That large clucking sound you are hearing is the sound of breakdowns in Japan’s over-regulated education system forcing some very large chickens to come home and roost in the Kasumigaseki premises of Japan’s conservative education ministry, MEXT.

We now discover that the ministry, which fusses in detail over school textbooks, anthem singing and flag-raising ceremonies, claims not to have known anything about the blatant flouting of its rigid and detailed curriculum directives to Japan’s high schools.

For years many schools have ignored those directives in order to concentrate on teaching only the few subjects usually needed for university entrance exams — Japanese and English especially. Subjects such as world history, also compulsory under ministry directives but not compulsory in entrance exams, are bypassed because teaching those subjects would cut time available for key entrance-exam subjects.

Already the finger-pointing is under way. The high schools are being blamed for ignoring ministry directives; already one high school head has committed suicide under the strain. Parents too are blamed — for excessive zeal in wanting to push their children into elite universities.

But under the present system created by the ministry, presided over by the universities and abetted by society in general, can parents and high schools be expected to behave otherwise? In a nation where the future of students and the prestige of both their schools and their parents hang on the name and fame of the university students manage to enter, could there possibly be any other result?

When president of Tama University I made English an elective rather than compulsory subject in our entrance exams, with the promise of extra and better English teaching after entry. My aim was to encourage students seeking entry to study a wider range of subjects, science especially since it is largely ignored in many entrance exams. But the education ministry was unhappy about the move. They were even more unhappy when I said high-school English did more harm than good and tried to abolish English entirely from entrance exams.

They need not have worried. Since English was virtually compulsory in high schools, most ended up selecting it anyway. My move did little to change the distorted entrance-exam system.

On the education reform commission set up by former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1999, some of us tried hard to push other reform ideas, only to be opposed or ignored by the ministry bureaucrats.

One reform I sought strongly was the concept of provisional university entry. Students who had just missed out in university entrance exams would be given a second chance as provisional entrants. If their study results at the end of first year were satisfactory they could then become regular students.

Not only would this ease some of the entrance-exam pressure; it would also do something to break down the current “leisure-land” reputation of university education in Japan where students connive to do the minimum of study needed for graduation which is virtually guaranteed anyway. Some students at least would be under pressure to study hard and get good results, even if only for one year.

But even though we got the provisional entry concept into the commission’s final report, few universities were willing to tamper with their traditionally rigid pass-fail entrance-exam system.

The main exception happens to be my present university, in Akita. There up to 10 percent of entrants are “provisional,” and at the end of the first year their results are often better than those of the regular students, even though in our case the latter are also under pressure to study hard. Incentives work, even in Japan.

Another reform proposal, strongly backed by former Education Minister Nobutaka Machimura, was to allow early university entry for bright 17-year-old students, instead of having them wait round to meet the compulsory 18-year-old entrance age requirement.

Over strong opposition from ministry bureaucrats age 17 entry was legalized soon after. But to date almost no university has taken up the new system, mainly because the ministry can easily sabotage it by insisting that high schools should not allow early graduation. And Machimura’s very useful suggestions that the required entry age for primary school be lowered from the present age 6 (almost age 7 for children born just after April 1) was also ignored.

In the late ’90s, the ministry very reluctantly approved an early-entry experiment for science and math students run by Chiba University. One physics student I helped to select ended up at age 21 as a doctorate student at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology — something inconceivable even for the brightest Japanese students today. Sadly that situation is likely to continue for a long time (the experiment was soon terminated). Meanwhile, Japan will continue to fret over its lack of top scientific talent.

In the past, Japan’s rigidly controlled education system had some egalitarian merits. But today it clearly cannot cope with the needs and demands of a new generation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and many other conservatives seem to think that changing the Basic Education Law will somehow improve things. But that is an ideological document, with little bearing on education mechanics. (The Obuchi commission wasted much time discussing the Law and, contrary to later claims, full consensus was not reached.)

Until something is done to free up the workings of the system, Japan will remain an education jungle.

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