A LOOK INSIDE A JAPANESE SCHOOL Don't expect fancy fixtures or lots of expensive electronic gadgets. But you will find plenty of discipline and determination -- it's back to basics.
By Carla Rapoport REPORTER ASSOCIATE Cindy Mikami

(FORTUNE Magazine) – JAPAN'S STUDENTS score so high against other youngsters in standardized international tests, and its schools turn out such able workers and managers, that the country's educational system has become the envy of the world. But what really happens inside a Japanese elementary school? On these pages you can get a glimpse at classes for youngsters age 6 to 12 at the Azabu public school in central Tokyo. There isn't much glitz. Despite Japan's newfound wealth, the government has not lavished more money on education. Japanese schools, like Japanese factories, are unadorned, functional places. You won't find closed-circuit TV or the kind of flashy media centers so popular in affluent suburban schools in the U.S. What you do see is surprising dedication. There are rows of neatly dressed youngsters (elementary schools don't require uniforms) in large classrooms paying close attention to their teachers. If a slogan could be written over any Japanese school, it would be gambatte -- try your best. Japanese children may be no smarter than those elsewhere, but they undoubtedly work harder. They spend more time in school than do Americans -- an average of 220 days a year, vs. 178 -- and they have more homework. They memorize more too. Partly they have to. Mastering the Japanese writing system, which is based on more than 2,000 Chinese characters, requires a great deal of memorization. The third-graders on this page were able to write their names only this year. Learning enough characters to read most newspapers and books takes until the end of ninth grade. But they will manage it; literacy in Japan is virtually universal. And in math and science these children, along with others across Japan, will streak ahead of their American counterparts. Despite these successes, many Japanese are becoming dissatisfied with the system. They note that Japan is changing and no longer needs legions of worker bees. Rather, they argue, the country now requires more thinkers, creative people, and students who can question established ideas, not merely memorize them. Says professor Teruhisa Horio, dean of education at Tokyo University: ''Our educational system, far from deserving emulation, stands in need of the most drastic reform.'' One problem is that a person's place in Japanese society is still largely determined by educational achievements. Children know that their chances of entering a major university and getting a good job depend almost entirely on the results of their high school exams. The pressure is so intense that by the fourth or fifth grade most children start attending after-school cram classes. This kind of one-track goal inhibits independent thought, say the critics. In typical Japanese fashion, blue-ribbon committees have been formed and government studies launched on how schools can become less rigid. Says Shigenori Yano, chief of textbook planning for the Ministry of Education: ''Up until recent times conformity was necessary to get as many people as possible ) through the educational system. Now that job is complete, so we have to go a step further. Our purpose will be to stimulate creativity.'' By 1992, he explains, Japanese children will get something that Americans have long been familiar with: choice. Starting in junior high, brighter children will be allowed to take special advanced courses in science, foreign languages, and math. In senior high, students studying English will be able break out of the grammar/memorization loop and choose from a range of courses including essay writing and conversation. Some test programs have already begun in elementary schools. A few years ago the government designated Azabu as an experimental school. Azabu chooses themes each year and gears its curriculum and special events accordingly. Two recent themes: learning to live in an international society and learning to communicate more openly with others. While these may sound rather tame to Americans, educators in Japan have long emphasized the opposite. They have encouraged children to believe that as Japanese they are unique in the world and that nonverbal communication is often more important in relationships than speaking. To help students communicate more easily, the school held a series of assemblies. After a brief lecture, students were told to discuss the topic. No one said anything at first; a lively exchange developed only after a few months. Nobuyuki Terashi, principal of Azabu, says a switch to a system based on choices is long overdue. But the changeover won't be easy. Observes Masako Kubota, a fifth-grade teacher in the school: ''I have 43 pupils in my class. That's too many. I can't try to encourage their individualism. Japanese teachers are taught how to control a group, and this is our advantage. But it's our dream to have smaller classes and work one-on-one with kids.''