Are the Japanese too, well . . . Japanese?

For decades, the very traits that have defined Japanese society--conformity, decision-making by consensus, a follow-the-rule orderliness--have been nurtured and praised here as the glue that keeps this nation together.

But now a government-appointed panel has concluded that Japanese society must change. The Japanese should become more independent, the commission said. More tolerant of people who veer from the norm. Less preoccupied with rules, peer pressure and school tests. There should be more immigrants. And more lawyers.

To some, it sounds like Japan should be more like America.

"We shouldn't be afraid of Americanization or globalization," said Makoto Iokibe, a political science professor and member of the commission. When Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of American warships forced Japan to open to the world in 1853, Japan thrived, he said. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his occupation force forced Japan to embrace American-style democracy, Japan thrived again.

"If we are smart enough, then you will find Japan still very Japanese," he said in an interview today. "On the other hand, if we want to keep our identity, want to 'be Japanese' and refuse American or global impact, we will be miserable Japanese isolated from the world. People will be complaining about how Japan is being bypassed again."

It was just this loss of stature in the world that led to formation of the commission. The prolonged economic doldrums that knocked Japan from its 1980s peak led to what is often called "the lost decade." In March, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi appointed a panel of the nation's top intellects and leaders--notably excluding the bureaucrats who traditionally guide the government--and charged them with recommending goals for the 21st century.

The headlines in the national press about the report, released Tuesday, focused initially on its concrete and dramatic proposals: Adopt English as a "second language"; cut the required academic school week to three days so students can take more fun subjects; lower the voting age from 20 to 18; increase the immigrant work force.

But even more dramatic is the underlying theme of the commission's conclusions--a scathing criticism of some of Japan's basic operating tenets. The report laments an "ossified" society in which an allegiance to rules and conformity have "leached Japan's vitality." For Japan to succeed, the group noted, there must be "a spirit of self-reliance and the spirit of tolerance, neither of which has been given sufficient latitude so far."

It recommends a Japan "where people's vitality is not inhibited by precedents, regulations and established interests." In a society where group consensus is preferred over individual initiative, the report recommends "empowerment of the individual" and more support for risk takers.

To Western ears, these sound like routine populist platitudes, served up on any campaign trail. But editorialists here were quick to identify the panel's language as a sweeping indictment. "The report stresses individuality too much," the daily Sankei protested. "We already have a too shallow national unity, and too much respect for personal rights."

There will be opposition, "a contrary wind to reform," warned the newspaper Nikkei. "A lot of people would like to stay where we are and do not want to change."

"We already are being criticized for putting too much emphasis on the individual, for forgetting the critical importance of 'community' and 'Japanese-ness,' acknowledged commission member Yoichi Funabashi, diplomatic columnist for the Asahi Shimbun.

Tadashi Yamamoto, executive director of the commission and president of the nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange, said the panel made far-reaching recommendations because "our basic premise was that something is basically wrong with society. We needed a sense of urgency."

"We are really advocating a fundamental reorientation of society," he said today. "The system of government that served Japan so well after the defeat in the war doesn't work any more."

Since Japan was forcibly opened to the "modern" world, Yamamoto said, it has made a furious race to "catch up," first to the mechanical weaponry and farm equipment of the West in the 19th century, and then to the democracy and economic power of the West following World War II.

That effort required individual subservience to the common purpose. But that model stifles the kind of creativity that is needed today, Yamamoto said. "The 21st century will be the era of individuals. Individuals have become more important through globalization, the Internet, networking," he said.

During years of poverty following World War II, Japanese looked to the government for all decisions. Now, individuals must take the lead, said Iokibe. "Japanese kids from the very starting point are told about the consensus style and how you should not be different. That kind of education must be changed," he said.

Many of the commission's other recommendations challenge ingrained patterns. The proposal to give all Japanese a "working knowledge of English" is intended to outfit them for the Internet and a global economy, in which English is dominant. But the proposal is being made to a country that ranks near North Korea in its lack of English skills.

The proposal to shorten the compulsory academic school week to three days is intended to make room in the other two days for such pursuits as "personal cultivation and specialized vocational education." But schoolchildren routinely attend classes on Saturday, and from fifth grade on, enroll in night and weekend "cram schools" to pass entrance exams.

The commission noted that Japan's economy will require more immigrant labor in the next two decades to compensate for an aging native population. But its call for policies to "encourage foreigners to want to live and work in this country" comes in a country where some public spas still display "Japanese only" signs.

Even the proposal to train more lawyers sounds strange to Japanese, who tend to avoid the sort of confrontational litigation practiced in the West.

"People ask, 'Do you seriously want to have a bunch of lawyers?' " Yamamoto said. "They see this as Americanization. But we have too many unwritten rules. When we advocate more individualism and individual responsibility, we have to have a much more open system where people can clearly understand the boundaries."

Yamamoto rejects the complaint that these changes reflect "American values."

"I don't think dynamism is an American monopoly," he said. "In a sense, democracy is not necessarily an American thing; it's a universal value."