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For an inside view on how Japan Inc. really operates, take a look at the workings of the National People’s Council on Education Reform, now winding up its discussions and of which I was made a member, although I am not a Japanese national.

The council was formed following deep alarm last year over the seeming breakdown of school standards and youth morality. Former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi established it, saying education would be even more important than the economy in deciding Japan’s 21st century future. The current prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, who was once education minister and has a keen interest in using the education system to revive traditional beliefs and mores, is equally involved.

The organization behind the Council has been impressive. We were allocated to appropriate subcommittees, which met almost weekly. Discussion was free and wide-ranging. Officials remained unobtrusive and attentive. Verbatim records and summaries, and needed backup materials, were produced almost overnight.

Then as the subcommittees produced their reports, repeated plenary meetings were held in the prime minister’s residence to try and thrash out final details, with the chairman, Nobel Prize-winner Reona Esaki, working hard to find consensus.

Even so, asking 26 private citizens with very different backgrounds to agree on something that is supposed to decide the future of Japan was never going to be easy. The government, and Mori especially, had hoped the strong conservative bias in the council’s membership would help realize its aim of gaining approval for changes to the allegedly U.S.-imposed 1947 Basic Law on Education.

But opposition from just a few members was enough to prevent full endorsement. I personally tried to make the point that most genuine democracies saw no need for government to try to impose educational ideals on the people. The council had devoted enormous attention to the need for families to take more responsibility for education and for school children to be involved in local volunteer and welfare activities. Few seemed to realize that the much-admired attention paid to education by families and communities in the United States was precisely because the central government had kept out of things.

Japan Inc. still likes to assume that the masses have to be led, and that problems can be solved by directives from above. My comment that Japan was one of the few genuinely communist societies drew laughs, but little self-reflection.

The silver lining to all this was the ease with which my subcommittee was able to push through proposals for some revolutionary changes in higher-level education here. The other committees were too busy discussing philosophy to try to interfere.

Most publicity has gone to our proposal to lower the age limit for university entrance to below the rigid Education Ministry limit of 18 — the key not just to encouraging talent but also, as I see it, to education dispersal, with bright 17-year-olds willing to enter good provincial universities rather than try for elite universities in Tokyo. This in turn led to proposing that the age threshold for primary-school entrance be lowered from 6 to 5.

For me, an even greater goal was approval for something I call “provisional university entrance” (zantei nyugaku). Anyone familiar with the education system here realizes the harm done when young people’s futures are decided through one highly artificial university-entrance exam at age 18.

Zantei nyugaku would have all borderline students being allowed to enter their university of choice provisionally, with a deciding exam at the end of first year. In short they would be tested not on their ability to memorize high-school textbooks but on their ability to handle first-year university education.

This could also be of major benefit to foreign students, Asians especially. Not just the entrance exams, but lack of funds and Japanese-language ability all discourage people from wanting to study in Japan.

But thanks to a Justice Ministry committee on immigration policy (of which I am also a member), there could be a neat way out of this dilemma.

Japan’s very successful working-holiday visa scheme is now limited almost entirely to Westerners under age 26. Why not expand it to cover all students, Western or otherwise, who have been promised provisional entrance? A Japanese university could promise this to students it believed would be suitable. Those students would then qualify for a visa allowing them to work freely in Japan for up to two years, improving their Japanese and earning income.

After two years, they would then enter the Japanese university that had in effect sponsored them, and have a further year to prepare for what in effect would be their entrance exam. The determination of those students, Chinese students especially, to succeed in that exam would be a major stimulus to fellow Japanese students.

Such a scheme would also do much to restore the harmful (for Japan) imbalance between Asians studying in the U.S. and Japan; help the government reach its only half-completed goal of 100,000 overseas students; and do much to rescue the finances of the hundred or so private universities currently threatened by bankruptcy as the numbers of Japanese students decline relentlessly.

If some of the graduates from this scheme would then take out Japanese citizenship, Japan would also be on the way to finding an immigration policy that did not open floodgates to undesirables — a major topic in our Justice Ministry committee discussions.

Another other small victory in the Education Council was the proposal for double majors in universities. This would provide the broadening of education that was promised, but not achieved, by earlier attempts to force universities to devote the first two years of their curricula to “general education” courses.

A double major combining a discipline with concentrated language study could also be the thin edge of a wedge to get English language education out of the high schools, where it does so much damage, and into the universities, where it can be taught thoroughly and properly.

True, it remains to be seen how much of all this will be implemented. But it should already be clear that, contrary to much standard wisdom about Japan, Japan Inc. can move drastically, provided it feels pressure, and that we outsiders are not entirely without a voice.

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