It has long been recognized that Japan’s educational system is badly in need of reform. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori repeatedly makes it clear that he agrees. The indications are plentiful: the collapse of classroom discipline in elementary schools; the rising rates of prolonged absenteeism and physical violence, sometimes directed against teachers; bullying in junior and senior high schools and the rise in teenage crime; the lack of any serious interest in studying among many college and university students; and the stresses created by an extreme emphasis on test results and entrance examinations.

This is not, however, as some conservative elements would have it, a verdict of failure on the postwar changes in education instituted in 1947. Those changes were embodied in the new Fundamental Law of Education enacted during the Occupation and were intended to establish Japan as a peaceful and democratic nation. It is true that the 11 articles of the law were basically framed by American Occupation officials, but this was done with input from the Japanese members of a specially appointed Education Reform Council. The new law has largely succeeded in fulfilling its purpose.

The problems facing the country’s educational system today do not reflect flaws inherent in the postwar law as much as the changing needs of changing times. Japan today is too different from the Japan of 1947 to want to see a return, as Mr. Mori keeps suggesting, to the “good things” among the rigid principles of the Imperial Rescript on Education issued in 1890, which served as a powerful tool of political indoctrination until it was rescinded at the end of World War II.

The rescript describes a “unique national polity” (the Japanese term is “kokutai”) based on historical ties between rulers and subjects, and stresses the virtues of filial piety and loyalty to the emperor. It was the prime minister’s use of “kokutai” in a recent speech to refer to the citizens of today’s Japan that created an uproar, as so many of his public utterances do. In his policy speech to the Diet last week, Mr. Mori again called for a complete review of the Fundamental Law of Education, insisting that the nation faces a crisis and that there is no time to waste in instituting educational reforms.

The prime minister’s continuing emphasis on this may stem in part from his having previously served as education minister. It seems clear, however, that his statements also reflect deeply held personal views. The National Commission on Educational Reform, a private advisory body to the prime minister, has just released a draft report containing several far-reaching recommendations, such as changing the start of the university academic year from April to September, lowering the minimum university-entrance age to 15 from 18, allowing children as young as 5 to enter elementary school, and introducing several weeks of compulsory community service for students in elementary, junior and senior high schools.

The commission, chaired by Mr. Reona (Leo) Esaki, Nobel Prize laureate in physics and former president of Tsukuba University, also recommended that about half of the nation’s public junior and senior high schools should combine their curricula into a single six-year course. This would release junior high school graduates from the requirement of taking entrance examinations for senior high school since some 97 percent of them now go on to the higher level. The panel meets again this month and the changes proposed by its three committees will be submitted to the prime minister next month.

Mr. Esaki acknowledges that many of his commission’s recommendations would require revision of the Fundamental Law of Education. That much is understood. The law has been revised before, the first time as early as 1956. But sufficient time is required for both the public and the education establishment to understand and digest the changes that may be coming. Yet Mr. Mori says he wants to act as soon as possible, even before the commission submits its September report. Why is he in such a rush, or is this simply another political ploy? Many of the changes mentioned by the prime minister in his speech are the same as those of the advisory commission.

In its report last week, the panel noted that its recommended changes offer no guaranteed solution for the many problems facing Japanese education. They could not stop falling enrollments caused by the declining birthrate, for example, or the ongoing breakdown in discipline. The suggestion of morality classes for elementary schools, a concept close to the prime minister’s heart, may seem promising, but it raises immediate questions about purpose and content. Many voters would first like to see more signs of genuine morality displayed by Mr. Mori’s inner circle.

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