View from here - Harmony leads to entropy

1st May 2009 at 01:00
The Japanese talk endlessly about education reforms but nothing happens, says Michael Fitzpatrick

British teachers may be tired of the carousel of countless reforms, but in Japan they are suffering an almost enviable type of fatigue - one of acute boredom.

For years now, the right-leaning government, which has been in power practically since the Second World War, has been promising radical reform of the education system. Japan's schools have been slipping down the international league tables, so politicians have held meeting after meeting and made proclamation after proclamation. But, oddly, nothing ever seems to happen.

It may simply be that this is how things are in Japan. The status quo must be observed and wa (harmony) maintained. Taking action is sure to offend someone. Inertness, inaction and passivity are all very boring, but very Japanese virtues.

WB Yeats knew this and, after one happy jaunt, declared his guests to be "connoisseurs of tedium". He was thinking of a Noh play he had just seen, but he could equally be describing Japanese politicians talking about education reform.

The similarity is striking. In the seemingly endless stillness of a Noh play, heroes are infamous for dashing on to the stage (in an appropriately restrained manner) and swearing dramatically over and over again that, "We must take action, now!" At this point, all present assent passionately. However, all also remain rooted, for ages, until another character turns up and utters the same galvanising call to arms, only to have the same gloriously tedious inaction repeated.

One reason for the lack of change in education policy may be that Japan has new prime ministers entering and exiting from the stage at a seemingly faster pace than Noh players.

Taro Aso, the latest in the long list of leaders, is regarded by many voters as a rich boy and manga fan with a volatile personality, so is not particularly loved. He, too, has been on his feet crowing about how education must change, how action must be taken to save Japan's youth from idle perdition and how a proud nation can be forged by patriotism and regular incantations of the national anthem.

Meanwhile, under his aegis, yet more committees have been formed to beat out a new education constitution. They declare they want to go forward with reform but, without wanting to break protocol, they determinedly agree to disagree, although they agree to go on and form more endless committees.

For Japan's teachers and pupils, this may actually be a good thing. Hiroshima has taken action on school reform and is now seeing a full-blooded tilt towards "moral education" and a return to pre-war values. Schools in the city risk being picketed if they are suspected of being sceptical of patriotism, and children report on teachers who don't open their mouths wide enough when singing the national anthem.

Perhaps the general election, due to be held by October this year, will save them all. The opposition could be voted in for the first time in more than 50 years. It will be all change then - Noh style, of course.

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