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Immaculate and ramrod straight in a crisp, black suit, Japan’s education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, speaks like a schoolteacher — slowly and deliberately. His brow creases with concern when he talks about Japan’s diminished place in the world, its years of anemic economic growth and poorly competing universities. Mostly, though, he appears to be worried about the moral and spiritual decline of the nation’s youth.

“The biggest problem with Japanese education is the tremendous self-deprecation of our high school children,” he says in an interview at his Tokyo office. He cites an international survey in which children are asked: “Are there times when you feel worthless?” Eighty-four percent of Japanese kids say yes — double the figure in the United States, South Korea and China, he laments. “Without changing that, Japan has no future.”

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