The "Myth" of Japanese Universities

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I just finished reading Brian McVeigh’s subtly-titled Japanese Higher Education As Myth — a work that spends 250 pages discussing why and how Japanese universities do not particularly function as a higher education system. While Japan’s secondary schooling has some obvious pluses compared to those of other post-industrial nations, I can’t imagine anyone ever defending the Japanese tertiary level institutions — even Ezra Vogel quickly admitted to “mediocre universities” in his Japan as Number One.

Kirsten Refsing breaks down the education process into four goals:

1) education – the teaching of skills
2) socialization – training responsible citizens
3) selection – distributing talent to the labor market
4) depository – getting the youth off the streets (McVeigh 11)

The Japanese system is amazingly efficient at 2, 3, and 4, but in order to mask schools’ function as an agent of social control, we generally emphasize the first reason — teaching and learning — to justify the other three. A certain level of basic skills — literacy, math, science — is crucial for constructing the workforce’s human capital, but there are real doubts whether the Japanese education system today provides students with any intellectual skills and knowledge above and beyond what is important for a smoothly-running, super-efficient society. Learning about history, critical theory, or social issues tends to pester the capitalist system, not contribute to its safety.

As someone currently enrolled in an “elite” Japanese university, I can vouch for the widely-stated comment that expectations on Japanese college students are very low. The facilities and faculty may be high-level, but there is pretty much a society-wide understanding that learning should not get in the way of shuushoku katsudou (就職活動, finding a job, starting from the end of the 3rd year and ending in spring of the 4th) and bukatsu (club activities). Things have supposedly gotten stricter with attendance lately, but I hear stories from hot-shot employees about showing up to campus “around four or five” times throughout their student life and still passing. Employers never look at grades anyway, so graduating with the lowest possible GPA is not so different than graduating at the top.

Graduating at the top, however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t.

Since there’s no universal standard of what “education” should be, I decline an invitation to snipe and criticize just because Japanese universities are not imparting knowledge in the same ways as the Western model, but I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. Not everyone necessarily needs to go to college (so says the Animal Collective in four-part harmony), but it’s certainly the easiest place to learn to be a critical, literate human being. There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio). And we all prosper under inventions created within university research facilities. Higher education causes positive externalities in society.

The Japanese, however, tend to view intellectual maturity as a slow life-long process. If you’ve ever talked to Japanese in their 30s, they are often as political and critical as anyone in the West. There are not, however, very many well-educated Japanese youths with broad social understanding, who can shoot the breeze in pseudo-intellectual discussions. I can’t claim that societies absolutely need academically-trained 20-somethings dropping mad Derrida bombs, but surely their absence has a real impact on Japanese youth culture.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

19 Responses

  1. Dave Says:

    What really gets me about Japanese universities is the taking of attendance. What’s wrong with the time-honoured principle of teaching stuff in class, and failing those who don’t understand it?

    One wonders how Japanese universities feel about the current situation in which (unlike, say, kindergartens or elementary schools), their active contribution towards students’ social and intellectual growth is rather minimal.

    (I would have to disagree with your view of providing skills for a superefficient and smoothly running society. My feeling is that Japanese society/business/government makes up for its super *in*efficiency by running extremely smoothly. Localised small improvements yes, but large scale structural reform, almost never. I’d love to hear some examples on both sides, however.)

    On the other hand, after so many years of being institutionalised and socialised, university in Japan is a chance for people to grow personally in directions that they enjoy – even when those directions are not intellectual. That’s nothing to be sniffed at.

  2. marxy Says:

    On the other hand, after so many years of being institutionalised and socialised, university in Japan is a chance for people to grow personally in directions that they enjoy – even when those directions are not intellectual. That’s nothing to be sniffed at.

    Sure, but why are they paying an institution for it? Why not take off four years and travel the world etc.? This is a function of Japanese universities, but I can’t wonder if that really makes up for a lack of intellectual learning.

  3. Sameer Says:

    According to the hot rumors, you went to some fancy northeastern college. I suspect that most US undergraduates do not “read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discuss it with a professor one day, discuss it with a graduate student the next day, and write a seven-page paper each week.” The Japanese anti-intellectual slacker lifestyle you describe is not unusual at most US state schools… (perhaps the University of West Florida is an exception)

  4. marxy Says:

    Yes, but I was comparing my education to that of the elite Japanese colleges. And forget universities: is there anywhere in Japan that compares to strong, small liberal arts colleges like Amherest, Swarthmore, St. Johns, Pomona, Williams, etc?

    Last time I checked there were certainly a lot of highly motivated students at state colleges, despite the frat life. And certainly they do have to write papers and take tests to actually graduate. Two many hits on the beer bong and you may not get your diploma.

    But let’s forget America for a moment. Are there other post-industrial societies where students are graded on their attendance and can graduate without ever writing a single multipage paper?

  5. nate Says:

    in middle school, from day one, the eyes are on the prize academically… the test. Same for high school.

    Since not so many folks are gonna be taking tests afterward, there’s really no clear object to education anymore in this system. University is just the prize for doing well enough in high school (and having enough money in the family).

  6. Nigel Fogden Says:

    I enjoyed your post about Japanese universities. I’m an ESL teacher and I regularly run up against students who are unable to answer basic questions _about their own opinions._ Forget knowledge. Simply ask, “Do you like SMAP?” (much less “Why”) and you are quite likely to get “I don’t know,” as an answer. The real problem is a profound lack of curiosity. Without a genuine interest in, well, life, education realy has no other choice but to degenerate into the kind of conditions you described. So where does this feeling of disconection come from?

