It’s back to school in Japan, and back to the perennial questions:

• How to find enough teachers able properly to handle English-language classes in primary schools? (Answer: nearly impossible.)

• How to improve foreign-language education generally? (Cut back on high school teaching and concentrate intensive advanced teaching on those who really want it — at university level.)

• How to motivate university students in a nation where employers ignore study results? (Sack weak teachers and make universities fail poor students.)

• How to improve the university entrance-exam system? (Provide provisional entry for students with below passing marks and let them continue if their first-year results are good, as my university does successfully.)

A key problem remains largely ignored — accelerated education for children with strong abilities in math and science. In the West it is taken for granted they should be allowed to enter university early; Oxford University once made waves by admitting a 12-year-old math genius. China and Taiwan both encourage early entry. Meanwhile, Japan continues to feel that no one under age 18 should be allowed to enter university.

In the early 1990s the former president of Chiba University, Kosaku Maruyama, managed to get grudging approval from the Education Ministry to experiment with early entry for bright 17-year-old math and science students. But the conditions were severe — special rules for selection, special care after entry, etc. etc. On one of his several selection committees I saw close up the waste of time and effort involved.

After a year of nationwide searching we had found only three candidates able to meet the ministry’s fussy standards. Maruyama was forced to drop the scheme.

Soon after, on former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s year 2000 national people’s congress on education reform, I was able to revive the idea. Other members quickly agreed. Former Education Minister Nobutaka Machimura, joined us to ask why 15-year-old entry should not be allowed. When Education Ministry bureaucrats present protested that early entry would be against the law, Machimura barked: “Well, change the law.” A year later the law was changed, but only to allow 17-year-old entry.

Even so, very few universities have wanted to test the waters, partly because the ministry’s strict conditions remain in force. Japanese children in their mid-to-early teens may be carving out reputations for themselves in international sports. But for Japan’s education bureaucrats, early university entry is so fearsome that special care and attention remain mandatory.

What the bureaucrats really fear, I suspect, is that their carefully controlled high school education systems might be slightly disrupted if students could leave a year early to go on to university. They also share Japan’s general bias against intellectual excellence and in favor of imposed egalitarianism. But whatever the reason, the damage caused by these barriers to fast-track education is enormous.

For example. the chance of early university entry would be the ideal study incentive for bright children frustrated with the slow pace of school education. It would also help the much-needed diversification of university education: Instead of wasting third year at high school cramming for entry to an elite university, bright kids in second year could aim to enter good regional universities, like Chiba.

Early entry would allow use of the gap year system now common in the West where students can spend their pre-university year traveling the world, doing volunteer work and generally discovering who they are and what they want to do in life. But most of all, accelerated science and math education would help Japan overcome its growing science and technology gap not just with the West but also with the rest of Asia.

American sources tell repeatedly of how bright Chinese, Koreans and Indians are flooding into their higher education and research units while young Japanese remain at home. Some well-known computer and pharmaceutical companies have moved their research operations from Japan to China.

In 2004 the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported breathlessly about a Japanese student who had won a scholarship to the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology for doctoral research in physics at the incredibly young (for Japan) age of 22. Explaining the feat, he said how lucky he was to have been able to enter university in Japan at 17.

Without that chance he would probably have gone on to Tokyo University and ended up as yet another useless elite bureaucrat, he had said.

As I read through that article I suddenly realized who he was — one of the three we had selected for Chiba University a few years earlier. Was anyone in that hide-bound Education Ministry interested? I doubt it.

Gregory Clark is former vice president and now management committee member at Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregory clark.net

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