February 20, 1985
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.
As viewers of the television mini-series Shogun learned,
Japan's first taste of European culture was bittersweet.
I learned from Ms. I. what can happen when one challenges the sanctity of the traditional values so revered in Japan.
Ms. I. is a retired physics teacher from Wakayama province who spends much of her free time volunteering in civil-rights activities. When I visited her, she was busy organizing an inservice seminar for Osaka teachers on the topic of minorities in education.
At the main gates of many Japanese elementary schools, a visitor
finds a statue of Kinjiro Ninomiya, a child carrying a load of firewood
on his back and a book in his hand. Legend has it that Kinjiro suffered
great hardship in his life yet retained an indomitable will to learn.
His statue reminds today's schoolchildren that learning and hard work
Japanese mothers are active teachers as well, and have a real
curriculum for their preschool children: Games, teaching aids, ordinary
activities are all focused on the child's development. There are
counting games for very small babies, songs to help children learn new
words, devices to focus the child's concentration.
According to a Ministry of Education publication, the "authorization
of textbooks for school use in all elementary and secondary schools in
Japan is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education."
Toshihiko Takahashi is a busy man. He directs an international
exchange program that brings about 130 recent American college
graduates to Japan each year to work for the Ministry of Education as
consultants to the English-language supervisors in Japan's 47
Tomomi, a 17-year-old high-school junior in Kudamatsu, is a talented singer who has represented her prefecture at numerous national voice competitions.
But Tomomi is frustrated. She attends the most rigorous academic high school in town, earns A's and B's, is a particularly good student in mathematics, and studies up to five hours a day so that she will be able to pass the entrance examination to attend a national university.
Change has been a historic necessity, yet it does not come easily in
Japan's careful, detail-conscious democracy.
As summer ends and the new school year approaches, I recall my own school days. How I would get pumped up for the first day of school. There were always new back-to-school clothes, and the anticipation of seeing that girl I'd been daydreaming about all summer, and catching up all the news.
I did not see that excitement in Japan. For Tomomi and Yoshihiro Nishimura and their classmates, for instance, summer vacation is a short five weeks. Their faces are long as the first day of school approaches. And no wonder.
PAGE 44 - Commentary
Something important is happening out there, deep in the grassroots of our public schools.
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