As suggested in an earlier column (Nov. 16), the Liberal Democratic Party faction leader, Koichi Kato, probably deserved to fail in his recent attempt to overthrow his party’s leadership. His timing and approach were flawed. His call for immediate structural reform and fiscal restraint was bad economics.

In an NHK television interview on the eve of his threatened vote for the opposition’s no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, he said his economic policies were needed because the probable collapse of the U.S. stock market next year meant that Japan would have to prepare for a global economic crisis.

But wasn’t the main reason for the disastrous failure of similar policies in 1996 supposed to have been the 1997 Asian economic crisis? If his reformist policies could not survive that Asian crisis, they certainly would not survive a world crisis tomorrow.

But for all his contradictions, Kato’s call to “change Japan” struck a chord with the public. With the economy in the doldrums, corruption scandals being unveiled daily and many of the younger generation in simmering revolt, national frustration is palpable.

But how to bring about change? Ironically, Mori’s success in defeating Kato’s moves could be a start. Mori is pragmatic and vigorous enough to realize that he has to start producing results quickly. And results there can be, as the following story suggests:

To anyone involved with Japanese education it should be obvious that the source of most evil is the conformity imposed by a starched-shirt education industry. Even “tobikyu” — bright students being allowed to jump classes — is forbidden.

In 1996 I was invited by the then president of Chiba University, Kosaku Maruyama, to assist a plan to have 17-year-olds allowed entry to his university rather than wait till the standard age of 18. But opposition from high-school teachers was strong. The Education Ministry had said the plan could be tested only under very strict conditions and only for the math and physics faculties.

In the year I was involved, over 50 teachers and staff had to be mobilized so that a grand total of three students could be selected. The project was so unpopular and cumbersome that Maruyama lost his job.

Later, in an Education Ministry committee on university-education reform, I tried to push the idea further by having early entry endorsed for all universities and in all faculties, not just in math and physics. I, too, got nowhere.

And yet Japan clearly needs to do something to encourage young talent. Early entry would do much to promote postgraduate study, something even the Education Ministry says it favors. It would also help break the elite university stranglehold, since bright students aged 17 would seek entry to other quality universities rather than waste their last school year preparing for elite university entrance exams.

Earlier this year, as a member of the current National People’s Conference on Education Reform, I had another chance in subcommittee to push the idea. Education Ministry officials continued to oppose it, saying that the law stipulated 18 as the minimum age for university entry.

But soon other subcommittee members began to join me in asking why, if encouraging talent and creativity was supposed to be one of our aims, the law could not be changed? We got no proper reply, so the proposal ended up in our subcommittee report, and this time it could not be killed by the officials because we were reporting to the Cabinet Secretariat rather than the ministry.

On the day after the failure of Kato’s ill-prepared rebellion, the Education Minister announced that a bill was being prepared to allow early entry for all university faculties, possibly at ages even younger than 17.

The aim no doubt was primarily to show that the Mori administration is champing at the bit to match Kato’s call for reforms. But the result could be a major shakeup of Japan’s education system. Already, entry to primary schools at the ripe young age of 5 rather than 6 is being mooted by our subcommittee, along with a wide range of other reforms.

Another breakthrough in the pipeline could be relations with Moscow. Mori has hinted strongly that he is keen to reach a compromise settlement of the nagging territorial dispute with Russia before yearend. In the process, he will bypass more than 40 years of Cold War opposition from rock-ribbed conservatives in the Foreign Ministry determined to keep relations with Moscow dead-locked.

I doubt whether the more progressive-minded Kato could have forced through a reform of that size.

Change can happen in Japan, if the mood is right. And if it is slow, blame the bureaucrats more than the politicians. In everything from public works and tobacco smoking to agricultural policy and deficit financing, the bureaucratic interest inevitably takes precedence over the national interest.

And in pressing reforms on the bureaucrats, conservatives with a strong political base can often be more effective than weak progressives. All they need is some motivation.

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