The sixth grade class at Joto elementary school was divided into two groups around a small wooden table on the floor, debating the merits of the shogunate during Japan's Edo period.
After 10 minutes, Teruo Uchibori, the teacher, sent the pupils back to their desks to write down their thoughts into coherent arguments, using flash cards containing all the relevant historical facts. The children who still did not understand were asked to remain behind for a few minutes. One by one he answered their questions.
This type of classroom exercise, encouraging group participation while offering individual attention, would not be considered unusual in an American classroom, where simulations and games are common. But in Japan, a country noted for its rigid educational system, the Joto school is considered revolutionary.
Class participation is nonexistent in typical Japanese schools. Teachers plant themselves behind lecterns, in front of children who take notes continuously for 50 minutes as they sit in orderly rows.
The system is based largely on rote and cramming.
The schoolchildren are filled with the knowledge they need to pass the many examinations they must take during their school years for admission to the best private junior high schools, for entrance to the best high schools and finally for a coveted slot in one of Japan's prestigious universities.
This traditional system has been the object of widespread interest in the United States because of its high standards, and many critics of American education have asked why U.S. schools are not more like those in Japan.
But the Japanese system credited with providing the human resources for an economic miracle has recently come under criticism for stifling creativity and individuality.
So the Joto elementary school and its maverick principal, Kiyoyuki Furukawa, have generated considerable attention as Japan's experiment with liberalization.
"There are many requests from all over Japan to come and see this school," Furukawa said over tea in his office, as children cautiously ventured in to greet a foreign visitor.
"Very often they are impressed and would like to have the same style," he said. "If teachers teach too much, the Japanese become passive and that is what is worrying us now."
The Joto school challenges almost every basic assumption and tradition underlying Japanese education. In the classrooms, for example, the desks are arranged in separate cubicles of four students each, and the teacher, instead of standing in the front of the room at a chalkboard, walks freely around the room.
"The reason they did it [the old way] was so the teacher could be the center of attention," Furukawa said. "We think the children should be the center of attention. That is what it should be, so let's start by changing the formality."
Giving individual attention to children who need extra help is objectionable to many Japanese, who pride themselves on treating all children equally and prefer repeating lessons until the entire group understands. This "groupism," the basis of Japanese education, is being criticized for holding back advanced students while often penalizing the slow learners.
File cabinets in the hallways outside of each classroom at the Joto school contain carefully organized mathematical worksheets in labeled drawers. The children take out the worksheets one at a time, advancing at their own rate.
Furukawa came up with the idea for a more open, liberal school 16 years ago, when he served on the education committee of the Tokyo metropolitan government's management bureau. He was only able to put his ideas into practice when he was named Joto's principal four years ago. With his connections from his former position in the education bureaucracy, Furukawa was able to select the bright young teachers he needed to implement his plan.
"It was very hard to launch this, because to have success with this style, the teacher must change his attitude," Furukawa said. ". . . Of course, I do not deny the necessity of conveying knowledge. But we also recognize that kids must have time to think by themselves or in smaller groups."
Still, Furukawa recognizes that change will be slow. Resistance is likely to come from teachers, from the national ministry that keeps a tight control over education here and from parents who complain about the intense pressure on their children but still want them to attend the best and most competitive schools.
The Joto children enjoy no immunity from pressures to succeed. An unscientific cafeteria poll showed that while all children said they enjoyed the Joto school's freedom, about half attended a separate evening "cramming school," called a juku, to better prepare for junior high school entry tests.
The juku is a uniquely Japanese institution that serves here as a reminder of the worst aspects of the Japanese education system. The jukus, which have no American equivalent, are the increasingly popular after-school schools that cram children with facts to prepare them for standardized exams. Children as young as 2 years old attend jukus because there are exams and competition even to get into the the best kindergartens.
Akiko Shibata, a Joto fifth grader, goes to a juku two hours a night three times a week. After the juku, which ends at 7 p.m., she goes home and sits at the study table, a staple in Japanese houses, until 11 p.m.
"The difference between this school [Joto] and the juku is this school is more interesting, but the juku is more advanced," she said.
Akiko knows why a juku is necessary in this society, as she ticks off the names of the three prestigious Toyko private junior high schools she wants to to enter. The graduates of those schools glide easily into the top-ranked high schools. "If I study hard now, for six years [seventh through 12th grades] I can rest in peace," she said.
A sixth grader, Tadashi Sekiguchi, explained why he attends a juku three times a week. He said, "When I grow up I want to be director-general of the ministry of finance," which is the highest post in the Japanese civil service.
In the teacher's lounge at Joto, one teacher speaking for the group asked an American reporter the question that he said had been on all of their minds: "With all the problems of the Japanese system, like the violence, why is America so interested in going back to basics?"