Great Expectations

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Factories nationwide may be idled by the recession, but one conveyor belt in southern Japan is still in overdrive. Its product? Teenage pop stars. Some of J-pop's biggest names--from pert diva Namie Amuro to girl groups Speed and Max--are products of the Okinawa Actor's School, an unconventional academy where 400 students forgo traditional subjects like math and science in order to cultivate their inner beat and learn to market their outer appeal. Tucked into a shopping mall crammed with Titanic posters and neon platform shoes, the talent school is the creation of Masayuki Makino, 58, the flamboyant scion of a well-known entertainment family. Unlike other music moguls, Makino tries to nurture creativity instead of mass-producing interchangeable idols. The formula seems to strike a chord with teens: at a nationwide series of auditions last summer, 50,000 wannabe stars vied for the chance to come under Makino's tutelage. A kinetic man with an easy walk and quick grin, Makino makes high demands of his students, who pay $175 a month in tuition. While other talent academies offer only limited after-school tutorials, the Okinawa Actor's School asks its top enrolees to skip high school altogether, arguing that the country's straight-laced education system could stifle their creativity. Japanese schools squeeze all the imagination out of students, says Makino. Still, dropping out of school is a risky move. Only a few Actor's School graduates land major recording deals, leaving the others vulnerable to dead-end jobs. But with the link between formal education and lifetime employment frayed by years of recession, more and more youngsters are willing to take the risk. Okinawans, who make up most of the student body, are especially eager. Straggling at the tail end of the Japanese archipelago, Okinawa is the nation's poorest prefecture. Unemployment hovers around 8%, nearly double the national average, and 40% of college graduates can't find jobs. Makino himself is no stranger to taking risks. Nearly 30 years ago, the self-confessed playboy moved to sunny Okinawa to escape the burdens of adulthood. He opened a few bars in the low-slung prefectural capital of Naha, then ignored the accounts to flirt with his prettier patrons. By 1983, Makino was desperately low on cash, and he seized on training Okinawa's young talent as a last ditch money-maker. His impetuous style has permeated the brightly painted school, which revels in controlled chaos. Students belt out scales to the pounding rhythm of techno-music. Posses of hip-hop dancers groove in a strobe-lit studio, surrounded by graffiti murals and flashing videos. The kids have rhythm, a swing of their hips more native to Brazil than Japan. Yet for all their flair, the students seem curiously choreographed. A classroom's mirrored walls reflect an endless line of synchronized teenagers dressed in identical Adidas track pants. Even when an instructor exhorts them to accent their individuality, the result is merely a minor variation on the MTV lockstep. Such mimicry frustrates Makino, who knows that producing a top-notch star will require more than derivative song and dance. Japanese children are taught to copy. We need to help them regain their natural inventiveness. The impulse to breed creativity propelled Makino this April to found an elementary and secondary school which he hopes will challenge the Japanese education system to soften its military rigor. Idealistically named Dream Planet, the school will eschew examinations and grades. One day out of five will be spent exploring Okinawa's wilderness, and students can pursue independent projects of their choice. It's a radical leap from today's Japanese schools, and the Education Ministry has refused to accredit Dream Planet. But that doesn't deter the 140 students from across Japan who have joined the inaugural class. There are plenty of schools for children who will become salarymen, says Tomoko Shirai, Dream Planet's 26-year-old principal. A graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo, Shirai--like many Japanese--found her education to be little more than a conduit of disconnected facts. What we are doing is giving the others, the creative ones who have been squashed by the system, the chance to blossom. Whether these kids, or any of those at the Okinawa Actor's School, will become the world-class innovators Japan's entertainment industry so desperately craves is anyone's guess. But a redoubled effort to create independent, ambitious youngsters may make up for one of Makino's keenest disappointments: his most famous charge, Namie Amuro, who after reaching the pinnacle of Japanese pop, retreated into motherhood at age 20 before staging a muted comeback late last year. Amuro thought she had attained the top, says Makino, but she didn't realize that making it in Japan is nothing. It's only after you conquer the world that you're truly a star. True to Makino's words, the Okinawa Actor's School's students profess a global view. There are no good musicians in Japan, says 16-year-old Aisa Senda. They have no rhythm. When asked whom they admire, a dozen teens give the same answer: Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. Individuality, it seems, goes only so far.