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Politics of Change

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Change has been a historic necessity, yet it does not come easily in Japan's careful, detail-conscious democracy.

Consider the word nemawashi, or "consensus building": It translates literally to mean the laborious process of digging around the roots of a tree so that it can be moved whole.

Consensus, broad and deep, is what the Japanese seek in their quest for improved schools. They have even taken the unlikely step of including foreigners in the process.

Last month, many American educators were among those worldwide to receive an elaborate nine-page survey from Tetsuya Kobayashi, director of a project called "Japanese Education Observed From Foreigners' Point of View." The project is being sponsored by the Ministry of Education to discover, in the words of Mr. Kobayashi, how "those foreigners who take an interest in Japan" view "the characteristics of Japanese education and the problems it encounters."

Digging for the Consensus

The idea of factoring in the perceptions and prescriptions of other nations is not one that would seem natural to America's reform-minded educators, but it is part of the delicate digging Prime Minister Yashuhiro Nakasone has begun to gain acceptance for his ideas on education.

Mr. Nakasone has made education reform one of the major goals of his administration and has appointed a number of panels to explore the subject. Last March, his special Conference on Culture and Education, headed by the founder of Sony Corporation, issued a report critical of the education system and calling for changes. It was followed in August by a major public-research group's study on the causes and extent of school violence, which though small by U.S. standards is a growing problem in Japan. The Minister of Education in the Nakasone government even established a joint council with the U.S. Secretary of Education to study and compare changes in secondary and higher education in the two countries.

Also last summer, the governing National Diet of Japan voted to give the Prime Minister what he had most wanted: a 25-member ad hoc Committee on Education Reform, to make, over the next three years, legislative recommendations for changing the nation's schools.

Until this point, Mr. Nakasone's reform emphasis rode a wave of popular support. The public applauded his broad objectives: to develop the creative talent, diversity, and international awareness that Japanese industry needs from its workforce; to end the intense competition for admission to college; to produce a more rigorous college curriculum; and to create more opportunities for lifetime education. Even his call for expanded moral education in the schools seems to have found wide support with a public concerned over the decline in standards of conduct among its young.

The Hard Soil of Disagreement

The trouble for Mr. Nakasone began when these admirable goals became specific. Then the process of consensus building hit the hard ground of interest groups, budget constraints, demographic pressures, and public fears.

First, the Japan Teachers' Union reiterated its long-standing view that reducing class size and easing discipline problems would be more significant reforms than changing the curriculum. The teachers were also critical of Mr. Nakasone's ad hoc committee, which includes five retired government leaders and five top financiers and corporate officials, but only two teaching professionals.

"We believe this group cannot meet the educational demands of the people," says Eiichi Yokoyama, director of people's education for the union.

Others share the teachers' reservations. Says a Japanese diplomat living in New York City: "The new commission comprises 22 men and 3 women. Basically, they are a bunch of old people, with an average age of 59.6 years. Nothing much usually comes out of a group of old men hand-picked by the Japanese government."

Japan's more liberal political parties join the teachers' union in opposing the reform committee on procedural grounds. They argue that the law establishing it violates the democratic spirit of the constitution as well as the country's Fundamental Law of Education.

Education reform should grow out of a more broadly based grass-roots initiative, these groups say, one in which parents and teachers from across the country participate. The matter is too important, they say, to be decided on the basis of recommendations handed down by a panel of 25 people who share the beliefs of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and its leader, Mr. Nakasone.

Michio Okamoto, chairman of the reform panel and former president of Kyoto University, has tried to counter much of the criticism by assuring the public and the press that his committee will consult with people from all segments of society before making its recommendations. But dissatisfaction persists.

Cost: A Familiar-Sounding Problem

Even if the committee were universally supported, however, the task of formulating proposals that could be enacted into law would be difficult, if not impossible, given Japan's current financial troubles. Reforms that cost money--such as building more schools to reduce overcrowding and hiring more teachers to create the manageable class sizes that would be needed for more individualized instruction--are probably unrealistic in the present economic climate. A $468-billion deficit in the national budget has already produced 5-percent cuts in education spending in each of the last two years and has forced the education ministry to postpone the implementation of its plan to reduce the maximum class size from 45 students to 40 over the next 12 years, mainly through the addition of some 8l,000 new teachers.

