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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002

Kids: They've got it figured out


Japan Times education columnist

The year's end is a natural time for reflection. Every December, I take a break from the hectic activity of the season and sit down for a quiet cup of tea. I look back at the year passed and reflect on the year to come.

This year, my 10-year-old interrupted. He plopped down next to me on the sofa, spilling my tea into my saucer. I sighed. Then I decided to treat his arrival as an opportunity. I asked him what he thought about the future.

"I might be a lawyer," said Miles. "Or a biologist." I noted he'd have to be a good student to enter those professions. "Oh, I'm not worried," he said. "In the schools of the future, we'll arrive in the morning and download all the lessons directly into our brains. Then we can spend the rest of the day playing dodgeball."

Most interesting. When his brother ran by, I called him over and asked him about the future.

"All people will be able to talk to all people, even if they don't know the same language," my 7-year-old predicted. So kids like him wouldn't have to learn Japanese when they move to Japan? "Right," said Evan. "We'll have computers to help us talk to each other. We'll be able to talk to our pet hamsters, too."

Interesting, indeed. I started to quiz other children about their dreams and visions for the future.

Anna Nakahara, 11, told me pianos of the future will be painted like rainbows and have keys in all different colors, especially pinks and purples. A serious piano student, Anna said her dream piano will produce all sorts of fantastic sounds, including notes in the calls of birds.

I asked Sawako Gotoh, 8, if she plans to get married. Yes, she said, to someone just like her dad. Sawako wants to work at home to avoid "all that back-and-forth of commuting," but she expects her husband to clear out every morning and go to the office. "He can stay home on Saturdays and Sundays," she allowed.

Sawako will run a business baking bread with walnuts and "things people have never had in bread." She didn't know what those things might be, but they will come from other countries.

"I want to make foods that make people happy," Sawako said. It seems they may also make people healthy. As a sideline, Sawako plans to invent a medicine to protect against illness. "I would probably just give the medicine away, not sell it." Might she put it in her bread? "Sure, if I could mix it in with the flour."

Fumitaka Iizuka, 12, plans to be an architect so he can keep up his math skills. His vision for Tokyo calls for a network of skywalks connecting every building. "You'll be able to go anywhere in Tokyo without going to ground level," he explained. "People will be up on the skywalks, but cars will be down on the ground. So pedestrians won't be bothered by cars or pollution."

Makoto Kurihara, 14, wants to do research in artificial intelligence. He plans to design a robot that will get along well with humans.

And when he retires? "I'll live a peaceful, happy life with my robots. And my wife," said Makoto.

Kae Watanabe, 15, would like to use genetic engineering to develop a cure for cancer. She feels her future may lie in the United States, where she was born and raised until her family moved back to Japan a few years ago. Kae thinks she'll have more opportunities for interesting work in the U.S., and would prefer to educate her own children there.

If she had an opportunity to change the Japanese education system, what would she do? "I'd divide classes by ability, so kids who need help get it, and the rest can be challenged more. I'd have more electives so kids can study what interests them. And I'd encourage free discussion between students, and between the teachers and students," Kae said.

Jun Ohno, 18, expects to enter Keio University in April. He wants to study law and become a lawyer. Jun, who lived in England for several years as a child, said he would like to spend some time living overseas again.

"Staying in Japan for the rest of my life would seem too limiting," he said.

I just poured a cup of tea and sat down to contemplate the future as these kids envision it. Better schools. Talking hamsters. Tokyo without cars. Life across borders. Pianos that sing like birds. Bread no one has tasted before. A cure for cancer.

I'm looking forward to 2002, the start of the future these young people will build for us all.



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