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Harnessing Education for Growth

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To absorb the full splendor of Japan's rise as an economic superpower--and the role that education has played in that rise--requires an appreciation of how far, how quickly, and with how few resources the Japanese have come.

Little more than a century ago, Japan was a nation of rice planters and silkworm farmers, isolated by choice from the rest of the world and ruled not by a business-oriented elite but by military warlords, the shogun.

Its first cautious moves toward accepting the double-edged sword of Western influence came as the United States, fresh from the completion of its traumatic Civil War, was busy inventing the future. In less than a decade, the telephone would join the cotton gin, the turbine, the steamboat, and the McCormack reaper in America's technological storehouse. The industrial revolution was at full tilt, and Japan was barely beyond feudalism.

Growth by Exponents

Today, the island nation is not only America's biggest trading partner but also its fiercest economic competitor. Reaching that point has taken exponential growth. Consider these familiar yet startling statistics:

  • Five years after World War II, Japan's Gross National Product--a prime indicator of national productivity and standard of living--was only about 6 percent of that of the United States. By 1982, it was 75 percent of the U.S. GNP and was increasing at twice the American rate.
  • During the last decade, industrial productivity grew by almost 110 percent in Japan. In the United States, it climbed by only about 30 percent.
  • As the world leader in robotics and optical electronics and a major international supplier of textiles, steel, automobiles, electronics, and semiconductors, Japan enjoys a healthy and growing trade surplus, even though it must rely on imports for much of its food and energy needs. The United States, once the world's export leader, has experienced record trade deficits since the early 1970's.
  • A nation devastated and depleted by military defeat only 40 years ago, Japan is today the second-largest economy in the world, accounting for almost 10 percent of the world's GNP and boasting its second-highest level of personal income. More than a third of the world's three dozen largest banks are Japanese.

Incredibly, these accomplishments have come from a nation that is roughly the size of California in land mass, has few natural resources, and must crowd its growing population, now one-half that of the United States, onto mountainous island land that is largely unarable and, in many areas, uninhabitable.

The Resources Are 'Human'

How did the Japanese do it? The question nags as insistently at the world's older industrial nations as it does emerging Third World countries.

Economists generally cite a combination of factors--from favorable government action to efficient management to the nation's extremely high level of personal savings (the world's highest)--as contributing to the transformation. But both admiring observers and the Japanese themselves ascribe a large measure of the economic tour de force to Japan's unyielding and carefully orchestrated attention to education.

"Japan's resources are human resources," explains Riyoichi Matsumura, the chief of geography instruction in Yamaguchi province. "Schools cultivate the human talent that provides the ability and productivity that allows the nation to survive."

If Not Land, Then Intellect

Indeed, Japan, seeking now to move deeper into a knowledge-intensive economy, is a nation that, by tradition and temperament as well as self-interest, maintains a special reverence for the learning process. Throughout its history, its people have compensated for the lack of land and resources by developing the intellect. Today, as never before, the Japanese have mobilized their hopes and aspirations around their children, demanding much, yet offering at the same time a measure of support for learning not often found in this country.

In the three decades since postwar Occupation forces left the island, Japan has increased the percentage of its population attending high school from 45 percent to 93 percent; only 3 percent of those attending fail to graduate. (By contrast, some 28 percent of American high-school students drop out.)

The nation boasts a 99.3-percent literacy rate, one of the highest in the world, with all Japanese youths completing a rigorous compulsory education through grade 9 that provides them with basic skills that are considered well above American standards.

Students attend school 60 days longer in Japan than in the United States (240 days a year, compared with 180), attending classes on Saturday mornings as well as seven hours a day on weekdays. As a group, they spend considerably more out-of-class time studying, with 36 percent of Japanese high-school seniors questioned in a recent National Institute of Education study saying they spent 10 hours or more per week on homework.

(That figure was more than six times the percentage of U.S. seniors who said they studied 10 or more hours per week. The percentage of U.S. students saying they spent fewer than five hours per week on homework was, on the other hand, more than double that of the Japanese students--76 percent to 35 percent.)

Reverence, Sacrifice for Learning

The motivation, discipline, and emotional support enabling students to master this demanding school regimen grows out of Japan's near-universal consensus that education is important. In Japan, families sacrifice not only to send their children to college, but often to send them to private supplementary schools called juku, which merely add to the children's learning at regular elementary and secondary schools. Japanese parents devote much of their time and energy to seeing that teachers and schools meet the needs of their children--and that their children live up to expectations. There is even a Japanese word for the kind of special educational attention and support given children almost from birth by forward-looking Japanese mothers. It is kyoiku mama, meaning, literally, "education mama."

"Across the population, among parents, at all institutional and bureaucratic levels, and highest on the list of national priorities is the stress on excellence in education," writes the sociologist Merry I. White in the Summer l984 issue of The Public Interest. Director of the Project for Human Potential at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Ms. White says that the emphasis on education is not mere rhetoric in Japan, that the Japanese have made a vital connection that still eludes Americans.

