Which track a student takes is determined by testing--what the Japanese have come to call "examination hell." It has spawned a fight to get into good schools that reaches down to kindergarten.
The new system favors families who are well-off. To give children a leg up, the Japanese operate what are called cram schools-- juku-- which offer private classes where youngsters can take extra studies in addition to their regular schoolwork. Cram schools are costly. So are the top private junior high schools and the private high schools it is necessary to attend to make it into a top-rate college. Of the 10 high schools that produce the largest number of entrants to Tokyo University, not one is a public institution. And the student body at Tokyo University, once noted for its poverty, now consists largely of the sons and daughters of parents with annual incomes of more than $75,000.
Yoshiko Kihara sends her son and daughter to \o7 juku, \f7 or cram schools. She and her husband are salaried workers. It makes their finances tight. But they do it anyway. "Educational background has a high priority in one's life," she says, although she knows "some people say we should put more value on uniqueness or talent." To her, it comes down to success. "If you want to work for well-established companies, you have to compete with many applicants. It's the company that has choices, not an individual."
Education costs of about $10,700 a year are the biggest item in the Kihara family budget. "Most of it is paid for the cram schools," Kihara says.
The Kiharas wonder sometimes about the cost. "But we have to invest our money for our children's education sooner or later," Yoshiko Kihara says. "Since this is the first step up the ladder for them, we decided to pay now, rather than wait until later. We don't want to regret what we didn't do."
Another misgiving is stress on the children. \o7 "Juku\f7 puts a heavy burden on children," she says. "It takes too much time and energy from their lives. They don't have any time to play and are very tired at home. Sometimes they are too tired to eat."
Finally, Kihara worries about what such intense competition may create. "I wonder," she says, "what kind of people children who push away others' friendships in order to win will turn out to be when they grow up. I fear they may lack consideration for others."
On the deck of the Missouri that dark morning in 1945, MacArthur declared that "the energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed," would enable Japan to lift itself "into a position of dignity." But dignity, Japanese say, has not yet come.
Wrapping up five years as prime minister in 1987, Yasuhiro Nakasone confessed he had not accomplished what he most wanted: "To make Japan a nation respected in international society. . . . I wanted more than anything" to erase descriptions of Japan as "tricky," "unfair" or "an economic animal," he said. "I worked every day with that in mind. . . . We have accumulated riches. . . . But we have not yet won international respect. For that, we must correct our faults, we must expand efforts to associate with foreigners and we must make appropriate contributions to the world."
Just last month, in his maiden speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa also expressed hope that "Japan can attain an honored place in the international community and be a country of quiet dignity that its people can be proud of."
One problem is that while national goals of the past have disappeared, aspirations for the future remain ill-defined. "The prewar slogan of the Japanese was \o7 'fukoku kyohei' \f7 (rich country, strong army). World War II changed that. We gave up one part of that slogan--the \o7 kyohei \f7 part. In the postwar era, the national aspiration--almost a national obsession--was to catch up with the advanced industrial countries of North America and Europe," says Takakazu Kuriyama, former vice foreign minister. But after the goal was achieved, nothing emerged to replace it.
Although a plethora of books purporting to see conspiracies and secret plots by Japan to "take over the world" or "dominate global industries" has become a popular genre in the United States, Japan's problem is exactly the opposite: It has no master plan. "It's natural to look at Japan from the outside and think that Japan has some great national vision. But Japan is an insular country that cannot even imagine a 'global strategy' like that of the United States," says Nagayoshi Sumida, foreign news editor of the Sankei newspaper.
While Japan is happy to defer to the United States on global strategy, however, it sees little to emulate in Washington's economic policies. Criticizing a 1990 Japan Fair Trade Commission recommendation that the government end its regulation of aviation, Japan's transportation minister remarked: "In public transportation, safety comes first. If you ease all the regulations, airplanes will start falling from the skies all the time--like in the United States." When Americans pushed Japan to speed up deregulation of its financial markets, Finance Ministry officials retorted that America, with its savings and loan debacle, was in no position to give advice.
A Note on Language
For reasons of historical accuracy, the term Japs appears in this special section of World Report, even though it has long been The Times' policy to avoid such pejorative racial terms.