  7. Dave Says:

    I took Chinese class with a Japanese friend who went to high school in New Zealand. She went back to Japan and went to university for a year (I forget where, but it wasn’t a Keio/Todai etc), got a stack of As, but found the whole experience pointless. So she left, and went to university in New Zealand instead, where she worked four times as hard to get passing grades in Chinese and education. (Unfortunately for her, most of us had been writing one or two multipage papers a week for the five years before university – it’s just not that easy to catch up on something like that, especially in a new language.)

    I’m still not sure what I would do in the same situation.

  8. Dave Says:

    As for taking time off and travelling the world, I’m told by a number of people in Sydney (a.k.a. Japanese working holiday central) that travelling after high school for a year etc. is frowned upon by employers.

    Probably because it was originally (and still is) a way of exporting the bad kids overseas, feeling like you’re doing something about it, while hiding the problem – so when the kids get back to Japan they’re not always well socialised to conform to the standard Japanese Way (and often not all that well educated to boot.)

  9. marxy Says:

    Since not so many folks are gonna be taking tests afterward, there’s really no clear object to education anymore in this system. University is just the prize for doing well enough in high school (and having enough money in the family).

    Yep. Thomas Rohlen calls the examinations the “dark engine” that runs the entire education system.

    I regularly run up against students who are unable to answer basic questions _about their own opinions._ Forget knowledge. Simply ask, “Do you like SMAP?” (much less “Why”) and you are quite likely to get “I don’t know,” as an answer. The real problem is a profound lack of curiosity.

    I somewhat agree, but McVeigh explains this as a kind of passive resistance. That’s to say, of course they have opinions, but college is their one chance to not have to “play the game” before a life of corporate work. So, playing dumb is their little rebellion. This makes sense, although there is probably also a legitimate issue with expressing opinions.

    That being said, most of the kids in my elite zemi speak up very frequently. Not the same in my “general” classes, however. People sleep, talk, never answer the questions.

  10. marxy Says:

    What really gets me about Japanese universities is the taking of attendance. What’s wrong with the time-honoured principle of teaching stuff in class, and failing those who don’t understand it?

    Well if you don’t make kids write papers, what else are you going to grade them on?

  11. jean Says:

    Interesting. So, I wonder — how do the academics become academics? Prestige? Referrals? Do they have to be able to produce lots of research and get published like in the US?

    Hope you feel better soon!

  12. marxy Says:

    I would gather that 90% of people in MA and PhD programs in Japan are on the track to be a professor. You can’t really leave your job to get a MA and then go back into the job field. That’s too much icky personal choice and freedom – awful for a well-run society!

    At least in my department, only 2 of the professors did not get a PhD from the department. In other words, you can only get hired at a university if you’re part of the university already.

  13. r. Says:

    david,
    i appreciate your time and candor in writing this entry, which jells with everything that i’ve heard from my japanese and non-japanese friends who have experienced higher education in america and japan. doing a degree here is, in many ways, just like shooting yourself in the academic foot. but just to add my two cents worth, all of this i’m sure is valid for a non-arts degree track at a japanese university, but i’d be remiss if i didn’t state that for the record, my ‘ivy league’/art school experience here at geidai has been not too different than what i experienced on the west coast at calarts and vicariously at mills in san fran thru the stories of my friend roddy. of course, i’m not in the ‘normal’ section of gedai. i’m in the ‘sentan geijyutsu’ program, which is (in)famous for being ultra-liberal. anyway, hope to hear from anyone else out there doing an arts degree anywhere in japan.
    r.
    glitchslaptko@gmail.com

  14. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: I can vouche that leaving work to study is frowned upon. Several people left my company last year after understanding that fact. AFAIK there are no MA/PhD’s in house. I work for an investment bank…

  15. Filip Says:

    Good points. I know many students that just go to university because it`s expected of them. Most never work in a job related to their field-of-study anyway (yes, same back home, you get many extreme examples here). Case in point- one girl couldn`t get into the faculty of English, so she`s studying Urdu (because entrance requirements were much lower) just so she can get her degree and then get a job in English translation.

    The whole idea of “paying for a piece of paper (diploma)” seems more relevant in Japan.

  16. marxy Says:

    There’s also the oft-said point that employers don’t want their employees to come in with too much pre-existing knowledge. Newspapers won’t hire kids from Doshisha’s Media department.

  17. Robert Says:

    Marxy:

    Interesting ideas, but I’m wondering what you think about the technical majors such as medicine, physics, biology, chemistry, even law. what about the harder sciences, or even architecture and art school. Students in these majors surely must be studying, or at least learning something… its hard to be able to do surgery after 6 years of drinking and never going to class if one studied medicine in japan? Just curious if these realties are only true to the softer sciences and arts… strange I went to Berkeley, did both a hard science and english degree… still don’t know which was harder.. sure seemed that the english graduates were smarter in bullshitting, communicating, and conversing, though my lab partners in o-chem and viral pathology were pretty hard working too though at times clueless at life, politics, art, etc…

  18. marxy Says:

    I think that’s a good clarification, because there must be some transmission of technical skills. I’m not sure about doctors, but I suspect that traditionally a lot of specialist knowledge was imparted in the workplace through company training, not at universities.

    I think a bulk of my argument applies to the “liberal arts” more than engineering, etc.

  19. rio Says:

    Sorry to be completely unrelated but since you mentioned them, I love Animal Collective. Saw them play a pretty amazing show last year with Black Dice in NYC.