"If Americans realized how powerful the relationship is between Japanese school achievement and social and economic success," she says, '' we might see the same kind of protectionist language aimed at the Japanese educational system that we see directed at their automobile industry."

To Harvard's Ezra F. Vogel, author of Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, the nation's "group-directed quest for knowledge" is, quite simply, the single greatest factor in its economic renaissance.

Harnessing Education for Growth

Education's importance to industrial growth has not been lost on Japan's leaders.

When the Occupation forces left the island in 1952, one of the first of the U.S.-imposed educational reforms to be scrapped was decentralization. Today, through a strong centralized Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (called Mombusho), the national consensus for education can be mobilized, molded into unified national standards and a rigorous common curriculum, and directed to meet specific national needs. This power has been an especially potent force in Japan's recent industrial surge, with economic and educational planning often closely linked within the central government.

Several other related social factors are credited with helping to enhance the quality of Japanese education:

  • The country's occupational system clearly links job opportunities with educational attainments, increasing the motivation for both quality and quantity in schooling. In addition, most major Japanese industries offer employees a range of educational opportunities, from attendance at the full-scale technical schools run by Honda, Toyota, and other large corporations to advanced study abroad, elaborate on-the-job training programs, and in-house continuing education.
  • The national government helps to provide relatively equal funding for all Japanese schools, regardless of location. This helps support uniformity in educational quality throughout Japan and makes it easier to attract teachers and administrators to remote regions of the country.
  • The people respect and reward their teachers. Japanese teachers are well trained, have status in the community, receive wages comparable to professionals in other fields, and perform a variety of functions, from counseling and coaching to visiting students in their homes.

Can Japan Now Lead?

Despite this progress and commitment, however, education in today's Japan is, like the country itself, at a major turning point. Japanese educators are struggling, along with the nation's business and political leaders, to solve problems that are, ironically, the by-products of success.

William K. Cummings, senior fellow at America's East-West Center and the author of Equality and Education in Japan, says the country has spent much of its modern history with one overriding goal: "catching up with the West." This has been as true in education, he notes, as in economics.

Now, having caught up with Western progress in many spheres (and even having surpassed the growth of some Western powers), the nation and its people are facing a new challenge: leading, rather than following. Mr. Cummings and others who have studied Japanese education say that to bring the nation through this next stage of growth, the schools will have to evolve in new, uncharted ways.

Japan has achieved its phenomenal success in the industrial sphere as the world's foremost refiner of concepts, a peerless manufacturer and marketer of other nations' basic discoveries. But as the country's 1980 plan for economic development argues, to continue to prosper Japan must now become the producer of ideas--a world leader in innovation.

New Traits for New Times

The development of a strong national capacity for research and innovation will require, however, the nurturing of traits and abilities not presently rewarded in Japanese schools--originality, diversity, creativity, risk-taking, inventiveness. And many Japanese educators are being forced to consider the notion that, as good as the country's education system has been for building a competitive economy, it may not be suited to the task of placing Japan at the cutting edge of research.

For one thing, Japan's colleges and universities, from which a good portion of the graduate study and fundamental research needed to spur inventive minds would come, have traditionally been a weak link in the overall education system. The real academic challenge in Japan, say knowledgeable observers, is getting into college, especially the right one. Practically all who enter, they say, earn degrees, though their intellects may not necessarily have been honed by the rigors of independent thinking.

Prime Minister Yashuhiro Nakasone, a leading proponent of educational reform, has been especially critical of higher education, likening the academic atmosphere at Japanese colleges to "Disneyland."

A Hunger for 'Extraordinary People'

A more fundamental problem, however, is the very nature of education in Japan: its emphasis on providing the same level of instruction for all, without regard to individual ability or development; its stress on memorization and facts, rather than on thinking and problem-solving; its heavy reliance on tests as a measure of both achievement and potential. The standardization that has served Japan so well in the past, producing a uniformly well-educated work force, may not be the medium through which creative genius can be nurtured.

"What Japan hungers for today is not a uniform crop of gifted students but people with extraordinary talents, heterodox people, human resources with the potential for achieving great things," writes Masanori Moritani, senior researcher at the Nomura Institute, in a book on the future of Japanese technology. Mr. Moritani fears that the very people his nation needs to single out--"the extraordinary and unorthodox among us"--are those "most likely to be numbered among the dropouts in today's education system."

The problem is no small matter. The bias against catering to the individual goes well beyond mere educational philosophy and has its roots deep in the culture's Confucian past. Such traits as loyalty, obedience, cooperation, and other-directedness, once the very core of a Japanese education, remain strong elements in the national character. And many in this island nation whose population density is 13 times that of the United States fear the consequences of any move toward increased individualization.

