MOST Japanese school children live academic lives of order and decorum. At school they wear uniforms, are extremely disciplined, and silently listen to their teachers. In this way they can quickly digest the Education Ministry's nationally standardized curricula.
But as truancy reaches record levels, educational experts are asking themselves if Japan's system of education is suited to the new generation of schoolchildren.
``Japan's educational system has been that of a developing country - it has been quite effective in pushing mass education to a certain level,'' says Toshiaki Kakinuma, a ministry adviser.
Now, however, he and many others here say a different approach is needed.
``There is no alternative but education that fosters individuality,'' Mr. Kakinuma says. Nevertheless, the ministry, as some critics point out, is reluctant to drastically reduce its control to make room for creativity.
Despite this reluctance, fostering each student's individuality has been a goal of education reformers here in recent years.
As a result, more and more students are now studying at schools like Kokyo Schule. At this unauthorized school the atmosphere is upbeat. Rock music comes from a radio-cassette recorder. Students engage in lively conversation. At a free period a girl lies on the carpeted floor and reads while other students studiously take notes at a center table.
``It's freedom!'' says a 15-year-old Makoto Shibata, explaining why he attends Schule instead of a more traditional school.
Keiko Okuchi, founder of Tokyo Schule and a former public school teacher, says schools do not respect creative individuals.
``Behind Japan's overall good achievement, there are children who are discarded. Many children suffer, feel ashamed, and even commit suicide,'' Ms. Okuchi says.
Since the early 1980s, the Education Ministry and the government have suggested limited reforms to enable children to develop their individuality and creativity. These are key points in the ministry's latest draft for revision of elementary and secondary school curricula. The ministry also asked schools last year to tone down strict rules governing students' appearance and behavior.
But, ``What the ministry suggests and what it does contradict each other,'' says Hisayasu Yagura, an education journalist. Reforms are ``impossible without loosening the Education Ministry's control on courses of study at school,'' he says.
Under the ministry's legally binding guidelines, schools have little latitude in their offerings. Textbooks are authorized by the ministry, and teachers who stray beyond these guidelines may be sued by the state.
Many education reformers are critical of Japan's test-oriented system. Entrance examinations for higher-level education are tough, and Japanese schools have become a place to prepare for tests.
``Children are trained on how to give an answer as correctly as teachers expect,'' says Yagura. ``Those who come up with a unique and interesting idea are turned down.''
In one exam, students were asked to tell what appears when ice melts. Those who answered ``water'' were right. Those who said ``spring'' were wrong.
While public schools are under the ministry's control, some private schools manage to promote unique programs.
Seijo Gakuen Primary School, for example, has offered a ``walking'' class since 1947. The first and second graders spend two hours each week walking so they can observe nature rather than study science in a classroom. Science is a mandatory class in public schools.
Students who take the walking class do not receive report cards. This is unusual in Japan.
``A teacher cannot evaluate children's minds,'' says the teacher, Yoshimitsu Tazawa.
Education ministry officials have visited his class, hoping to get clues for future reforms. But little has come from these visits.
``Japan's economic power has grown rapidly. But when it comes to internationalization and fostering creativity in education, this country ... [is] at a loss about what to do,'' Mr. Tazawa says.Some educational reform issues - such as when teachers do not need to evaluate by score - have been deferred, he adds.