Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats
The Japanese school system is a rather interesing thing. Interesting, if only because of it's recent decline. When I was here about 10 years ago, teaching was a very prestigious job (doctor, police/fireman, then teacher). And the extremely well defined system that existed then exists relatively unchanged --even to this day. As mentioned in the former section, the chief goal of the education system was to produce a well-ordered individual with enough knowledge to be a great benefit to hire. Although traditionally (Edo-era) the public school system was there for teaching and learning, this was changed in the drive to catch up (and excel) with the West. Later on, in some compromise with the nationalists, national identity and pride componets were introduced. In the post-war era, the educational system seems to have been standardised through-out Japan to the system that fuelled the phenomenal industrial expansion of those times.
Well, generally, that is. Now, it is a bit different. It is different because of changes from both within and without. Basically the education system is a very good example of bureaucratic inertia. It simply does not change. Partially because it is not permitted to allow traditions to change. And, since one of the mandates is to re-enforce virtually uniform traditional values, this makes sense. During the early part of 2001, a major diplomatic row erupted over the introduction of a new textbook. This history textbook would go on to become part of the recommended (perhaps too light a term as used here) reading for certain grades. Japans neighbours, who suffered under it's 'expansionism' were very disturbed that it seemed to ignore or skip certain events that were very significant to them. Even with formal diplomatic ties comming under threat, only a few changes were made. I feel this is 'a key' because the educational system is a very, very inert thing. Inertia, in this way, is not good as it essentially arrests the progress of the nation by stagnating many otherwise promising minds. The bureaucrats ensure that this is the case. It doesn't matter: Japan's neighbours can get angry and retract their diplomatic relations, advisor's can tell them how they are crippling the country's relationships; either way they continue to remain firm in their cause. It has changed very little. And basically exists to ensure a very stringent level of quality control for all the worker-units (drones) that graduate from it.
The competition to up to and including the university entrance exams is fierce. An endless succession of testing and preparation for such. Basically one wonders where (or whether) learning takes place. Just one (preparation) test after another. If they make it to university, it is accepted by most (if not all) professors that all the students are burnt out shells of humans. So, for the first three or so years of university nothing really happens. It can't really because you are dealing with physically and mentally exhausted people. This can happen because the drive to compete and achieve is go great. In Japan, there are many cramming schools (juku) that exist solely to re-enforce school subjects (like reading, writing, arithmetic). There are also exam-preparation schools. Quite a large industry. The idea is that with enough practise, the student will be able to score as close to perfect as possible. Thereby ensuring future success (in Japan, excellent grades in high school tend to indicate who will enter university). The major focus seems to be on memorisation --not conceptualisation. This is one of the very things that many (both within and without Japan) feel directly jeopardises the future of the country. If you take a look later on, it is not that Japanese have needed conceptualisation very much. Especially salary-men, who gladly accept being pigeon-holed in consideration of lifetime-employment. Thinking is, at least traditionally, the job of the (business) shogun (president/CEO) and the war council (other members of the board). Now, as we embark into the 20th century, the big money is in theory and concepts (so-called Intellectual Property) --not manufacturing. Most of the big money resulting from research and development has occurred in the West. Japan has, not surprisingly, not done that much. There are, of course some who make it big, but hardly individually. So, for the most-part, Japan has relied on the research of others and then gone a little bit further to perfect goods from it. One of the bigger examples of this is in electrostatics. Quite a lot of research was done in America concerning electrostatic phenomena, but nobody would invest in it. Then Japan came along and started to apply the theories to produce photocopiers. The Yanks were pissed over that one! Because a lot of money and time is needed to come up with reliable mathematical models. The 'end game' of making them into products is typically short and cheap. Even if it is not, the 'light at the end of the tunnel' is visable (and you can't be certain of that in pure research). And afterwards, to tweak something and add a few features every year is not an amazing feat. It does not take creative genius to do that --only determination. Here is a place that where creativity is career-limiting. It does not seem to be overtly taught, and the merest hint of individuality is usually a cause for some sort of punishment.
This does not mean there are no clever or ingenious people here. But, there is no reward for their abilities --at least not in the Western sense. And, there is no leaping and bounding the frontiers in Japan either. For over the last hundred years, the pattern has typically been that a Canadian has developed something ingenious in some 'leap and bound' or 'Eureka'. Americans see the potential in it, buy or license it, and make considerable cash on it. Then the Japanese take this 'famous American thing' and perfect it in the typical Japanese way. I am certain that the Japanese can take anything and make it more esthetically pleasing, functional, and/or reliable. There are quite a few examples of this. The most interesting to me is the 'shower toilet'. This is where the Japanese have taken the idea of the 'john' and truly made it into a 'throne'.
As a direct result of this lack of creativity and original thinking, Japan is slowly and surely loosing it's ability to compete in the global knowledge market. Looking to the outside, we see other countries rapidly developing and realising how important creativity is (Russia (from where mathematically adept hackers help to expose many of the security 'holes' in American software), Scottland (IP laws), Ireland (IT), etc.). Japan still insists on seeing it in the same light as a threat (or, at the very least, a nuisance). It is unreasonable to assume that the world will stop and wait for Japan to evolve it's 'Neanderthal thinking'. So, it is more reasonable to assume that other countries will surpass Japan in terms of research and development expertize. This sort of event comming to pass would not be a good thing for Japan. For, even though it does have excellent production facilities, and hordes of capable workers, much more money is in the IP (intellectual property) and research and development arenas. And, for the price, the competition will be fierce with the neighbours. For those who do not see what I am getting at, look at Microsoft. Through their kludges of operating systems Microsoft sells (read: Licences) they make a great deal of money. But, for the hardware vendors it is a different story. Hardware vendors have been effectively marginalised as a result of the operating system and software. Because of labour rates in Korea, China, and the Philippines (to mention but a few), Japan may find itself hard-pressed to compete. Quality might be an issue, but adaption can be surprisingly fast (as Japan demonstrated with it's cars)..