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Sunday, Nov 18, 2001

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Burden of the age

With the unemployment figure reaching the highest since the War, youngsters in Japan have little to look forward to after a 12 year stint in high school. GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN writes.

ONE of the most unforgettable images of Japan is that of schoolchildren sleeping in buses and in underground trains, absolutely worn out of sheer exhaustion. In school uniform, they are seen travelling late in the day, well past their bedtime. Often schools have additional classes which stretch into the night. In a way the school system in Japan is as trying as it is in India.

It is to lighten the burden on the child that Japan's Education Ministry has decided on some guidelines for public schools that will be enforced from April 1, 2002.

The changes being mooted are a school week of five days (not six as it is now) and a 30 per cent reduction in the content of the syllabus. Boys and girls will also be encouraged to learn more of the general stuff, and institutions have been asked to pay greater attention to ``optional subjects''.

A teacher in a public school — which means a Government-run school or an aided one — says that these measures are long due, given the steep rise in truancy and classroom breakdown. This shift to what he terms ``yutori'' or comfortable learning can possibly address problems like increasing teenage depression, which sometimes leads to aggression, bullying and even murder or suicide.

But quite like the average parent in India — who feels that cramming and scoring marks a digit or two from the cent percentage are what knowledge and success are all about — Japanese fathers and mothers are beginning to feel anxious about this turn of events.

A couple of them I spoke to expressed their serious reservations about the new system, which, they feel, will invariably lead to lower standards. The young ones can be handicapped in a frighteningly competitive world, they fear.

These parents, like many others, are planning to shift their sons and daughters from public schools to private schools. The private ones are said to offer higher — read backbreaking and unimaginative — standards of education, which teach children competitiveness, and encourage them to go for the kill. The teacher regrets that parents hardly ever seem to understand that this is not education in the real sense of the term, and many of those who pass out of high school form part of, what is now known in Japan as, redundant labour. The country's postwar economic expansion required an educated workforce, and hence nine years of compulsory and three years of optional (higher) secondary education were imparted. In the changing economic scenario with the unemployment figure having crossed the five per cent mark — the highest since the War — there are not enough jobs going for those who graduate out of high school after a 12-year-stint in the classroom. Keiko Sasagawa, in her mid-twenties, is doing her doctoral thesis in arts. She has had her 12 years in a private school, and has journeyed through college and university, but is unhappy today, because she says that she may never be able to find a job suited to her qualification. Now Keiko helps out at Tokyo's Waseda University, three times a week for a few hours each day, helping professors mainly in their supervision work. She also does translation; having lived in the U.S. for some time, she knows English, the written form better than the spoken, though. And earns a pittance!

Keiko's plight is all the more difficult because she has decided to fend for herself rather than live with her parents. Most educated and underemployed youngsters in Japan live with their parents and, in the words of Donald Richie, film historian and social writer, they constitute the ``parasitic singles''.

Free from financial responsibilities like house rent, food or mortgage, these are precisely the young adults who, in some way, seem to be keeping alive Japan's overwhelmingly consumerist economy. They are heavily into buying goods, and one never finds a mall without teenagers and very young men and women, lapping up cosmetics and clothes in what appears to be a buying frenzy.

Take Kanako Kenji, just 20 and a graduate, working in one of Tokyo's convenience stores. She cannot find a better job, but is quite happy with what she earns, because she lives with her parents and does not have to contribute to the household kitty. She had even saved enough money to make an ``exotic trip to India'' two years ago.

Despite the Keikos and Kanakos, 80 per cent of the parents — responding to a survey conducted by the weekly magazine, Aera — said they preferred to send their children to private (and more expensive) schools, where one learnt and mastered the spirit of competition and gained ``scholastic ability''. They appeared unconcerned about the ultimate usefulness of such a costly education in a depressed market. The survey took place before the Education Ministry's announcement. The new scheme will further deglamourise public school education, creating a new class distinction in society.

A mother who went to a private school says she hated it because it denied her simple childhood joys. But it helped her achieve academic brilliance, and she adds that she sends her own son to a private school. ``Our friends are from this background, and my son will feel comfortable only in this environment.'' But most of those who attend public schools do so for a compelling reason: their parents do not have enough money for a private school education. Probably, these are the boys and girls happiest today. For, afterall what is the idea of breaking your head over a mirage. Twelve years of sleeplessness and a taxing, grinding six-day week schedule are not going to fetch you a top job. One will, most likely, exit out of the posh portals of a private school to enter a supermarket to sell groceries.

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