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New Policy Gives Students Saturday Off - But Only Once A Month

September 11, 1992

TOKYO (AP) _ For Japan, it’s a radical concept: giving school kids a Saturday off, even if it’s only once a month.

The new policy is meant to give youngsters in this hard-driving society an occasional breather from their studies.

But the plan, which takes effect this weekend, has been the object of considerable debate throughout Japan.

Some argue that a five-day week should come to the rest of society before schools.

And parents continue to feel extreme pressure to prepare their kids for grueling high school and college entrance exams that are widely perceived as the key to one’s eventual career and place in society.

The policy has also had a mixed reception among teachers because it comes halfway through the school year and does not reduce the total number of class hours, meaning extra classes will be crammed in during the week.

The new Saturday-off policy is for the 18 million public-school students. A survey of 200 private schools this spring suggested nearly half of them did not intend to go along with the plan.

The government is hoping the plan won’t backfire by forcing kids to spend even more time in juku, or cram schools.

The education ministry, concerned about rapidly rising juku attendance, is starting a new survey of them and may consider regulatory steps.

About half of elementary-school students go to cram schools. Figures for high school students were not available, but good preparatory courses for the grueling college entrance exams are considered crucial, and many high-level jobs remain limited to graduates of elite universities.

Japanese students are accustomed to long hours in the classroom and long hours of homework, and the government appears concerned that some simply won’t know what to do with the free time.

The education ministry has issued a pamphlet, complete with photos, offering suggestions for Saturday activities, such as helping with housework, picking up trash in the neighborhood or having a riverside picnic.

Some government groups are offering activities for kids on Saturday, but events like videos on national tax policy may not exactly pack them in.

The education ministry has arranged nature hikes, museum trips, visits to aircraft control towers and the like.

″If you don’t tell kids what kind of things they can do in their spare time, they get confused and just end up loafing around,″ said the ministry’s Tsuyoshi Shimakura.

Several department stores are offering free admission to in-house art galleries, and more than 2,000 ″karaoke″ sing-along studios will open their facilities to youngsters and their parents for free.

A random survey at an elementary school in downtown Tokyo found most students fairly certain they’d think of something to occupy themselves.

″Mainly we want to catch up on our sleep or play with our friends,″ said student Satoko Matsuura.

But even so, Matsuura was a little worried about the Saturday-off plan.

″It’s great for us to have the time off, but if the ministry really wanted to improve the situation in the public schools, they should change the curriculum and get better teachers,″ the 13-year-old said. ″As it is, a lot of us will just end up going to the juku more.″

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