Threat to the 'Asian Mind'

Already, a theme common to previous eras of educational restructuring in Japan can be heard loudly in government and among the citizenry: the schooling has made the nation too "Westernized" and Japan is losing some of its "Asian mind."

Yutaka Okihara, dean of the faculty of education at Hiroshima University, says the exhortation of Japan's late-19th-century leaders that the people should "go out from Asia and enter Europe" has been carried to its extreme. The country is losing much of the cohesion gained from its Asian values and getting in return the chaos of Western success, he complains.

"We have the benefits of comfortable houses and high-speed trains, but we also have the problem of school violence and delinquency," says Mr. Okihara. "The challenge that faces us is harmonizing freedom and wealth with discipline."

That challenge has intensified the education reform movement. In a final report released last March, the Conference on Culture and Education, a special government task force headed by Masaru Ibuka, founder of the Sony Corporation, criticized "the evil impact of uniform education" and the "harmful effects of an educational set-up entirely biased to entrance examinations." But it also lamented a weakening in the moral fiber of Japanese youth--a consequence, said the report, of forgotten "responsibilities and duties."

Bolstering traditional group-related values through increased "moral education" in the schools has been urged by corporate leaders, politicians, and laymen alike. Yet most Japanese also support the conclusions of their government's recent 10-year planning report, Outlook and Guidelines for the Economy and Society in the 1980's, which urges the country to break out of its tradition of conformity to encourage greater "diversity," "flexibility," and "creativity" in matters economic and educational.

Reconciling the Differences

The task of reconciling these warring wishes--for greater group identity while deferring to the exceptional, for more of the past while moving toward the future--will fall to a new government panel. After much debate, the National Diet of Japan last summer approved the establishment of a 25-member ad hoc Committee on Education Reform, appointed by Prime Minister Nakasone and charged with proposing specific reforms for the schools over the next three years.

Among the more formidable challenges facing the committee will be recommending changes in the well-entrenched system of entrance examinations that has dominated Japanese education--and Japanese society at large--for decades.

Although it is geared to uniformity and standardization, Japan's system of education is also an unusually rigid meritocracy, selecting its best and brightest, as judged by national examinations, for placement in the better secondary schools, for entry into college, and for admission to the prestige universities from which most of the nation's leaders graduate. Almost every step on the educational ladder is made through a standardized test, and each of those steps affects how far the student will be able to climb--in school and beyond.

Tests: The Omnipresent Hurdle

So much of a Japanese student's future depends on test scores, in fact, that much of his life is spent merely preparing for the examinations. From junior high onward, the number of extracurricular activities a Japanese child engages in shrinks in proportion to the nearness of exam time. Supplemental schools and tutors do a thriving business.

By the time a student reaches the the Joint Achievement Test, an annual nine-hour battery of tests that determines college admission, he may be exhausted, traumatized, and certain that his life chances hang on the correct responses to multiple-choice questions in five areas. Those who fail to score high enough to gain entry to a prestigious university often go back to their books for another year, forming part of a flourishing class of quasi-students called ronin. The word means, literally, "wave men," "wanderers," or "masterless samurai." These wave men wandering Japan for a second--and even third or fourth--shot at the college of their choice now number more than 214,000.

Because of the make-or-break nature of the testing system, many have begun to accuse the nation's teachers of teaching only how to pass tests, not how to think, reason, or succeed in the real world.

Dean Okihara of Hiroshima University expresses the view of many educators in hoping that the reform panel will alter the entrance-examination systems for high school and college. Such a move, he says, would improve education by rewarding a broader range of abilities and allowing students more time and freedom to explore subject matter and extend their knowledge.

But, like many of his colleagues, Mr. Okihara would not like to see the examinations eliminated entirely. Then, he warns, Japan might end up "like the United States--with 13 percent of our 18 year-olds functionally illiterate."

Making Haste, Slowly

Because of the complexities involved and the deep divisions of opinion that exist, most observers of the current reform process think changes of any kind will come slowly. The political battle over reform is currently big news, but the public seems content--for the moment, at least--to resist major alterations in a system working well enough to be the envy of the free world.

Still, the uncertain nature of the Japanese economy, facing deficit problems of its own and protectionist threats against its exports, reminds the Japanese of their vulnerability as the world's "fragile superpower." And their response to that vulnerability is a traditional insistence on maintaining the strongest possible advantage in education.

Says Mr. Matsumura, the geography teacher, noting his country's need for superior expertise to offset its reliance on others for resources: "What we produce are cameras and watches and cars. If we lose the ability to produce and trade these goods for what we require, we will be in trouble. We can't eat our Minolta or our Seiko."

Haruno Kubota, a blue-collar worker at a sheet-metal factory in Kudamatsu, speaks excitedly about quality control in education. He likens economic competition to a race--a race in which minds and not feet will prevail. "Our schools must give us more and better training to improve productivity," he says. "That will ensure a better life for all.''

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