Very early in a child’s life, Japanese children are in a competition to get into the best kindergarten, then primary school, middle school, then high school. Each step is viewed as getting the best education in order to achieve. Cramming, ie spending long hours after formal school hours, is an integral part of every step in the system. The end goal is to get into the best university, when all things change. After so many years where school is all important, now is the time to finally enjoy yourself and not work so hard.
The purpose of Japanese education is to create future japanese and in this, the system is pretty successful. By the time most Japanese students are 18, they are monolingual and convinced that its impossible for a true Japanese to communicate in any other language apart from Japanese. Totally wrapped in nihonjinron and the uniqueness of the Japanese, ignorant about anywhere outside Japan, fully versed in the required behaviourist cues for the next 50 years of their life, devoid of pretty much any cognitive skills, xenophobic, mentally fully rote trained, don’t be the nail that sticks out.
Learning how to be Japanese is the number one goal of the system. As time goes by, the youth get more and more conservative. There is an amazing lack of curiosity about the world, lack of ambition to study overseas, lack of desire to do anything other than become a drone. It’s impressive, given the easy access to information provided by the internet, low cost of travel, and relative affluence of most Japanese.
Very little learning actually occurs – the students are not given critical thinking skills they need to succeed. The education system was designed in an era when most people would finish up high school and work in factories, either in management or labor. This type of education was fine in an industrialized society where mass production and consumption drove the economy. However, the world is quickly moving to a post-consumerist society where the quality of ideas and the ability to find creative solutions to problems largely determines how successful a person (or an entire economy) will become. Some countries have learned this but Japan has clearly been slow to understand it and has been even slower in adapting its educational system to this reality. It certainly explains why the Japanese economy is sliding into irrelevance.
It may be confusing societal problems with educational problems – from a global developmental perspective the failings of the Japanese educational system – lack of creativity, lack of originality, an inability to interact in the global arena, a tribal concept (more akin to the stone age) of how the world works, inability and unwillingness to make/take decisions and total passivity.
A major emphasis is on getting better at writing entrance exams. What does this say about the education in Japan.. is it ill-equipped to prepare children for the next step in their educational ladder? What about addressing the need for the Juku in this country – why do children need to attend these soul crushers in the first place? There is a need to address the rote learning that goes on in the schools – or to reword that, address the lack of critical thinking or problem solving that doesn’t take place. The current education system is geared towards the insistence on standarized tests for everything.
Eight problems in Japanese Education
1. The lack of competition among educational suppliers
Students have different characters, and accordingly, educational theories must be diverse. Therefore, many educational curricula should be tried in a competitive manner. However, there is no such thing in Japan. The diversity of school books and other materials is limited, and there is little room for developing new educational materials and methods. Japanese education is far from vital.
2. Free time lost by examination wars
Today, the primary trouble faced by junior high school level is the students’ anxiety related to the entrance examinations to high schools. More than half of them go to cram schools, and some of them attend several cram schools. Moreover, younger children have also become affected by the examination wars. It is quite abnormal that elementary school children return home from cram schools after 10 o’clock at night. A survey has shown that 27% of elementary school students and 64% of junior high school children feel fatigue in their daily lives. Examination wars prevent children from growing up with sound minds, which makes their future of Japan gloomy.
3. The risk of the nationally unified education
Since a government agency decides educational content, if the agency makes a mistake, all schools are forced to go along with it. Such a risk can be avoided if the power to decide educational content is transferred to local governments or private schools. A new education system can be tried locally and then spread, before the Ministry of Education makes a nationwide decision. This would be both more natural and desirable.
4. Japanese education rejects individual differences
The students who achieved excellent results in a subject can frequently progress faster or proceed to the next grade in the United States. The absence of a national curriculum allows such flexibility. In situation such as in Japan where educational curricula are fixed by a national curriculum, a student permitted to proceed faster must be considered as favorable discrimination. No educational theory nor educational psychology argues that every child at each grade develops at the same speed.
