Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"A Land of Extremes?"

There is far too much of the picture in mind to get it cohesively on the screen, but I'll try for a tiny piece of it - focusing on one example.

Public school grades and school hours.

In the early eighties, when there were books and articles in the west about the "Japanese Economic Miracle", they invariably mentioned the country's weak point being a lack of originality and inventiveness, which would be necessary if Japan were to begin to - not just effectively implement and manufacture technology invented elsewhere - but to invent and lead the world in technological advances.

There are any number of angles that could be taken in exploring this concept/issue, but to focus on just one of the steps that was taken:

The public education system was rather drastically altered (private school haven't changed much). Two of the most substantial changes being:

1) A five-day school week was phased in, giving kids not only Sunday, but also Saturday off from school.

2) The grading system was changed. For the first year or two of elementary school, instead of regular grades, there were only two (and if this isn't word-for-word accurate, it's very close - I'm basing it on actual report cards I've seen): "Yoku yarimashita" (You did well!), and "Motto ganbarimasho" ("Try harder").
The idea was get kids away from being overly competitive based on a contest for higher scores, so they could relax, be more imaginative, and become more inventive.
I've forgotten the precise progression, but the number of grades was (is?) gradually increased with later grades, with the next step being three - something like: "Taihen yoi" (Very good), "Yoi" (Good), and... I'm not sure, but maybe "Ganbarimasho" (Try harder).

If this had been a system-wide change, it would have brought about a nearly instant change in the next generation, but private schools didn't change along with public schools, and since compulsory education is only through middle school; high school and university entrance tests were still *the* hurdle to clear on the way to a respected education. (Sometimes respected for good reason, and sometimes not....)

So - people in private schools just did what they had always done, and the parents of people in public schools sent their kids to juku's (usually translated as "cram schools") on Saturdays (and/or after school) in an attempt to keep up with the private schools, all focused on doing whatever they could to get past the entrance test hurdle.

Nevertheless - there definitely are fairly large numbers of a new group of people, within the 18-24 year-old crowd, who act substantially different than previous generations of people in this country... but that's been the story for around the past 150 years, so I guess it's just the normal flow of time.

Probably a bigger society-changer was companies giving their employees Saturday and Sunday off, and not just Sunday. Having two days off - people can have more of a life outside the company.

But back to the... strange?, innovative?, system of "Well done" and "Try harder" grades. Hard line politicians and nationalistic groups are pushing to get things back to how there were. One of the slightly scary things they've managed to implement is required singing of the national anthem, required bowing to the flag by each and every student in a ceremony (bow to person-A, bow to the flag, bow to the watching parents, etc.). They are also pushing for a six-day school week and more rigid... everything in general.

Well, that's barely coherent, but I need to get some sleep!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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