In July 1995, a special edition of Aera magazine reflected on 50 years of postwar evolution. Education was among the topics covered.

Two facts grab the viewer of a photograph showing an elementary school class settling into a brand new academic year. It’s April, 1947. Fact one: Boys and girls are studying together — eccentric, if not outlandish, by prewar standards. Fact two: Textbooks, in short supply, are being shared — two kids, one book. Of the textbook contents, there seems little enough left after U.S. Occupation censors assiduously blacked out anything smacking of militarism.

Good, said then-Education Minister Yoshishige Abe. “If not for our defeat,” Aera quotes him telling American educational authorities, “Japan’s militarists in their arrogance would have run this country into the ground. … Please bring your democratic values to bear as Japan reforms its education.”

Japan’s postwar education did grow up democratic — but not American-democratic. “Confucian-democratic,” perhaps. In purely academic terms, the results were fantastic. In his 1979 best-seller “Japan as Number One,” Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel celebrated Japan’s remarkably high literacy: “Whereas the United States Army must reject a sizable proportion of applicants because of illiteracy, the inability to read and write is virtually absent in Japan.”

There were wrinkles, Vogel acknowledged: “The Japanese student in his essays is more likely to follow guidelines than to develop his originality. … Entrance exams to high school or university can be so competitive as to cause students to restrict their intellectual breadth.”

Ah, those entrance exams! Tests, tests, tests! Facts, dates, formulas — memorized, regurgitated, forgotten. For aspirants to the junior high schools, senior high schools and universities reputable enough to oil an upward career path, life became “a relentless grind of study, followed by mock exams, followed by more study … for months (at a time), from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week” — so wrote The New York Times in 1988.

What does this do to the psyche? “Every year,” the Times continued, “some students crack under the strain. In February (1988), a 23-year-old man who had tried six times to get into Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University hanged himself after having looked at the wrong list and concluded that he had failed again. His body was found just after the telegram arrived informing him that he had passed.”

The relentless pressure has eased a bit in recent years. If the system hasn’t changed much, demographics have, imposing different imperatives. A declining student-age population means empty university classrooms and awkward compromises to fill them — lower standards, for example. So “exam hell” is less hellish — but not much less Confucian, in terms of reliance on standardized tests, rote learning and dutiful regurgitation.

Confucius himself might be bemused at the durability of remnants of his thinking, some 2,500 years after his death and roughly three decades into the pell-mell adventure we call “globalization.” What good is rote learning in an age when today’s techno-fantasy is tomorrow’s techno-reality, yesterday’s wisdom tomorrow’s nonsense?

Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, unabashedly conservative in his political views, emerges as a reformer in at least some aspects of his portfolio, for it is he who is sending “exam hell” as we know it packing. By 2020 it will be a quaint memory. Exams there will still be, but unrecognizable to today’s examinees. Aera this month sums up the main difference thus: “No more right answers.”

“Right answers,” long the bane of progressive educational thinking in the West, to this day bedevil the Confucian East. Students don’t think — they know. Or else don’t know. Tests are designed to separate the knowers from the rest, marking both for life. The test format, overwhelmingly, is multiple choice. One question, four answers, one of them right, the others wrong. Objectivity is the chief merit. The examiners’ biases, whatever they may be, will not taint the grading process. With essays, who knows? Essays encourage creativity and imagination, but the grade you earn may depend on the person grading, who may think your originality brilliant or stupid, bold or impertinent. Shimomura, in his talk with Aera, acknowledged as much. “Complaints may arise,” he said, “because of perceived subjectivity in grading.” He asks for understanding. The system his ministry is designing for use beginning in 2020 “is in response to the demands of a new age.” Ideas, not facts. Thinking, not knowing.

Some schools are already there. Aera profiles several of them, among them Kumon International School in Yokohama. Founded in 1993, it boasts a high proportion of foreigners and returnees among its 1,000-strong student body. It’s a boarding school, fusing junior and senior high school into one six-year curriculum. Dormitory living is part of the education. Do the lights go off at night, or does a night-light stay on? Some kids prefer one, others the other. Whose way prevails? Teachers butt out, letting the kids negotiate. They compromise — lights out one night, on the next. Some day, engaged in more important negotiations on a global stage, they’ll look back on this as a first step in the acquisition of a vital skill.

Lessons focus on themes, not facts. A first-year senior-high class is discussing “support for education in developing countries.” A girl about to have her say is interrupted by the bell. Class is over. “Wait!” She’s upset. “Let me speak!” What’s more important — the clock, or the point she’s so eager to make? She prevails, and wins her extra time.

A riddle: When is a nation like a classroom? Answer (one among many): On the eve of the 70th anniversary of its defeat in a war, some of whose worst excesses it has officially, if grudgingly, accepted blame for — to the chagrin of its currently serving prime minister, who may, or then again may not, use the occasion to issue a commemorative declaration annulling or attenuating past apologies.

Shimomura, shortly before his appointment in December 2012 as education minister, told The Wall Street Journal, “The 67 years since the end of World War II have been a history of Japan’s destruction.” He meant the national mea culpas, seen in some quarters as deeply humiliating.

Most Japanese would probably disagree. They see the war itself as having been “Japan’s destruction,” and national postwar humility as purifying rather than disgraceful. Shimomura’s remote predecessor, postwar education minister Yoshishige Abe, cited above, is probably more representative of national sentiment today than is Shimomura himself. But Shimomura is education minister in an administration that has deplored what it calls “masochistic history,” favoring instead what critics call “revisionist” history — truth sacrificed, if necessary, to the prior claims of patriotism and national pride.

Where will he lead the nation’s schools? Into the 21st century via reform, or backward, willfully blind to some of the clearest and bitterest lessons history has ever taught us?

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.