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|
|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?