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Japan Introduces Sweeping Education Reforms - 2002-05-29

Japan has just introduced sweeping reforms to its education system, infamous for its rigorous curriculum and six-day school week. The changes, meant to relieve stress on children and give them more free time, have upset many parents.

Eleven-year-old Minami Takeshita says she is happy that she can relax on Saturdays instead of going to school.

She says she "spends her extra day off reading comic books and playing video games. But she notes that her parents are not as excited as she is about her new schedule."

Until April, the start of the new Japanese school year, Miss Takeshita and all other public school students across the nation attended classes six days a week. But as part of a new, lighter curriculum, classes are no longer held on Saturdays. Other changes include cutting the academic work load by as much as 30 percent a year and giving teachers more leeway in designing some lessons.

The reforms are in line with a government drive to reshape Japan's infamous workaholic culture, so that workers spend fewer hours at the office and more time with their families. In addition, Japan's education ministry says the reforms will improve public education by encouraging independent thinking.

The measures represent a major change for the 14 million students who attend Japanese public schools. The six-day school week and a heavy emphasis on memorization are teaching traditions that have existed for decades, and Japanese educators take pride in the system's uniformity and equality.

Parents fear that the changes will create a wider gap between public and private schools and lead to lower scores on public school students' university admission tests.

Education Professor Daisuke Fujikawa of Chiba University says "parents fear that less classroom time will hurt academic standards."

But surveys show that most students are glad to have Saturdays off.

Younger children say they use the extra time to go to the playground or to play video games. Teenagers say they spend Saturday mornings catching up on sleep.

The polls also show that almost half the parents believe the children should use their free Saturdays for independent studying and test preparation.

Some teachers, such as Naoki Kawai, worry about the new system. He says "the five-day school week adds pressure because teachers have to speed up lessons or assign extra homework to adequately cover subjects." He says "his classes sometimes run late and leave little time for him to talk with students at the end of the day."

Professor Fujikawa at Chiba University defends the five-day school week. He calls "for the establishment of more recreation programs so students can spend their Saturdays constructively."

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has lambasted the reforms as a fatal mistake. In a recent newspaper interview, he warns that without strong academic skills, students will not be able to develop their talents. He says he fears this could hurt Japan's industrial competitiveness.

Many parents agree. Due to parental pressure, more than 500 public high schools are offering or planning to offer supplementary lessons. Some elementary and junior high schools already have started to do so. In addition, Japan's so-called cram schools, private tutoring schools to help children pass rigorous exams, report an increase in enrollment since the five-day school week went into effect.