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The coming months will probably see one policy proposal after another, both official and private, for Japan in the 21st century, in the wake of a challenging report last week from a private advisory council to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. A review of Japan’s options titled “Japan’s Goals for the 21st Century,” the report urges drastic reform and rethinking of everything from existing political and legal institutions, education and immigration to diplomacy and national security.

Many of the ideas expressed are audacious. Politically, the panel advocates a dramatic shift away from organized institutions to the individual. A new Japanese term, “kyochi” — or cooperative governance — was coined to highlight the need for popular empowerment and the promotion of a two-way exchange of ideas between government and governed. In diplomacy, another new phrase, “rinko,” or neighbor diplomacy, was created to underscore the need for comprehensive relations with Japan’s neighbors, particularly South Korea and China, and an improved relationship with North Korea.

But it is the underlying theme of promoting individualism and individual responsibility that probably sounds most anomalous, even heretical, to Japanese ears. For decades, indeed for centuries, Japanese culture and society have been rooted in the collective. Our values have always championed the common good against the demands of individual rights. We have created a system in which personal accountability and responsibility have been accorded a lesser place. Homogeneity and harmony have been the keywords in ethics and social behavior.

Council members, however, seem convinced that the new millennium promises a changed landscape, in which only mental agility, originality and a spirit of enterprise based on self-interest can successfully navigate the hazards of a globalized brave new world. Thus, in education, the report pushes for reforms that will help nurture individual development, create diversity and enhance flexibility. In the workplace, too, the report advocates heterogeneity and equitable parity rather than uniformity. Pay, for instance, should be based on merit and performance rather than age and length of employment alone.

The report’s extensive scope and innovative approach to the future are commendable. Its suggested introduction of three days of compulsory classes, allowing two days for extracurricular subjects or activities, is a case in point. It is refreshing just to think of Japanese teenagers being spared the long hours they must now spend in formal schooling and in cramming. Knowledge, it is true, is vital in any society, but the traditional Japanese system of putting all the emphasis on discipline and the three R’s stifles creativity and originality, and the result is plainly shown in one single measure: the number of Japanese Nobel laureates.

Another novel idea is the suggestion that Japan may “one day” make English a second official language. This seemingly far-fetched idea must have prompted chuckles among those who remember the result of a recent international study ranking the Japanese command of English very low among Asian nations. The very novelty of the panel’s recommendation should, therefore, shock the mandarins of Japan’s education system into pondering what has gone so wrong despite all the effort — and money — we have spent on getting Japanese children to learn the lingua franca of today’s technological and commercial world.

If there is one conclusion the panel reached, it is that Japan can no longer rely on the judgment and leadership of a powerful, elite coterie of politicians, big businessmen and bureaucrats to decide the destiny of the nation. The individuals of this country need to establish a new relationship with the government, with the society and within ourselves.

Japan must change: everything from our fossilized political system to the way we regard the non-Japanese in our midst. The sudden adoption of an open-door immigration policy is, of course, impracticable, but surely that is the way to go if Japan is to seek diversity (rather than, as some suggest, to supplement its labor pool in an aging society.)

As the world becomes one big global village, there is no longer a “Japanese way” of coping with the future. Japan has to ride with the tide and draw up a comprehensive balance sheet to see what works and what doesn’t work in our nation. It must dare to face the stark realities, take a deep breath and change what must be changed. If realizing and admitting to a problem is indeed the first step toward solving it, then the 21st-century panel report has given us a good starting point for thought and action.

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