5. The contradiction that any educational efforts not approved by the Ministry of Education are essentially useless
The Ministry of Education decides educational content in Japan. In other words, any educational efforts not approved by the Ministry are essentially useless. In the current system, doing only what is approved by the Ministry and cutting out (as much as possible) what is not approved is the most effective way to enter a famous university. Community and volunteer activities, home education, and learning styles are all useless. This is the largest contradiction in Japanese education. The definition of education is wider in the United States because the federal government does not decide the content of education. Experience in the real world, such as part-time jobs and social activities, are included in education. American high schools permit part-time jobs, while many Japanese high schools do not. Such differences result from the different definitions of education.
It is a considerable problem that the Ministry of Education has the power to develop or eliminate specific sets of values.
6. Educational system disturbing freedom of thought and education
The description and interpretation of school books on history have been variously argued in Japan. This includes the recent charity argument and the argument as to whether the operations of the Japanese military in Asian countries was advancement or invasion. However, there is no unified interpretation of history among the people and no need to unify it. Strictly speaking, there are about 1,200 million Japanese nationals, and accordingly, there must be the same number of historical views since all of them were born at different times in different environments. Today, Japanese schools nationwide teach a unified historical view. However, this system may disturb freedom of education and belief for both right and left wingers. Japanese education should be democratized in this respect as well.
7. The Japanese system does not develop unconventionality nor creativity
Recently, Asian countries have been rapidly catching-up to Japan. Since less expensive Asian products are frequently preferred to Japanese products when the quality is the same, Japanese industries must increasingly depend on creativity and being unconventional.
Not all Asian countries can democratize education. There are several conditions to be satisfied before education is democratized. Japan is among the few countries that can satisfy those. Education may indeed be a “hole card”, as it were, for Japan. Japanese education should no longer be discussed at the level of examination wars. It is an urgent issue to be tackled to survive in today’s world.
8. New social discrimination in the educational field
No one can deny the fact that Japanese diplomatism produces new social discrimination in schools. It would be useless to try to solve the problems of bullying and school rejection unless some measures are taken to dismantle the structure of diplomatism.
Problems of Japanese Universities
Hisashi Kubodera could have had his pick of universities. But the Japanese student, who speaks three languages and has an aptitude for applied mathematics, knew that getting a degree in his home country was the last thing he wanted — Japanese schools are just too easy, he says. Now a freshman at Yale, he recalls sitting in on a lecture at a Hokkaido-based college to get a feel for the place. The class was “so boring and terrible,” Kubodera says, he can’t even remember the lecture topic. “In Japan, if you get into college you can graduate no matter what,” he says. “In the U.S., it’s hard to get in and harder to graduate.”
Kubodera may be an exceptional student, but his decision to seek higher education overseas is all too common among Japanese youth these days. Japan’s universities have fallen on hard times, their reputations so dented that many ambitious students no longer consider them even as a last resort. Beset by international competition, hampered by outmoded curriculums and cloistered, change-resistant administrations, universities are seeing enrollment and tuition revenues decline. The total number of higher-ed students in Japan fell from 2.87 million in 2005 to 2.83 million last year, a loss of some 37,000, according to Japan’s Education Ministry. Education experts say that nearly 40% of universities and colleges can’t fill student quotas, forcing some schools to relax admission standards and others to merge or close.
This troubling trend is partially due to Japan’s chronically low birth rate. The country’s student body is shrinking. The number of 18-year-olds — a group that accounts for 90% of first-year college students — plunged 35% between 1990 and 2007, from 2 million to 1.3 million, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Simply put, there are fewer and fewer Japanese students to support a system that was built for heavier class loads. As a result, Japan’s famously Darwinian educational environment, in which high school students crammed day and night so they could beat their peers on standardized tests and get into good universities, is fading. Instead, even average students now breeze into colleges that are becoming less selective about who fills their hallowed lecture halls.
