Gearing toward individual-oriented education in Japan is a worthy goal, but whether it is actually possible remains questionable, according to the only foreign member of a core advisory panel to the education minister.

Samuel Shepherd, executive director of the Tokyo-based Japan-U.S. Educational Commission, said he anticipates a gradual diversification of education in the long run, as envisioned by a draft report recently released by the Central Council for Education. “Encouraging more individuality, more creativity — I agree with those objectives,” Shepherd said. “At the same time, I think it’s very, very difficult within the current cultural, social and educational framework. It will take a while.”

The 37-member council’s draft calls for an epoch-making switch of emphasis in education from uniformity to individuality. Its proposals include introducing six-year public secondary schools and relaxing the minimum age requirement for university enrollment from 18 to 17 for exceptionally bright students. A formal recommendation is to be submitted to the minister later this month.

Shepherd, a 51-year-old Oklahoman who has spent more than 20 years in Japan, mostly during his school years, specializes in international educational exchanges. The commission he has been leading since 1994 handles the Fulbright scholarship program.

Appointed by the Education Ministry in 1995, he has served at one of the two subcouncils that deals with setting up “special mechanisms” in the educational system. These include lowering the age requirement for college matriculation of high school students who excel at math or physics.

Implications of the mechanism appeared in a general comment made by the council’s chairman, Akito Arima, who said the current rigid educational system cannot produce Nobel laureates. Shepherd supports the special mechanism concept but has voiced a more radical, yet in a way, conservative opinion: Scrap the age limit altogether so younger students can take college courses, just don’t enroll them.

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