Japanese school discipline is most obvious when the day begins. In some neighborhoods, the younger children gather on a corner to march to school in a predetermined "marching group." The oldest child will go to the front, and the children line up with the second oldest bringing up the rear. One neighborhood mother is in charge of the marching group, and will often carry a flag to keep the children together.
In most schools, children wear uniforms: black pants, white shirts and black high-collar military-looking jackets for the boys; blue skirts and sweaters, white socks and blouses for the girls. Cosmetics are usually not allowed, and teachers in many schools keep a bottle of nail polish remover at their desk, in case some girl attempts a brazen show of individuality.
When the teacher enters, the children, all wearing name tags, stand for a formal greeting: a stiff bow. They usually sit attentively as the teacher lectures, and no one interrupts with questions. After lunch, the children clean the cafeteria, with a designated cleaner at each table. Japanese schools usually do not have janitors, so the children clean their classrooms every day after their lessons.
When Americans look with envy at Japan's educational miracle, they see an academic side that emphasizes high standards and a human side that instills discipline and moral values.
But Japan's impressive educational system -- rooted in the national culture and reinforced by society -- cannot be so easily transplanted to American shores.
To impose a Japanese-style system in the United States would require a fundamental overhaul of American attitudes about schools, changes that most Americans may not be ready to accept.
This was the consensus of education experts from the United States who have just ended an unusual week-long international conference on education reform held in Kyoto and Tokyo.
It is an opinion that seems to be supported by Japanese and American educators interviewed here and in Washington, D.C., and by visits to Japanese schools to talk with students, teachers and principals.
The contrasts between the systems of the two countries are everywhere.
Consider teacher pay. Here in Japan, teachers by law are paid 10 percent more than the top-level civil service job, putting them among the top 10 percent of wage-earners in the country. The pay of American teachers puts them somewhere near the average for all American wage-earners. (The average teacher salary is $18,000 in Japan compared with about $23,000 in America.) While the United States faces a severe teacher shortage, university students here are lining up for coveted teaching jobs.
As for teacher standards, Japanese university graduates who wish to become teachers must first take a rigorous exam administered by local school authorities. Ninety percent of the prospective teachers who take the test in Tokyo fail. In Tokyo, there are typically 10 times as many applicants as jobs.
Despite all the discipline, the children in classes still appeared to be children: They laughed and often passed jokes quietly during the lectures. There was order but not a lack of humor.
"They've demonstrated that you can have a coherent curriculum, high standards, good discipline, parental support, a professional teaching force and a well-run school," U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn said after the conference. "They have shown that the average student can learn a whole lot more."
But asked whether the Japanese accomplishments can be successfully exported to the United States, Finn replied, "There's about six or eight major shifts we'd have to make to be more like the Japanese. Whether we have the gumption to make them at all is the question."
Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of education at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus and a U.S. delegate here agreed. "I think it's portable. Gumption and willpower, that's the key.
"The alternative explanation is that the Japanese are either genetically superior or culturally superior," he said, "and I don't buy either."
Education experts agree that three general aspects of the Japanese system deserve careful scrutiny by Americans: the creation of a highly paid, well-respected teaching force, the development of uniform academic goals and standards, and the emphasis on discipline and moral values.
On almost all of those points, in the opinion of most observers, Japanese schools outperform those in the United States. And in most cases, according to interviews and observation, they do it without excessive rigidity.
The difference between Japanese and American classrooms, said William Cummings, an education researcher who has written extensively on both systems, is that in Japan the class time is used more efficiently with less teacher time taken for disciplinary problems. Japanese schoolchildren seem to know that there is a time for serious study and a time to play, and when they play -- like the 10 minutes between classes or during the prescribed play periods -- Japanese children explode with all the noise and commotion of their American counterparts.
But the question for American educators is whether Japanese schoolchildren are more disciplined because the schools teach them to behave that way, or because Japanese society itself is that way.
