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Japan Science Buffs on Fast Track

March 14, 1999

CHIBA, Japan (AP) _ Three freshmen at prestigious Chiba University are like no other college students in Japan _ they got there without taking the last year of high school.

Seiji Kajita and two classmates were the first entrants in a new program to create a cutting-edge scientific elite by putting Japan’s most gifted youngsters on the academic fast track.

``I wanted to go to college early to study what I wanted,″ said Kajita, who entered Chiba last April, when Japan’s academic year starts. ``I thought, the younger the better.″

Letting exceptional students go to college a year early _ at age 17 _ hardly sounds like a radical idea, but for Japan’s rigid and competitive education system, the move is revolutionary.

Chiba University, just east of Tokyo, is the only college in the country taking younger students. Only three were accepted last year, and three more will start classes this April.

The idea faces some heavy-hitting skeptics. The Education Ministry has put tight controls on the program. Teachers are wary, arguing 17-year-olds are too young for college. Others fear the special treatment will erode Japan’s egalitarian system.

Supporters argue the future of the country is at stake. They say Japan needs to start singling out its brightest young minds for early advanced training if it’s going to wean itself from imitating the technological innovations of others.

``We’re not saying this is the only way you can become a world-class scientist,″ said Yoshiya Harada, chairman of the Center for Frontier Science at Chiba. ``But it’s wrong not to acknowledge students’ individuality by making everyone go through the same program.″

Chiba’s program is hitting at two pillars of Japanese education _ conformity and entrance exams _ at a time the system is widely accused of failing to foster creativity or individual talents.

Egalitarianism is at the heart of the Japanese way of schooling. Children study a national curriculum and are judged by performance on multiple-choice entrance exams. Skipping grades is unheard of.

The Chiba program, however, is allowing a select group of students to bypass ``examination hell,″ the months of grinding memorization needed to take college entrance exams.

Instead, Chiba offers a special test aimed at measuring creative thinking. It includes a seven-hour essay section, an hour-long interview, and a seven-hour test in which applicants design their own scientific experiments.

``You have to use your own head,″ said Harada, who runs the program. ``It’s not about memorizing; you can’t just apply formulas.″

The course of study is rigorous as well. The three students are taking regular first-year classes _ plus special afternoon seminars in mathematics, physics and English. The students were treated to several weeks’ study in the United States last summer to widen their international experience.

The education establishment is divided.

The Education Ministry, whose approval was needed to start the program, is monitoring progress carefully. Bureaucrats originally limited the program to physics and mathematics, but opposition from a math studies association left only physics as a major concentration open to younger students.

Many teachers have already decided they don’t like it.

``The high school system in Japan is not ready for this,″ said Kyoji Ogawa of the Japan Teachers Union, the country’s largest. ``Those who enter the program have to study outside the regular curriculum _ and that will make it difficult for them to work in the classroom with regular students.″

So far, the program is clearly an exclusive opportunity, with a maximum of five openings set aside each year. And only 12 people took the exam the first year, and 14 this year.

Harada said local high schools discourage students from taking the tests. On the Chiba side, too many resources are needed to evaluate candidates and run the program to make it much larger.

If the program is a grand opportunity for gifted young scientists, it also has turned Kajita and his classmates into experiments.

The university keeps the students on a short leash. Officials refused to allow face-to-face interviews with them, insisting on written questions and responses.

For the students, the national attention boils down to one thing: pressure.

``For this program to continue, we cannot fail,″ wrote one of Kajita’s classmates, Kei Matsuo. ``With that kind of pressure, I have to study hard. I think that’s good.″

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