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Hone science, tech abilities: education chief

by Setsuko Kamiya

Promoting science and technology is every bit as important as improving the education system in general, according to Tsuneo Suzuki, the newly appointed education, culture, sports, science and technology minister.

“This is really a key to the future of Japan,” the 67-year-old Suzuki said in a recent interview.

The government is implementing a five-year plan through 2010 to strengthen science and technology research and development — at a cost of ¥25 trillion.

While acknowledging the government’s tough financial straits, Suzuki said he will push hard to secure the necessary funding.

“We need to work on nurturing and securing talent as well as promote basic research so we can win in global competition,” he said.

This is Suzuki’s first appointment to the Cabinet in his 19-year career as a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker. And this will also be his last. Believing that retirement should come at age 65, Suzuki, a former reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, has stated publicly he will not run in the next election, which will be held by September 2009 at the latest but could be called earlier.

Thus he was pleasantly surprised to be nominated as minister for the field he has concentrated on during his Diet career.

“Education is the basis of the country, and now that I’ve been appointed to this position, I’m going to work even harder than I have,” he said.

Among the issues Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has asked Suzuki to work on is reforming the boards of education, a task linked directly to the corruption scandal in Oita Prefecture involving the hiring and promotion of teachers.

“What happened is beyond an outrage. Adults have betrayed children, and they must be impeached,” Suzuki said, adding he will work swiftly to ascertain the problems and reform the boards in a way that will not affect the education children receive.

Suzuki was among those who supported the five-day school week and more pressure-free education, which has drawn criticism for allegedly resulting in a decline in scholastic achievement. The Education Rebuilding Council under the administration of Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, proposed increasing class hours by 10 percent in elementary and junior high schools.

Suzuki said the goal of pressure-free education is nurturing children comprehensively, not just academically. “We will have to make some amendments to the policy, but I believe the direction is right,” he said.

As the environment is another area Suzuki has worked on as a lawmaker, he expressed interest in providing more opportunities for children to experience nature, and said he will start discussions on the possibility of introducing environmental studies in the school curriculum.

Regarding the controversial new supplementary education guideline for junior high school social studies textbooks that describes a pair of South Korea-controlled islets as part of Japanese territory, Suzuki said he will not comment on diplomatic issues but allowed that “we should try our best to keep this from having a negative impact on Japanese-South Korean relations.”

In the guideline, the islets, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, are described as part of Japanese territory. The modified textbooks will enter the system in 2012.

The news outraged Seoul and South Korea’s ambassador was recalled. He only recently returned to Tokyo.

Considered a dove among the conservative LDP, Suzuki said he is going to try to achieve the government’s ambitious goal of bringing in 300,000 exchange students a year by 2020.

“There is a lot of charm in this country, and if we can convey that to more foreigners and attract them to come study in Japan, I think it is possible” to meet that goal, Suzuki said.