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Schooling in Japan, Part Three Change and Constancy

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A venturesome blending of old cultural values with new and foreign ideas has given Japanese education its dynamism. A cautious insistence on planning has given it stability.

"The Japanese anticipate problems," one U.S. scholar says. "Americans react to them." While American education seems a patchwork of programs, built in fits and starts as national needs become apparent, the Japanese system is a smooth-running whole, built progressively and by design.

But now, as the pressure for reform mounts, will the old patterns hold?

Amid unparalleled prosperity, the Japanese people are changing in ways that none among them could have anticipated. Unquestioned social roles are slowly being altered; traditional ties to family and community are showing signs of stress; authority is less sure; and the tenacious group spirit is giving way to inwardness.

Noting the Japanese government's own surveys, one scholar remarks on the "virtual impossibility of finding a living Japanese over the age of, say, 45 who doubts the existence of a severe malaise among the alienated young." Another attributes to Japanese youths a "new skepticism toward authority and established politics." A third says that while in the old days new parents' dreams for their young were unreachable and grand, in today's middle-class nation they are merely for "peace and stability."

But history has shown the self-critical pronouncements of the Japanese to be a poor indication of the nation's current circumstance, much less its future direction.

Writing during the Meiji reign--that enlightened era when learning and prosperity were rife--one cultural critic saw nothing but ruin and waste. "The least critical inquiry into the character of our civilization in its current phase," he said, "will show that the country is disfigured by many imperfections and failings."

Less prescient still have been the forecasts of foreign observers. In his book Japanese Society, the Cornell University anthropologist Robert J. Smith quotes a British newspaperman as saying in 1881: "The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little, are not likely to achieve much."

A far more reliable gauge of the strength of their resolve might be this ancient Japanese proverb: "Firm determination penetrates even a rock."

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