My four children have attended Japanese schools from kindergarten up. Over the years there have been innumerable positive experiences connected with this. Yet one thing has always struck me as, at best, blatantly incongruous. Virtually every principal addressing pupils and parents at the commencement ceremony has spoken of the importance of nurturing and pursuing “our dreams.”
It is as if, in this instant alone, the system surges with the winds of freedom, lifting its young charges into the air and urging them, with their as-yet unstultified aspirations, to fly. In reality, the Ministry of Education, ever-present as the sun, will, in the end, send those who soar too high, their dreams the wax of flight, falling to Earth.
Education in this country was not always the vehicle for mundane thought and standardized intellectual procedures that it, by and large, is today. It wasn’t until the end of the Meiji era — 1868-1912 — that school textbooks became uniform. Before then, pupils had access to a variety of materials, some of them liberal even by the standards of our own day.
Shoyo Tsubouchi’s 16-volume “Kokugo Tokuhon” was rigorously open-minded in approach. It denied that any one race was superior to any other on the basis of a self-defined level of civilization or that Bushido, the way of the samurai, was the exclusive preserve of the Japanese.
But these texts lost out to ones that exemplified heroics and blind loyalty to a patriarchal morality in which emperor and country were melded into a singular point of Japanese desire. Gradually Japanese were led by their educators to believe that certain races were inferior and, as such, unequivocally deserved to be colonized by a superior, wise and, by nature, brutally indulged Japan.
The result: young Japanese of two generations who, armed with their trumped-up ethical pseudo-codes and their vicious little drummed-in lessons, wreaked havoc in Asia and the Pacific and, in the end, brought death to millions of their own people, reducing most major cities in this country to rubble. The weapon of their self-destruction was an all-consuming and grievously false education.
After the war, the Japanese turned from education-by-legend to fact. The imperialists of prewar Japan were replaced by the imagination-starved bureaucrats of the postwar years. These bureaucrats saw the Japanese as a nation of clever and highly motivated journeymen, nose to the grindstone, mind preoccupied with the regular motion of the wheel: Invention in the interests of the nation is sublime and beneficent; invention in the interests of individual enhancement, insidious and unwholesome.
Kindergarten in Japan is a superb experience. Primary school is wonderful, with dedicated teachers and a caring ethos. Middle school is where the rot — or add an “e” if you will and make it rote — sets in and you come to learn that knowledge is not so much power as mind-boggling drudgery.
High school is the last, tiring leg of the young person’s runup to adulthood; and it is here that you first grasp the company-provided baton. Dropping it is tantamount to dropping out.
The only sensible advice that one can give here is “remain as childlike as you are for as long as you can,” advice that the majority of university students in Japan seem, in their healthy rejection of anything smacking of study, to heed with an admirable devotion to sloth.
There have been unmistakable achievements in this, including a high level of literacy and numeracy — something which the West must emulate before its people become the unsuspecting and facile issue of type, click and forget. Japanese children are taught to put a damper on their instinctive egoism, to get along in a group and work within it. Few could deny the positive aspects of Japanese civility and courtesy, many of which are formed in the early years. In addition, the great postwar economic miracle was no miracle at all. It was built and maintained by the ultimate diligence of the people, who pursued the nation’s goals with a most enviable single-mindedness of purpose.
Well, the times they are a changin’. . . and fast. It is recognized in Japan, by all but the die-hard (and in Japan the reactionaries do die hard and excruciatingly slowly) that there must be a prime place in the system for children to learn and practice all modes of self-expression, even those which in the past might have been considered vaguely antisocial. Children must be able to answer for themselves the question, Why should I strive? Until now the Ministry of Education has not only asked this question, it has also answered it for them.
The future of business now relies as much on creativity and enlightened self-expression as it does on the hard ax of effort. As I travel around the country, the most frequently asked question to me by young people is, “How can I learn to express myself?” Well, if you don’t know, I certainly don’t. My only advice to such Japanese is ask your teachers, ask your parents and, for goodness sake, ask yourself while you are young enough to do something about the answer.
There is still time to reform Japanese education. There is no need to throw the twins of literacy and numeracy or the baby of social harmony out with the bath water. Japanese ways of thinking were not always standardized. They once strove to serve the thoughts of the individual and they can again.
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