New wave of Japanese students to decide future of whole industry

Analysis by Patrick Avenell in Osaka

OSAKA, JAPAN: The changing of Japan's education system 10 years ago, and the proposed reversion currently being discussed, is set to have a dramatic impact on the performance of Japanese companies over the next two decades. As the current generation of university students graduate and find posts within major corporations, these companies will be influenced by the more progressive education policies that these new charges receive. As it stands, this generation might be the only one to receive this education, as many leading Japanese influencers are pushing for a return to the old methods.

Approximately 10 years ago, Japan relaxed its rote learning, memory cramming system of education, moving over to the more Western philosophical approach, in which students are taught how to use knowledge and apply it to life and work. Formerly, Japanese students would spend around 40 hours per week (including Saturdays) in structured educational environments, with more affluent and dedicated students then also receiving private tuition.

The new system, in which class hours have been reduced and Saturdays phased out, has placed emphasis on creativity and the growth of the child/young adult as an individual. This may be good for Japan's burgeoning artistic community, but it has resulted in Japan falling behind their fiercest rivals, South Korea and China, in standardised testing.

The most noticeable and practical example of how this new education policy has affected Japanese life has been the emersion of a new trend called 'Character Amnesia'. As young Japanese people have not had the high pressured, memory based education of their elders, and have been exposed to computers and mobile phones with character generation dictionaries, many Japanese youth leaving high school and entering university are forgetting how to read, in some cases, and how to write, in more cases, the traditional Japanese characters.

Speaking to Current.com.au in Japan this week, the fully bilingual managing direction of a major corporation said it was about striking a balance between the old, possibly outdated rote memory learning system, and the new system, which encourages greater individuality in a society that has historically favoured collectivism. He said this new system had gone too far, and that the free time afforded young Japanese – especially men – was being whittled away playing computer games: essentially creating a lost generation.

This managing director said that when he was at school, the pressure was enormous. From his first day in his first year in structured education, the emphasis was always on preparing for the ultra-competitive Japanese university entrance exam. Failure to perform well in this exam meant you wouldn't be accepted to the best universities, which meant you wouldn't be recruited by the better, more established and more stable corporations.

So what is ideal? The Japanese we spoke to preached a mix of both intensive, high pressure rote learning, especially for the Japanese language, but still the retention of the more abstract elements of the new system. Students should still be encouraged to be creative, though not necessarily creative in online and console gaming.

What does this mean for the Japanese consumer electronics companies? By the time this new wave of graduands reach positions of management at Panasonic or Sony or Hitachi, the products will probably be as beautiful as any on the market. No prediction can be made as to whether they will work.

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