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Sunday, April 9, 2006
'Japan's Eton' opens with high hopes
Corporate backers, parents expect school to produce new style of leaders
GAMAGORI, Aichi Pref. -- For the past three years, Masaya's parents paid 1.2 million yen a year to send him to cram school.
This year, and every year to 2012, they're putting 3 million yen of their combined 8 million yen income into tuition, room and board for the 12-year-old to attend Kaiyo Academy, hoping to give him an edge in the race to become one of Japan's future leaders.
Masaya moved into his dorm room with 122 other students at the new academy -- nicknamed Japan's Eton -- which held its inaugural entrance ceremony Saturday.
"A child's future is determined by his school, and the school is determined by money," said his father, who spoke on condition that their family name not be used. "I want to make sure my son has the advantages I never did."
The school, which will pack six years of junior high and high school education into four, is corporate Japan's attempt to counter the egalitarian and test-intensive public education system.
Complaining about a shortage of promising college grads, Toyota Motor Corp., Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), Chubu Electric Power Co. and 80 of the nation's most powerful companies have designed an academy they hope will churn out future global leaders who can think independently but also work well with others.
No comparable academy for girls is currently on the drawing board.
Kaiyo Academy sprawls across 130,000 sq. meters of landfill in quiet Gamagori, Aichi Prefecture, near Nagoya.
"There's nothing nearby," said Arata Shirabyoshi, the school's superintendent and a former English teacher at Waseda Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo. Shirabyoshi and other teachers live on campus, making a car imperative for survival, he said.
Students, meanwhile, are not permitted off campus unless accompanied by an adult. For at least their first two years, parents must pick students up if they are going to go home on weekends.
For security reasons, surveillance cameras monitor the grounds around the clock, and students must carry a PAS, a hand-held electronic unit that acts as a GPS tracking device as well as digital dorm key, library card and school credit card.
"Manga," magazines, cell phones, bicycles, action figures and audio and gaming equipment are prohibited. Students are asked to bring no more than 10 books, besides textbooks and reference books, and no more than five music CDs.
An 8,000-volume library -- yet to be completed -- supplies enough school-approved reading, school officials say.
Meanwhile, the academy monitors other incoming information closely. Their PAS also acts as a campus phone, but students are to use them only in certain times and areas. The gadget provides wireless high-speed Internet surfing, but blocks pornographic and other "problem" sites.
"TV games, manga and cram schools eat away at children's free time," Yoshiyuki Kasai, JR Tokai chairman and a member of the school's board of directors, said. "The ability to think outside the box comes from a structured life."
That structure at Kaiyo Academy centers around the students' daily schedules. They will get up at 6:30 a.m. and eat breakfast at 7:15 a.m. They will then attend six classes, each 50 minutes long, with an hour for lunch. Dinner will take place between 6:15 and 7 p.m. After a free hour, when parents can call, students will study until 10 p.m., with lights out 30 minutes later.
By following this rigid schedule, with four hours of classes on Saturdays, the school hopes to achieve its goal of getting its students to complete the six years' worth of education in four. For the first three years, students will spend twice as much time on math, Japanese and English as their counterparts in public schools.
"Students just don't learn as much at public schools as they used to," said Masakazu Nishimura, a 41-year-old Tokyo resident who is thinking of having his son Kenichi apply to the academy next year.
Under the education ministry's policy of reducing schoolwork, his son would have to attend hours of cram school in addition to going to a public school if he is to have a fighting chance at a good university, Nishimura said, and the final tab would not be much less than Kaiyo Academy's 3 million yen a year.
While the declining birthrate should lead to fewer kids battling to get into the top schools, parents' fears about their children losing an edge are as palpable as ever.
Nishimura and other parents worry about reports of falling academic aptitude and rising juvenile crime. Those concerns may have been a reason why more than 500 students applied to enroll at Kaiyo, and why cram schools around Nagoya are designing courses geared to help current sixth graders win a spot at the school next year.
The hopes of parents and the firms center around what the kids may gain through dorm life.
Students will have a small room for themselves in one of three dormitories. In each dorm, three "floor masters" sent from companies like Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. and Hitachi Ltd. live with the kids, as well as a "house master" employed by the school.
"I hope students will learn to stand on their own two feet, obey the rules, take care of their friends and value differences in others," said house master Takamasa Shinozaki, a former banker. Shinozaki saw his world fall apart when the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan failed in 1998.
Some experts express doubts, however, whether the school's apparent emphasis on Toyota-like efficiency and elimination of unwanted stimuli will truly nurture independent thought and leadership.
"Schools are not factories," cautioned Kiyoyuki Sugito, a director of Nagoya-based Meirin Seminars, which offers entrance exam prep classes. "Adults may think manga, games and other childhood activities are a waste of time, but children can turn every experience into personal depth and growth."
Naoki Ogi, a professor of clinical education at Hosei University, pointed to the fact that greenhouse plants are not strong when exposed to the real outside environment.
"Will these rich, smart kids, raised in a controlled environment, grow up to understand others' weaknesses and relate to the less privileged?" he wondered.