Tennis is currently the rage in Japan, where almost every young man and woman can be seen carrying a racket. Note, however, that there is not a single Japanese among the ranks of the world's top-seeded tennis players.
Puzzled by that phenomenon, I once asked a prominent American tennis coach to explain. He replied without hesitation: "The reason is simple: education."
"Do you mean that we have to improve our tennis training?" I pressed. "No," he answered, "Japan would have to reform its national edicational system from start to finish to produce tennis stars."
The coach's observation was remarkably perceptive, and it touches on a characteristic that is both a strength and a weakness of Japanese schooling.
It is clear to any visitor here that education is sacred in Japan. Platoons of school children, all in uniform, are visible everywhere. Families make enormous sacrifices to send their sons and daughters to college, and the kids themselves compete fiercely to win degrees.
The result is a population that is almost totally literate, informed and disciplined. But, to return to the tennis analogy, champions do not exist -- because, as the coach says, the game requires strong personalities who are "even a bit wierd." Japan frowns on such traits.
The purpose of Japanese education is to raise as many students as possible to a relatively high level of achievement while restraining the exceptional ones who are capable of going even further. Intelligence rather than brilliance is encouragd.
And the stress on conformity, to the detriment of individualism, fits the quality of Japanese society. This is a land that operates on the basis of consensus.
Like everywhere else, there are hierarchies here in government and private enterprise. Yet the accent is put on the group. Collective accomplishment tends to take precedence over independent innovation. The lonely genius is a rarity in Japan, where creative men and women are officially called "national treasures."
As many scholars have pointed out, this approach stems from the traditional Confucian concepts that emphasize the virtues of harmony. Ideally too, the country is supposedly an extended family composed of smaller kinship groups.
In large measure, corporations owe thier success to the fidelity of their emplyees, who are as faithful to the company as they are to their kin. Labor disputes are scarce in Japan, where union leaders and management prefer compromise to quarrels.
It should be added, of course, that that loyalty is reciprocated. Companies assure their workers cradle-to- grave security. Firms hurt by the recession somehow find jobs for employees rather than lay them off.
All this, I would submit, has its roots in the education system, where young Japanese learn at a tender age that it is better to "fit in" than to "stand out." Or as an old Japanese adage puts it: "The exposed nail is better down."
The achievements of the system are undeniable. Japan has made phenomenol economic strides -- and under a democratic regime that is sensitive to the public mood. But some Japanese are now beginning to raise questions about the price they are paying for success.
It is no secret, for example, that education is a harrowing ordeal for young people here. From grammar school through university, students are confronted by a rigorous exam schedule that can determine the rest of their lives.
The psychological strain on them is enormous. Tales of students who commit suicide because he or she fails are widespread.
But more important is the impact of the educational system on the young Japanese who survive the grind. They may be competent, but they may also lack the creativity to propel Japan ahead in the present period of sophisticated technology.
Until now, Japan has made tremendous progress by perfecting the ideas conceived by others. Sooner or later, it will have to generate its own ideas.
Educational conformity is not likely to stimulate originality that is needed for the technological competition of the decades ahead. Nor will it spawm tennis champs.
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