Educators have a phrase for this phenomenon: daigaku zennyu jidai, which literally means “an age when all are accepted to college.” Big schools such as Tokyo University, which receives 40% of its funding from the government, are trying to goose head count by establishing more graduate schools and by adding postgraduate courses for working professionals and retirees. Smaller, underfunded colleges must take more drastic action. For example, Osaka University and Osaka University of Foreign Studies merged in October; two other Osaka schools — Kwansei Gakuin University and Seiwa College, both of which have been around for more than a century — are slated to combine next year.
The problems facing the country’s higher-education system run deeper than mere demographics, however. Japan may be the world’s second largest economy with a reputation for technological prowess, but its schools aren’t making the grade. Critics say student bodies are stultifyingly homogeneous, teaching methods are obsolete, and there’s a dearth of courses taught in English, the lingua franca of international education and commerce. “Japan’s schools are third-rate by international standards,” says Robert Dujarric, director of Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies. In the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement, an influential U.K.-based annual survey of universities all over the world, only four Japanese universities ranked in the top 100, compared with 37 from the U.S. and 19 from the U.K. “If your aim is a Nobel Prize in chemistry,” Dujarric says, “you don’t come to Japan.”
This is another big reason why Japan is struggling to fill its classrooms. To offset dwindling enrollment, faculties need to reach out globally to attract foreign students as well as top-notch foreign teachers, who bring with them the ability to win lucrative research grants. But foreigners who opt to study in Japan sometimes regret their decision. Martin Rieger, a German attending Aoyama Gakuin University in central Tokyo, says that after one semester, he worries that he’s falling behind his peers at his home university near Luxembourg. “I’m writing about topics and issues that will help no way in my future,” says Rieger, 26. Bruce Stronach, president of Yokohama City University and the first Westerner to head a Japanese public university, says Japan is “not on the radar screen” of overseas students.
These problems are well known. Kiyoshi Shimizu, director general of the Education Ministry’s higher-education bureau, acknowledged shortcomings in the system during recent meetings to establish an OECD-administered mechanism for measuring the performance of universities worldwide. Some schools are trying to adapt. In November, Tokyo University — or Todai, the 130-year-old “Harvard of Japan” — partnered with Yale to increase its visibility abroad. Tokyo University President Hiroshi Komiyama says he wants to double the proportion of graduate courses taught in English to 20%. (About 8% of Todai’s students are foreigners, compared with an average of 3% for all Japanese universities and colleges.)
Another campus that’s reforming is Tokyo’s Waseda University. Four years ago, Waseda launched a new School of International Liberal Studies as a testing ground for “enforced artificial internationalism,” as Paul Snowden, the school’s dean, describes it. All classes are taught in English. The school as a matter of policy recruits one-third of its students from overseas, from countries as far away as Iceland and Uganda. The strategy seems to be working. Since it opened, the program has seen enrollment grow at an annual average rate of 15%. “This school is dragging Waseda kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” Snowden says.
But Japan is a country that clings to tradition and carefully guards its culture. Teaching in English and courting outsiders remains anathema to many faculty members and administrators. “The structure of universities and research institutes is so intransigent that it’s hard to implement solutions,” says Stronach, the Yokohama City University president. “These reforms are crucial right now, and yet there’s an awful lot of dithering going on.”
Japan dithers at its peril. Nations such as South Korea are building education systems geared to produce an internationally competitive workforce. “Our students need to globalize to be leaders,” says Yuichiro Anzai, president of Keio University, a top private university in Tokyo. Do they have an international outlook today? “Not yet,” Anzai says. “We are lacking a sense of the crisis that we face,” says Akiyoshi Yonezawa, an education expert at the Center for the Advancement of Higher Education at Tohoku University in Sendai. “This society is becoming more and more disadvantaged year by year.” For Japan, the “age when all are accepted to college” may turn out to be less carefree than it sounds.