A Refreshed Hierarchy for the Japanese Hypermeritocracy

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Last month, I attended a talk with an ex-bigwig from Seibu Mizuno Seiichi and downwardly-mobile market expert Miura Atsushi. They discussed how Tokyo University students of yore were terrible dressers. Back when Japan was a well-oiled machine built from top-to-bottom for the sole purpose of manufacturing-led export-based growth, Tokyo University (Todai) was the elite of elite institutions. Todai trains the government bureaucrats who essentially hold all of the political power and then retire into cushy board positions at the country’s top firms. Tokyo students thus had the career prospects, but in karmic exchange, lacked an eye for fashion and self-presentation. Spending the first sixteen years of your life in complete pursuit of memorizing population statistics, dates, and other meaningless numbers required for Confucian-style aptitude testing does not exactly make you a ladies man, let alone have the time to track down the latest duds from Van.

But times have changed. The two men noted that kids at elite institutions these days are not only good at book-learning but up with fashion, good with people, and killers with the ladies. (Or, gasp, are ladies.) Welcome to the rise of the hypermeritocracy — where the elite excel at everything.

This change in meaning of “elite” fits perfectly with the new employment system based to a higher degree on merit-based career promotion. (Depending on your philosophy, this is either ruining or saving Japanese capitalism.) Graduating from a top-tier school may get your foot in the door, but your pedigree alone will not guarantee you access to the top level positions within your own firm.

The data bears this out. In magazine President‘s October 16, 2006 cover story on “Universities and Career Success” (「大学と出世」), there was a rank of universities on how many of the graduates become executives at leading companies. Over the last twenty years, things have drifted from a country ruled politically and economically by Todai graduates to one where private university graduates (especially Keio, Waseda, and Chuo) lead the pack. The following table from President illustrates this well.

Universities Graduates who Become Executives at Listed Companies
1985 1995 2006
1. Tokyo U. 4,591 1. Tokyo U. 2,523 1. Keio U. 1,481
2. Kyoto U. 2,182 2. Keio U. 2,243 2. Waseda U. 1,190
3. Waseda U. 1,865 3. Waseda U. 2,220 3. Tokyo U. 1,042
4. Keio U. 1,720 4. Kyoto U. 1,339 4. Kyoto U. 536
5. Hitotsubashi U. 1,027 5. Chuo U. 1,017 5. Chuo U. 500

Not only have the private universities completely overtaken the national universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, less of the premier companies’ executives are from the best universities in total. Either the elite university students are going into non-listed companies or the listed companies are promoting by merit — which may not match up perfectly to the university affiliation won through first-rate test-taking ability at the age 18. The new corporate system looks to be generally less elitist than the old Japanese system. Of course, rich parents would find it easier to get their dumb children into Keio through the escalator system (putting them into the elementary or high school), but these kids will not succeed in their companies without actual effort. And it’s not like Tokyo University admissions were that “fair” to start with. The juku system requires expensive private tutoring to pass entrance exams, making the whole idea that “anyone can get into Tokyo University” a crock.

As the economic system of promotion-by-talent gets nearer the American system, elitism based on academic pedigree also declines. This echoes the American business world, where most CEOs did not attend Ivy League schools (only 10% of the Fortune 500). So now that promotion will be based on a large set of skills — smarts, charisma, social awareness — it only makes sense that the most elite schools are starting to see “hypermeritocratic” kids fill their classrooms. The economic system no longer rewards the eggheads and bookworms, so why should the elite colleges be creating them?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 17, 2006

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

15 Responses

  1. dzima Says:

    5. Hitoshibashi U. 1,027

    Sorry to be picky but the name of the university is Hitotsubashi.

    Also, did you know about these statistics before going to Keio or did you figure that out as you went along?

  2. Jrim Says:

    Well, according to The Times Higher Education Supplement’s recent university world rankings, Tokyo University now ranks below Beijing University. And the students still dress like crap there.

  3. Carl Says:

    killers with the ladies. (Or, gasp, ladies.)

    Am I to take it that should be read as レディーズ and ラディーズ respectively?

  4. Jrim Says:

    Assuming that (as we’ve all long suspected) Marxy – just for kicks – first writes these tracts in Japanese and then translates them into English, yes…

  5. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Interesting. Its been very educational for me working for a new brand Japanese company which on the inside is very old school. We still have Todais regarded as the creme de la creme but in actual fact they make good beurocrats but horrible managers. And yes indeed their personal grooming leaves much to be desiered with most of em looking like frogs with dandruf.

    I look forward to getting out and into a company led by the wonderful new crop of private university managers.

    As a postscript, the one Todai campus I’ve been on was a complete pit; garbage everywhere, holes in the walls and toilets which didnt flush. Reminded me a bit of some housing projects but without the graffitti.

  6. marxy Says:

    Sorry to be picky but the name of the university is Hitotsubashi.

    I put this up without much time to spell check.

    Also, did you know about these statistics before going to Keio or did you figure that out as you went along?

