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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 15:35 GMT
Japanese teaching 'lacks flair'
Japanese children leaving school
At the end of their education, will any of them make an entrepreneur?
By Charles Scanlon in Tokyo

Kentaro Yemoto is not a typical product of the Japanese education system. A self-made man at only 18, he has been running his own computer business for three years, supplying intranet service for corporate clients.

Self-confident and full of ideas, he attributes his success to a nearly fatal illness that kept him out of school from the age of 13.

"If I'd gone to high school I don't think I'd ever have gone into business by myself," he said. "School damages your ambition and narrows your horizons. Teachers give the impression that things like this are impossible."

Creative failings

Japanese schools with their neat well-drilled students were once the envy of the world. They still perform well in international comparisons especially in mathematics and science.

School damages your ambition and narrows your horizons

Japanese entrepreneur Kentaro Yemoto

But officials now acknowledge there has been too much emphasis on cramming and rote learning - and not enough on developing creativity.

The education system used to be seen as the foundation of the country's economic success, but much of that confidence has been lost during the stagnation of the last 10 years.

Producing a compliant workforce for the world's most successful manufacturing economy is no longer considered enough.

Japanese school children in emergency drill
Well-drilled pupils, but little creative learning
"There's no elite in this country at all, only average people. You can have a thousand average people but that doesn't make one Bill Gates," says Eiko Ohya, a prominent journalist who sat on the government's education reform panel.

"The schools are failing to produce people with initiative and the sort of leaders this country needs."

Cramming still popular

But changing the system will not be easy. The education ministry has relaxed the curriculum in recent years to allow more general studies and to put less focus on acquiring knowledge.

It has made little difference however to the millions of pupils who still flock every night to cram schools.

The schools are failing to produce the sort of leaders this country needs

Japanese journalist Eiko Ohya

Without the extra tuition there is little hope of getting into a good university. Tetsuya Yasukoji, a cram school teacher, admits it is all about beating a rigid exam system.

"I know some tricks which help students pass the exams, that's why my classes are so popular."

Kentaro Yemato at his computer company missed out on the long hours of cram school and the prestige of a good university.

He and others like him have shown it is possible in today's Japan to make it another way.

It is an indication that whatever the politicians eventually come up with, Japanese society is changing and the education system will eventually be forced to respond.

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09 Feb 01 | Education
Battle over morality lessons
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