded in persuading the ministry to grant pupils more personal freedom by curtailing Saturday classes.
Four years ago, public schools gave students a break by cutting one Saturday a month out of the traditional six-day school week. Then, in April 1995, the education ministry shaved off another day a month, which gave students the second and fourth Saturday off. In July of this year, the ministry's central council for education recommended that all public schools had a five-day school week.
The aim of the five-day week is "to encourage students to become more involved in society and their communities and to help them develop social and family skills, as well as foster independence", say ministry officials.
Private schools, however, are nervous of supporting the new school week because some parents are strongly opposed to it. According to an opinion poll conducted in July last year by a daily newspaper, 50 per cent of those surveyed supported the five-day system and 42 per cent were against it.
Further liberalising changes to the education system may have the support of business leaders, but the minority government will have to tread carefully if it does not want to alienate those parents who still champion traditional education methods.