    I knew Keio was one of the top private schools, but I mostly decided on Keio because the professor was so welcoming. Waseda told me to go through all sorts of bureaucracy. Tokyo U does not have a business department nor had anyone doing any research near my topic.

    Tokyo University now ranks below Beijing University.

    I’ll say it again: China wants it more.

    the one Todai campus I’ve been on was a complete pit;

    Japanese education finds inspiration from Sparta. How can you learn if you don’t suffer a bit?

  7. - Says:

    So the new tōdaisei get money to spend on not only juku tutoring, but fashionable clothes, while the rest of country is saving money wherever they can. If the ‘new’ meritocracy is improving its recruits, it certainly doesn’t seem to be enlarging its recruiting base. Are top students getting fashion-conscious, or is it just harder to get into top universities for the non-privileged? How are the fees in Waseda/Keiō/Hitotsubashi?

  8. statiq Says:

    This leaves me with a bitter aftertaste of “one privileged minority is replacing another privileged minority” in Japanese economy.

    My problem with meritocracy is the implicit notion that those who fail, fail because they deserve to do so. It’s always your fault is you were unable to build the “needed” skills, can’t afford the right clothes and are not at the top of the social ladder. Meritocracy means self-loathing and guilt as the norm for 95% of the population.

  9. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    statiq: that is certainly one perspective, but not everyones. considering the low percentages of japanese high school graduates who attend college in the first place this discussion is really only about a small slice of a chunk of the population, not japan at large. after all not everyone can be the shacho, some must dig the ditch and not a single ditch digger i’ve ever known has told me he loathes himself for not having made it to shacho.

    marxy: yes china does “want it more”. the graduates i’ve encountered here in the last decade want pretty much nothing.

  10. marxy Says:

    So the new tōdaisei get money to spend on not only juku tutoring, but fashionable clothes, while the rest of country is saving money wherever they can.

    Or spending money and going into debt to keep up with their social superiors….

    How are the fees in Waseda/Keiō/Hitotsubashi?

    Hitotsubashi is public. Private fees are more than public, but as a graduate of an American private university, tuition in Japan looks like pocket change to me. Unclear whether private fees are much of a barrier to entry for poorer students, although I have never heard much of merit-based scholarships or financial aid.

    My problem with meritocracy is the implicit notion that those who fail, fail because they deserve to do so.

    Japan has always based its social hierarchies on a merit, but let’s call the old system an “early-decision meritocracy” system where hierarchies were set by performance at the age 18. Getting into Todai meant success. Now, it is more like a “late-decision meritocracy” where academic pedigree can get you in the door, but actual job performance determines overall success. I think most would agree that the latter model gives individuals more time to prove their abilities and relies less on external “branding.”

    yes china does “want it more”. the graduates i’ve encountered here in the last decade want pretty much nothing.

    I dunno, lots of kids want to be professional hip hop dancers, rock singers, brand directors, etc. etc. Just nobody young wants to do bottom-feeding jobs. This is the natural cycle of economic “progress.”

  11. Smack Says:

    “I’ll say it again: China wants it more.”

    A good friend back in New York who is my age, 32, has the hardscrabble story of the rural scholar that clawed her way to Beijing U and then to Harvard, and she insists the kids in college in China today are soft. Prosperity breeds softness, I guess, but I would think there are still plenty of hungry Chinese kids ready to take their place in society. Unless, of course, class is already ossifying in China and admission to elite schools is becoming increasingly class exclusive. Guess this isn’t the place for this discussion.

    To bring it back to the quote, is it really a matter of “want”? As you argue, Japanese WANT a lot of things. Isn’t that the theme of your whole blog, the nature of Japanese Pop wants? I think the better term would be “hungry.” A person’s drive is qualitatively very different when motivated by hunger as opposed to want. Chinese are hungrier. Post War Japanese were hungry. Our contemporaries just have wish lists.

    I enjoy your posts. Thanks.

  12. marxy Says:

    Post War Japanese were hungry. Our contemporaries just have wish lists.

    Yes. It also seems that desires grow more and more unattainable. If your dream is just a middle-class job, a little hard work will get you there. If your dream is being a pop star, you have a less than 1% chance of getting there. The problem with contemporary Japan is that everyone wants to be a “rock star” figuratively, but this is not a society that tolerates many rock stars.

  13. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    “This echoes the American business world, where most CEOs did not attend Ivy League schools (only 10% of the Fortune 500).”

    That really surprised me, because it seems to be common knowledge that Harvard Business School grads infest the upper echelons of almost every major US company, Walmart being a notable exception. Certainly HBS grads have a chokehold on McKinsey, the uber-consultancy.

  14. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    ” lots of kids want to be professional hip hop dancers, rock singers, brand directors, etc. etc. Just nobody young wants to do bottom-feeding jobs. ”

    In terms of pay, those are bottom feeding jobs.

  15. lackey Says:

    “As the economic system of promotion-by-talent gets nearer the American system”

    I assumed this was a joke. The US has the lowest social mobility of almost any western state, despite all “American dream” propaganda. In the US, where you get is not far from where you were.