Once 11 percent of the national budget in Japan, education spending now constitutes barely 9 percent. Opponents of Mr. Nakasone blame the situation on his close ties with America's President, whom he reportedly calls "Ron-san" and is addressed by as "Yasu."

The critics say Mr. Nakasone has been too quick to agree to Reagan Administration requests for increased military expenditures, and they question the Prime Minister's sincerity on education reforms when the national coffer has no new funds earmarked for education.

(In December, a defense task force appointed by the Prime Minister called for an end to the 1976 ceiling that limits military spending to under 1 percent of the Gross National Product.)

Crowded Classrooms

Coupled with demographic changes, the lack of new education funds for building and hiring will mean that overcrowding in Japan's secondary schools will only get worse before it gets better. A baby-boom population is now moving from elementary to secondary education, a fact that is likely to have serious implications for all reform objectives.

Shunya Oyama, deputy director of the research and statistics division of the education ministry, says the number of pupils ages 6 to 11, which peaked at 12 million in 1981, has been dropping gradually, while the number of 12-to-14-year-olds is now rising, from 5.8 million this year to an expected 6 million in 1986.

By 1990, Mr. Oyama estimates, Japan's high-school students, now about 5.3 million, will number more than 6 million. And the outlook for solutions to the discipline problem that so troubles officials is not brightened by the prospect of crowded, understaffed secondary schools. Nor, educators say, does it augur well for plans to devise teaching strategems that accent individual creativity.

New Schools Unlikely

The Ministry of Education provides the country's 47 provinces, called prefectures", with half of the money needed for teacher salaries and equipment and between one-third and half of the funds for construction of school buildings. But as the ministry's funds have been cut back, prefectural and municipal governments have not taken up the slack.

Education spending has declined at that level as well, according to a report from the education ministry released last summer. In fiscal 1982, the latest year examined, local education spending rose by only 1.2 percent, the lowest increase since 1955.

Other population shifts are also increasing pressure for new classrooms that probably cannot be built in the present economic crisis. It is a situation that reform critics say makes a mockery of other, more theoretical changes being sought in the way children are taught.

New schools are badly needed, they say, in large cities, which have absorbed a massive migration of rural Japanese over the last two decades. Yet city land prices rose 31 times between 1955 and 1980, while the wages of urban employees rose only six times.

Coupled with rapidly rising construction costs, the price of land makes building almost prohibitively costly, according to the sociologist Tadashi Fukutake. "Building one's own home is expensive," Mr. Fukutake says, "building schools is nearly impossible."

Some prefectural governors try to avoid building new schools, arguing that they will not be necessary after the baby boom passes through high school. But to Yasukazu Nakamichi, an official of the Osaka Teachers' Union, the situation is intolerable now.

Schools that normally have 6 classes of 45 students per grade, he says, have had to double their capacity to take 12 classes per grade. Even though his prefecture has promised to build about 17 new schools, Mr. Nakamichi insists it will need 25 more than that to reduce class sizes to a reasonable level.

"The governors' plan is to build annexes for existing schools," Mr. Nakamichi notes. It is a step, he says, that will merely "cut down on the size of the already tiny playgrounds."

'Only Gradual Changes'

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's reform panel will take three years to complete its work, and implementation of some proposed reforms may not begin until the end of the decade, when the baby boom has begun to leave the system. Changes in the college-entrance system will probably take about 10 years, according to Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of Kyoto University's graduate school of education. By then, there may be a consensus on the issue, because, unlike today, a large portion of parents will then be college graduates themselves.

History itself may not be on the side of those who want dramatic changes in the schools. Professor Kobayashi notes that the two major restructurings of Japanese education both came under authoritarian leadership--the first under a 19th-century emperor, the second under the postwar Occupation forces.

"Now there is no supreme authority" to force change, says the professor. "There can be no major reforms, only gradual changes."

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