With Toyotas and Japanese electronic gadgetry popping up all over America, politicians and professors, as one would expect, offer us a mixed array of remedies and descriptions. In Washington, the rhetoric focuses on "competitiveness" and stringent ways to block the entry of foreign products. But in the educational world, the tack is different: Here, instead of barriers, the mood is inspiration. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, for example, speaks admiringly of the feats of Japanese schools and the high standards and homework they require.
Similarly, Benjamin Duke and Merry White in their respective books detail the unusual virtues and complexities of Japanese education. The first, "The Japanese School," takes the approach that Japan's economic miracle derives from its workers who draw their effectiveness from the discipline and perseverance learned in school. The second, "The Japanese Educational Challenge," emphasizes the role of the Japanese mother and the nurturing environment provided by the societal commitment to children. Both point to the high academic test scores and mathematical and literacy skills of Japanese students. Each recounts the usual facts: the homogeneity and group mentality of Japanese culture, the intense pressures imposed on an island nation importing most of its natural resources, the valued status of teachers, the centralized school system, the longer school year and the incredible hours of after-school cramming and study.
Duke, a longtime professor of comparative education at the International Christian University in Tokyo, opens "The Japanese School" with an unusual introduction by Harvard professor and former American ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer. Paradoxically, it cuts against the theme of the book. In it, Reischauer ominously warns: "Absorbed in the euphoria of the manifold successes of Japanese education and of much else in modern Japanese society, they (the Japanese) run the risk of failing to hear the distant roar of the waterfall of world economic or political disaster that may lie ahead unless education, and the society it helps form, undergoes some drastic modifications."
"The Japanese School" starts from the premise that America is in an international race and "at risk technologically and industrially, and (that) the Japanese continue as our foremost competitor." Duke says that the key to Japan's economic success is not its management practices or government economic policies but "the social structure of the Japanese community, which is so clearly reflected in the local school." In other words, "the challenge to industrial America from Japan lies primarily in the Japanese classroom rather than in the factory."
The author explains that from the first day in grade one, the Japanese child begins a process of group training that prepares "the future Japanese worker for the harmonious adjustment of employer-employee relationships. . . . His life revolves around his school kumi (class). He becomes, in effect, dependent on his kumi . It is his closed society at school."
Duke frankly states that the kumi inculcates the "herd instinct" and teaches the Japanese child to " 'sway with the breeze' in order to maintain group harmony." In fact, remaining in the same kumi is so crucial that half of the married employees leave their wives and family behind when they are transferred to a distant post to avoid imposing on their children the burden of changing schools.
He describes the near 100% literacy of the Japanese and tells how the Ministry of Education sets forth precise requirements specifying which of 1,850 symbols of the Japanese language each child must master, and in which grade. The method is old-fashioned: "memorize, repeat, drill and test." It is "deadly dull," but it works.
Duke attributes the high levels of competence in mathematics and in reading and writing to a minute attention to detail and a precise, step-by-step approach to learning. The teachers, closely following a government-prescribed guidebook, insure a national uniformity of results by teaching the class as a whole and not breaking it into sections based on ability. And, of course, overarching all is the notorious exam system that exerts "a pervasive influence down to the elementary school level." In short, Duke provides a fascinating description of Japanese education, though he completely misses the fact of interdependency in his emphasis on competition.
In "The Japanese Education Challenge," White, a lecturer at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and administrator of its East Asian Studies program, covers much the same material as Duke but from the psychological perspective. She stresses that in Japan success is perceived to depend on whole-hearted and single-minded effort rather than on innate ability, and that this forces each student, regardless of individual differences, to work incredibly hard to meet the demanding national standards.