Japan: Private sector is blueprint for drastic reforms
Although the changes appear modest by international standards, they are hard won by a new administration which is bent on reform in all "weak" areas of the Japanese economy and society.
Last autumn a centre-right Liberal Democrat government was voted in, headed by Ryutaro Hashimoto, who promised reform in six areas, including education.
Changes announced so far have not been revolutionary nor sudden, but they seem extreme to many Japanese. Monbusho has already announced that it will reduce the school week from six to five days for all state schools in 2003,and changes are afoot which will create a fast track to university for some students.
The biggest planned shake-up to date will be the establishment of six-year courses for state secondary schools, which will take effect from next April. At the moment, secondary education is divided into three compulsory years at middle school and three optional years at high school, with examinations separating the transfer.
For years teachers and education specialists have been lobbying for a change to the system, which they feel puts unwarranted pressure on young people who must prepare for yet another "exam hell' before entering high school.
Schools will be free to combine these two stages into a seamless six-year course, but - as most middle schools and high schools are on separate sites - the April start date will only signal the linking together of the schools. The actual single-school, six-year system (with the first three years remaining compulsory) will begin in April, 1999.
Some private schools already run six-year programmes, and, as with previous educational reforms, the private sector is serving as the blueprint for the ministry's reforms.
Other ministry proposals to improve flexibility include allowing vocational college students to transfer credits to universities, and giving high-school students credits for volunteer activities and on-the-job training.
According to observers, the prime minister's call for increased action on education reforms, which were only revealed at the last minute, has angered the Monbusho. To the delight of many teachers, who have been battling with the ministry for years over what they see as its totalitarian rigidness, the ministry has now been forced to make some concessions to liberalism.
One ex-ministry worker has gone so far as to suggest that the bureaucrats may have to break one of their "10 commandments". Masao Miyamoto, author of The Psychoanalysis of Government Bureaucrats, cites the "eighth commandment" as: "Try to establish education for children that does not raise their awareness of freedom and human rights."
Further liberalisation may have the support of business leaders, teachers and students, but parents seem as unsure of the changes as the education ministry.
According to an opinion poll which was conducted last year by the Yomiuri newspaper, only 50 per cent of those surveyed supported the modest reform of a five-day system, with 42 per cent against it.
Japan's highly competitive parents, it seems, are going to be harder to persuade on further reforms than even the ministry itself.