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Schooling in Japan, Part Two High School: Cultural Values in Conflict

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In Japan, as in the United States, high schools have become the prime target for much of the rhetoric surrounding educational reform. It is here, at the stage when personalities solidify and career paths take shape, that the discrepancies between what the society intends for its young and what it actually delivers become most apparent.

This clash of expectation and reality is a new phenomenon in Japan, but it has rapidly become a charged social issue. Although most immediately linked to the dislocations caused by the country's rapid rise to affluence, it also reflects a long national history of competing goals and values. And nowhere is the societal questioning more clearly displayed than in the nation's high schools, where such American prototypes as the dropout, the delinquent, and the one-dimensional achiever have just begun to surface.

The "democratized" system of education forced on Japan after World War II laid primary stress on a single-track, comprehensive high-school component that would counter the elitist elements in the prewar system. This was basically an American model, and the Japanese embraced it with such fervor that by the 1960's--with no compulsory requirement after grade 9--more than 90 percent of the eligible age group attended high school. The number of high schools increased from 50 in the prewar years to today's more than 5,000.

But the American concepts of freedom, individualism, and equal opportunity shared space in the Japanese high school with older educational traditions: the Confucian tradition of group ordering by clearly defined roles, stressing family ties, shared moral tenets, and codes of deference, and a prewar Imperial tradition stressing an additional form of social ordering--by achievement--that limited access to the topmost rungs of the meritocracy to those brilliant or wealthy enough to scale an exclusive academic ladder.

From these three disparate traditions the Japanese have fashioned an unusual--and highly efficient--system of secondary and higher education that provides, on the one hand, opportunity and uniformity, and, on the other, a merit-ordered hierarchy of schools and students determined principally by test scores.

And, until now, the system has worked with stunning success, offering assembly-line worker and corporate executive alike the kind of quality education that has gained for the Japanese workforce its reputation as the world's most literate and highly skilled.

Now, however, the pace of social and economic change is bringing the paradox in the pattern into full relief. And what the former dean of the Keio University business school calls "the dilemma between quantity and quality" has surfaced from under its "old cover of groupism."

Can equality of opportunity be real in a system where, as one educator notes, parents learn early in a child's life that the path to position and status "may be secured through the choice of the right school''? Many in Japan would like to modify that rigid pattern, but they acknowledge that awareness of the system's shortcomings will not cure deeply entrenched structural problems. To move in new directions will take time, planning, and a broad consensus on the society's priorities.

When asked how long that kind of effective consensus-building might take, one observer answered with a Chinese proverb: "Wait 100 years and the river will get clean."

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