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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2000

New century proposals seen as more than unlikely dreams

Staff writer Recent ambitious proposals by the Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century may be eye-catching but are unlikely to be achieved, according to skeptics. Those people, however, are wrong, according to commission head Hayao Kawai, who also serves as director general of the Education Ministry-affiliated International Research Center for Japanese Studies. "I believe most of the proposals will come true 25 years from now," he said. And the key to realizing these reform proposals is to provoke public debate and prompt Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to take action, he says. The commission's brief was to advise the prime minister on the kind of nation Japan should strive to become in the coming century and how that should be achieved. Proposals in a report released in January by the advisory panel included introducing a three-day school week for compulsory education, adopting English as an official second language, lowering the voting age from the current 20 to 18 and directly electing the prime minister. Government advisory panels are often criticized for merely following scripts prepared by bureaucrats intent on protecting vested interests. Kawai, however, said the 16-member panel, comprising representatives from a variety of sectors, including academia, business, arts and the media, compiled their original report without intervention from the bureaucracy. "The panel members had a real free debate on Japan's future without any guidance from the government," he said. Kawai said the report has drawn a full spectrum of reactions, particularly since some of the panel's proposals -- such as directly electing the prime minister -- will necessitate amendments to the Constitution. In particular, there has been strong opposition to the suggestions to amend the compulsory school education curriculum and to adopt English as the official second language, Kawai said. "Concerning English education, some say Japanese language education is more important," Kawai said. "But we are not suggesting that Japan adopt English as the first language. Using foreign languages helps people understand the way of thinking in other cultures as well as one's own culture. "We wanted to emphasize the importance of trying to understand different cultures," he said. The government, on the other hand, has no obligation to carry out what the panel recommends because its function is merely advisory. Whether the recommendations come to fruition, and to what extent, remains to be seen. Obuchi did mention some of the panel's ideas in his policy speech delivered to the Diet last month, but whether his words will be translated into action is another question altogether. Obuchi has often been criticized for creating advisory councils and then failing to follow their recommendations. He is currently preparing to launch his seventh private advisory panel since taking office in July 1998 -- this one to focus on educational reforms. Government sources indicate that the proposals of Kawai's panel will be difficult to achieve in the short-term. A worst case scenario would see the suggestions effectively ignored altogether. Kawai is optimistic, however. A prominent clinical psychologist, he believes that Obuchi is a politician who is keen to follow public sentiment. With this in mind, Kawai believes the key to carrying out his panel's recommendations is to encourage public debate. To this end, he and other panel members plan to hold nationwide meetings to stir up discussion over the recommendations. "To change social rules such as the voting age may be the government's job, but the change should start from the premise that people want to vote at a younger age," Kawai said. "In that sense, reforms should be realized with the initiative of the public and with the help of the government."

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