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The Quality of Japanese Learning : SHOGUN'S GHOST; The Dark Side of Japanese Education By Ken Schoolland (Praeger: $19.95; 224 pp.)

December 02, 1990|Leslie Helm | Helm is a Times correspondent based in Tokyo.

A 16-year-old is battered to death by his teacher for using a hair dryer. A junior-high student becomes autistic after being beaten and kicked by three teachers. A home-economics teacher uses a sewing needle to prick students who don't hold their pens correctly.

It sounds like "the school from hell," but these nightmarish scenes are from Japan's vaunted educational system.

In "Shogun's Ghost," Ken Schoolland explores the seamier side of Japanese schools. The book is a much needed corrective to the prettified view of Japanese schools most American educators bring back from their Oriental junkets.

Many Americans have heard about the scores of children who commit suicide in Japan every year, but few know of the systematic bullying by students and teachers that drives them to the brink.

Corporal punishment, euphemistically called the "loving whip," is widely accepted. Humiliation is a standard method of control. Elementary school children in one class were forced to remove their skirts and pants in cold November weather for an hour as punishment for forgetting to bring calligraphy materials to class.

Parents also are punished for not abiding by thousands of nit-picking rules. Schoolland tells how a teacher telephoned one mother to scold her for sending her son on a field trip with pants that tapered too narrowly at the bottom. The mother apologized and traveled several hundred miles to deliver a regulation-sized pair of pants for her son to wear the next morning.

The horror stories go on and on, and they are stories that need to be told. Unfortunately, Schoolland, who spent several years teaching college in Japan, knows little about the lower-level compulsory-education system. He has done little independent research and is too often reduced to quoting directly, and at length, from Japan's semi-literate English-language dailies.

There is little evidence that he went beyond the often sketchy press reports to get independent verification, to add the telling detail. The analysis often is juvenile. Commenting on the school rules against smoking and drinking, for example, Schoolland says: "Almost every school in Japan threatens to expel young people for doing what half of their teachers and parents do every day." When teachers told him they were in favor of corporal punishment, Schoolland asked them rhetorically "if it would be all right for the principal of the school to beat a teacher."

"It was probably the first time that many of them had been called upon to apply the same rules of behavior to both the powerful and the powerless," Schoolland says.

He misses the point. The interesting question is not whether teachers ought to have power over students or whether they should follow the same rules. Most school systems grant teachers a certain amount of authority to help them do their jobs. The more important question is why teachers abuse their power, and why parents tolerate it.

The Japanese educational system is both a greater tragedy and less of a travesty than Schoolland suggests. Most Japanese schools are not the Marine boot camps he portrays them to be. Yet the severity of the cases where abuse does occur reflects something disturbing about Japanese society at large--the extremes to which the system goes to enforce the "group thinking" so many people seem to believe is a Japanese cultural trait.

There are many other questions Schoolland's material raises without answering. How do you explain the coexistence of unruly students jumping on desks in some classes and undergoing extreme discipline in others? How is it that public-school teachers belong to a radical, left-wing teachers union but help to perpetuate a system that promotes corporal punishment and mindless memorization?

Why does Japan focus so much on test scores? Why the rigid regimentation? Why have there been so many committees recommending reform (or no reform)?

Perhaps saddest of all, why must 11-year-old children spend 14-hour days sitting at their desks at school, at after-school tutorials and finally in their bedrooms until past midnight? Schoolland spends too much time moralizing about the horrors of Japanese schools without exploring the forces that drive the system.

Certainly, part of the explanation is the importance Japanese society places on going to the right school. But Schoolland acts as if this is some kind of quirk of Japanese history. He does not consider the more horrifying possibility that Japan's educational system is the way it is because that is what Japanese society demands.

Japanese schools, each with its precise ranking, prepare students for the rigid hierarchy they will encounter later in life. Bullying is just another of life's lessons: the high cost of being different. If a few children die now and then, it can't be helped. Children simply have to learn to obey their seniors and follow the will of the group.

There are a few calls now to allow students more creativity. Industry, it seems, now wants a few workers with imagination and spunk. But that may be impossible without dismantling the system, and few seem ready for any radical moves.

Japan is proud of the high level of its high school graduates and it doesn't want to take any chances. After all, most Japanese students learn the "three R's." They also have the self-discipline to spend hour after hour on boring tasks.

U.S. schools, with all their success in promoting creativity, seem to have a hard time getting their students to learn the basics. And students coming out of American schools have little tolerance for the many mundane requirements of earning a living.

Still, how far should you go to sacrifice individual happiness to prepare students for social demands? Schoolland's book gives a good sense of the high price the Japanese are paying. At worst, some are losing their lives. At best, many have missed their childhood.

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