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The most forceful indication that parents are disappointed in the public schools is the intense competition to get into private ones, from kindergarten through high school. The key to success is the juku, an evening and weekend cram school where children from the age of four prepare for entrance examinations. Nearly 60% of junior high school students take juku classes, which cost their parents as much as $400 a month. They usually study material at least a year ahead of the public school curriculum and endure rigorous schedules that leave no time for the playground.

Akiko Tsutsui, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, gets out of school at 3:30 p.m. and goes straight home to have a snack and do her homework. Three afternoons a week she leaves again at 4:45 for a juku session that lasts from 5:10 to 10:00. For almost the entire class, Akiko will listen to tutors explain how to answer test questions and will practice taking them herself. She sometimes attends all day on Sunday for extra help. The classes give Akiko a better chance of getting into a local private junior high school, and that in turn virtually guarantees her admission to a university.

Competition in Japan has always been fierce, and the schools have always demanded conformity and intense rote learning. But the system has become an extreme, decadent version of what it used to be. And not only do children suffer on account of the schools and cram courses, but they may not even be learning what they ought to. Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition party, argues that the educational system is at the heart of Japan's difficulties because it simply forces children to memorize and solve math problems. That may have been sufficient when Japan needed nothing but obedient, selfless workers, but it does not nurture the right skills for Japan's future. "Japanese lack self-reliance and a sense of the individual," says Ozawa, "without which there is no democracy or creativity."

The strange, tawdry phenomenon of terekura, or telephone-sex clubs, also reflects the deterioration in the lives of young Japanese. A large number of high school girls in the big cities--27%, according to a 1994 study by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers--work occasionally for the services, and some unknown portion of those act as prostitutes as well. The innocent-schoolgirl type can easily command more than $1,000 a night for a date and sex and still get home in time for lights-out.

These are middle-class girls from good schools. Many sign up for the money, which they use to buy expensive designer clothes. But according to Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist who specializes in young women's difficulties, the high school girls are as eager for anonymous companionship as the men are for a sexual thrill. "I do this to kill time," says one, "and because my friend asked me to do it." She is 18, just graduated from a Christian high school in Tokyo, and makes about $16 an hour. Sometimes the work is unpleasant. "The old guys want to talk to me in a way that I find painful," she says, "but that's what they are paying for."

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