One Japanese educator, speaking privately, put it more simply. "By the time we get them when they are 3 years old, they've already learned everything about discipline they need to know."
In achieving a high-quality, universal education, the Japanese do have certain advantages, structural, political and societal. "The system is very much entrenched in Japanese history and culture," Cummings said.
"First, they have a very centralized system and we have a decentralized system," Cummings said. As a result of that tight national control, "government doesn't allow schools to be supported by local tax bases but rather supports them based on a nationally prescribed formula. So it turns out that the schools are very equally funded." In the United States, he said, "we get very great variations between, say, Prince George's County and Montgomery County."
There are other important differences. Japan is a very homogenous country, with negligible minority groups and very little stratification in social and economic class. Also, where the United States values individualism, the Japanese put a premium on what is called here "groupism," which in schools means that gifted children and slow learners all go forward at the same pace.
Another difference, Cummings pointed out, is family structure.
"We have pretty disorderly families," he said. "We have a lot of divorces . . . that may add to a little bit more disorder in schools." Japan has relatively little problem with drugs and teen pregnancies, which plague America's youth.
The high-quality education system here is reinforced by the family and by society. Education is accorded a high national priority, teaching is considered the highest of callings, and every house is equipped with a study table where children are expected to sit every night for at least two hours of homework.
Teachers regularly visit the homes of parents and send out weekly memos to parents, sort of "checklists" for good parenting that include homilies about what the child should do at home.
"If they want to transplant the Japanese school system to the United States, it will not succeed because the society is totally different," said Keisuke Takamori, president of an educational publishing house here. "Our children are academically oriented because our society is pressing for that."
Despite the considerable achievements of the Japanese education system, some pressure points persist. Women are still not accorded equal status in the male-dominated education system. And the system has been blamed for creating undue pressure on children who sometimes find their release in violent behavior or suicide.
Takamori, a strong critic of Japan's schools, said, "Our society has to recognize the value of nonacademic children. If they are good in sports, for example, that too should be recognized."
Yet, even with the inherent problems, and considering the cultural differences, Japan provides Americans with a mirror image -- if not a perfect model -- with which to compare U.S. education in the midst of the current vexing national debate over how to improve schools.
"I don't think we want to mimic the Japanese," said Lawrence Grayson, a researcher for the National Institute for Education who attended the conference here. "But I think there may be aspects of the Japanese system worth considering."
Critics of U.S. education have blamed teachers for the decline of academic standards, and teachers have felt much of the brunt of the current reform movement. Some states, such as Arkansas, Georgia and Texas, have moved to test their teachers and others are calling for a national exam for all who wish to enter the field.
Teachers in the United States meanwhile have responded that higher salaries is the only way to attract better quality instructors.
The emphasis on a uniform curriculum with high standards is a more difficult aspect of Japanese education for Americans to grasp. Take any Japanese child, ask him his age, and you can tell exactly what he is learning in school on that given day, no matter if he is in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. Japanese textbooks are rigidly defined to advance students along an accepted volume of knowledge according to a specific schedule.
The criticism here is that the uniformity does not allow the gifted child to excel beyond the prescribed schedule, stifling creativity. But the Americans who came here and watched this system work say the advantage is the built-in quality control; that is, students who complete certain grade levels are virtually guaranteed to have learned a quantifiable amount of material.
The question here is whether they have actually learned it or memorized it.
Such uniformity seems an anathema to the United States, with a system rooted in local control of schools and what they teach. But one hallmark of the current American education reform movement has been the shift in power from local school boards to the state capitals, where governors and legislatures have seized education as a key political issue. In many cases now, states have imposed minimum curriculum standards, usually requiring more math and science courses.
C. Ronald Kimberling, U.S. assistant education secretary for postsecondary education, summed up the feeling of many Americans here. Asked if it were possible for the United States to graft aspects of Japanese education onto the U.S. school system, he replied, "We can, but the question is, will we?"