Japanese parents believe in educating their children young - some start while they're still in the womb. John Greenlees on the obsession with early education which can leave parents Pounds 10,000 a year poorer
Every evening, for around 30 minutes, Sayaka Kojima gives reading and counting lessons to her unborn child. Lying flat on the tatami floor of her apartment in Tokyo's Otsuka district the young mother-to-be recites a few basic sentences, talks through some simple sums and then plays an eight-minute tape of classical music.
Sayaka wants her child to perform well at school and is convinced that the prenatal tuition she provides will have a positive effect on the baby's intellectual development.
The lessons will continue when the young Kojima enters the world. Sayaka has already selected the early learning centre she wants her baby to attend. Early education, Sayaka believes, will help her child pass the entrance tests set by the country's prestigious kindergartens. Japanese children do not start formal schooling until they are six.
Competition for places at top schools starts early - attendance at a good kindergarten greatly boosts a youngster's chances of passing the entrance tests. And attending a leading elementary school will help an ambitious pupil win a place at a top high school and, eventually, a place at one of Japan's highest-ranked universities. So it goes on: graduation from a top university is the passport to a secure and prestigious job with one of the country's leading companies.
With so much at stake, Japan's "education mothers" take early childhood lessons very seriously. A spate of magazines, books and videos extol the virtues of early learning and stress the importance of parental involvement in the education process.
Motoo Futamura of the Early Development Assocation in Tokyo believes it is never too early to teach children. Once children reach the age of two or three, he says, it can be too late to influence their learning capabilities.
Instructors at the Eishin Yoji Kyoiku, an early childhood school in Tokyo, like to tell parents that 80 per cent of the human brain's functions emerge before the age of three - and that a lack of tuition during this crucial period can limit a child's learning potential.
Early learning centres like Eishin Yoji Kyoiku claim to be able to improve a child's ability to concentrate and think in an abstract manner. More importantly for ambitious parents, they teach children how to master the skills tested by kindergarten and elementary school entrance exams.
Around 100 early learning centres are now operating in the Tokyo region alone. Tokyo Gakuin, which has nine early learning centres and around 1,800 pupils, claims to have helped more than 1,000 "baby academics" obtain places at the country's elite kindergartens and elementary schools.
Some early learning centres also provide lessons for mothers and fathers who want to become better "education parents" and make a more meaningful contribution to the intellectual development of their children.
Such is the recognition of the importance of parents' contribution to the early learning process that many prestigious kindergartens and elementary schools only admit children whose mothers and fathers display a positive attitude to education.
But it is not just private learning centres which are promoting early childhood education in Japan. The country's Ministry of Education has been encouraging pre-schooling through the development of a national network of kindergartens.
Around 95 per cent of Japan's five-year-olds, 85 per cent of its four-year-olds and nearly 40 per cent of its three-year-olds are now attending kindergarten. A recent directive from the education ministry acknowledges the importance of early learning and urges kindergartens to provide more places for three-year-olds. Kindergartens are expected to provide academic instruction as well as games and other activities. About 80 per cent of four-year-olds attend private education.
The investment in early education is generally reckoned to be a sound one. Research has shown that children with experience of pre-schooling are more likely to settle quicker in elementary school and display fewer behavioural problems.
By giving young Japanese a jump-start in the education process pre-schooling has been credited with helping Japan achieve the high educational standards which have proved so important to the country's development as an economic superpower.
Yet pre-school education is not cheap. According to one newspaper survey, kindergarten and other educational expenses forthe average Japanese pre-schooler now amounts to around Pounds 1,600 a year.
Parents enrolling their children at pre-kindergarten learning centres pay considerably more. Tokyo Gakuin charges an admission fee of Pounds 300 and tuition fees of Pounds 50 per 75-minute lesson.
Cash-rich "education parents" are reckoned to spend as much as Pounds 10,000 a year preparing their children for elementary school and the learning competition which accompanies it.
But some educationists are highly critical of formal lessons for the very young and advise parents to allow their children to develop at their own pace.
Pushing children too hard at an early age, they say, can make them nervous and anxious. There is also a danger that children exposed to too much learning and testing will become afraid of failing.