JAPAN. Economic stagnation and the promise of a future dominated by information technology have triggered government demands for sweeping education reforms.
The present system, geared to churning out the homogenised yes-men and women who have served Japan so well in the past, has no future, the usually conservative government has decided.
New education minister Takashi Kosugi set the ball rolling at the start of the year by announcing that children could at last learn about one of Japan's darker chapters - the suffering of Korean "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Second World War. And in August a court ruled that the government's censorship of school textbooks to remove references to biochemical experiments on humans, also during the war, was illegal.
More contemporary horrors gripped the nation during the summer after 11-year-old Jun Hase's severed head was found outside his school in Kobe. His 14-year-old friend was arrested and, according to police reports, confessed to the murder and that of a 10-year-girl.
The 14-year-old's alleged criticism of his schooling led to nationwide soul-searching about the education system, and spotlighted some teachers' harsh treatment of pupils. Incidents of teacher violence towards pupils rocketed in 1997. The strain felt by students was also reflected by the rising number of truants.
Bullying leading to suicides and suicide threats from bullied students made increasingly disturbing headlines. It was against this background that the Japan Teachers' Union (JTU) declared the "right of the child to be absent from school" at its annual conference. Teachers were hoping that the move, although illegal, would save some children.
Meanwhile, truancy linked to delinquency was also up, with schools finding that some pupils were part-time muggers (unheard of in Japan until recently) and prostitutes. The government responded with demands for more "moral education" at school while parents rushed to take their children out of the soon-to-be-liberalised state schools and into private schools.
It seems that while the government considers that the current regimented, over-exam-centred learning system is damaging Japan's young and its chances of competing in a global economy, parents think differently. The recent favouring of private schools indicates that parents believe that the traditional approach will keep their children off the streets and edge them into a good job.
The government (egged on by industry, which wants more individualistic employees) also faces a battle with civil servants over the reform proposals, which were hastily put together in the spring. Plans for changes such as the reduction of the current six-day school week to five days have incensed the ultra-conservative education bur-eaucrats. Meanwhile, the teachers who have been demanding an end to the ministry's rigid totalitarianism for years are relishing the turmoil.
The government feels it has now made the right moves, if a little late in the day, to ensure Japan's international competitiveness with a western-style "comprehensive" system that will emphasise excellence and creativity. Whether this can be squared with the highly competitive and conformist outlook of the majority of Japanese remains to be seen - 1998 will be a difficult transition year.