The Republic of (Un)Educated Elites


The good people at work got me a ¥10,000 gift card to iTunes Music Store Japan for my wedding, but due to Sony’s boycott and other various factors, I found myself mostly unable to spend this virtual loot on the available music. After purchasing a single Tangerine Dream album, I decided to hightail it to the audiobooks and go with one of DJ Will Durant‘s bangers from the early daze, The Story of Philosophy. (Unabridged, suckas.)

Slipping into the Plato chapter (who never appeared in any of the Bill and Ted films since his name cannot be mispronounced), I could not help but notice a striking similarity between the ideals of government in his work The Republic and the political structure of Japan. Plato calls for a class of educated elites to rule, who spend their early days in athletic pursuits before moving onto deep intellectual/philosophical study and then competitive placement within a merit-based bureaucracy with meager pay and communal living.

Since the end of the war, Japan has essentially been a pseudo-democracy — with around 60% of the political power held by unelected career bureaucrats and the remaining bits held by elected Diet members. Almost without exception, the top bureaucrats (and many politicians) come from Japan’s singular institution of higher learning, Tokyo University (Todai) — specifically, the Law Department (法学部). Although they are not forced to live communally nor give up their children to the state like Plato’s ambitious vision, these bureaucrats take relatively lower salaries than their private sector peers. The idea is to put the brightest and most talented citizens in control of the government, thus working around the unpredictable and protean disposition of the masses. No matter what happens on the democratic side, these bureaucrats can skillfully steer the country onto the most “correct” course.

This idea, however, is not solely Platonic. The method of staffing the Japanese state closely resembles Confucian ideas on education. Confucius proffers an ideal system where students memorize “the Classics” and win access to government jobs by accurately spewing back the material. The aim is close to Pluto’s: building a fleet of gentlemen (君子) to rule the state with their enhanced wisdom and benevolence.

The Japanese system looks very close to the Platonic ideal in its stern recruiting, but it is missing a crucial component of the formula: no one learns anything at university. Kids get the basics in middle and high school, focusing on three core subjects — Japanese, math, and English. Achievement is measured at 18, and the best and brightest matriculate to universities where they proceed to do nothing for four years. All education in the actual field happens in the first years of employment. Gaining a government job has little to do with what you did at college and more about where you went to college. Pedigree as a symbol trumps the achievement the symbol is supposed to represent.

Obviously, no actual government is going to resemble the fantasies of philosophers who — surprise, surprise — think that philosophers should rule the country. But why would the Japanese system take up the overall shell of the Platonic/Confucian system and then ignore the central meat inside. The point is that the most educated (not most promising) take up the reigns of the body politic. Why not have students spend four years in intellectual pursuits on top of binge drinking with their tennis circles, as is the norm in most other lands?

There is the oft-repeated “vacation” claim about universities, that Japanese students deserve a break between “examination hell” and the bland regularity of their remaining lives. But this would presuppose that universities were once difficult and have been toned down — a historical development I am unaware of. More importantly, Japanese companies have shown a dislike of employees with prior experience or knowledge as they think over-educated students are a threat to a unified firm culture. Also in a seniority-based society, the education process most ideally would be stretched out over decades in order to make a natural hierarchy of wisdom and ability.

In some ways, the current Japanese system is a Confucian Hell — where promising youth never learn the universal wisdom of the past but instead take up a body of knowledge based on particular practical concerns of companies and government functions. No one hands down wisdom at any point in the current model. Basic skills are learned for diagnostic testing (semi-Confucian), then four years of vacation, then a lifetime of on-site vocational training. The Japanese system certainly creates a stability — but perhaps the wrong kind, stuck in slowly outmoded routines and traditions rather than more abstract philosophical ideals.

I criticize, of course, not because the Japanese system is necessarily broken, but because it is looms so near its aspirational ideals. The system is so bent up on its own protection that it essentially fears the challenge of that over-educated elite, who would in theory locate the hypocrisies and abuses of the structure and work to bring them back to the ideals. Wisdom may be secretly a threat to the status quo, which may have been Plato and Confucius’ whole reason for advocating it.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 6, 2006

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

32 Responses

  1. Carl エスクワイア Says:


  2. clh Says:

    It seems there are some movement towards an improvement of the higher educational system. I participated in a meeting at the 文部科学書 on this topic this March. It was a strange accumulation of researchers and Ministry employees discussion how a stronger specialisation of students might be achieved. There is an apparent need for specialists from the employers side, as most cannot afford to have their 新卒employees go through years of on the job training. Instead, they would prefer the university to actually do what they are supposed to and educate their students in fields beyond first experiences in alcohol and love.
    The discussion very much focused on Master and Doctoral courses. When I suggested that the root of the problem lied in the earlier years of university, as after 4 years of sleeping through classes, a certain degree of legarthy would set in, resulting in “terribly indecisive” youths (as the public likes to complain about the monsters they created), nobody really took up my point. Instead, the focus was shifted towards educational system in other countries and climaxed in a praise of the wonderful German educational system. Most of all the German Phd students were so clever and well educated and if i didnt agree…well, how could i possibly? If they truly believed so, they should ve given my suggestion a thought.
    So, there is a demand for change from the employees side, but the mills of bureaucracy grind slowly.
    Pantience, Marxy, you might still witness Plato’s vision. Revolution is not a dinner party.

  3. check Says:

    I see you’ve read Dogs & Demons.

  4. scott Says:

    Hey Marxy, you talk a lot about the Confucian influences in modern Japanese life. Any chance that you can you recommend an English language book or article on the subject? (Ironically, it’s for a college paper).

  5. alin Says:

    Confucian Hell – where promising youth never learn the universal wisdom of the past but instead take up a body ..

    so would you say that say a kojin karatani (toudai) or so many kyoto daigaku brilliant thinkers are all dokugaku ? or how do you explain it . i’ve never been near a japanese university so i wouldn’t know.

  6. Chuckles Says:

    […The Japanese system certainly creates a stability – but perhaps the wrong kind, stuck in slowly outmoded routines and traditions rather than more abstract philosophical ideals.

    I criticize, of course, not because the Japanese system is broken or worthless, but because it is looms so near its aspirational ideals but pokes out the middle. The system is so bent up on its own protection that it essentially fears the challenge of that overeducated elite, who would in theory locate the hypocrisies and abuses of the structure and work to bring them back to the ideals…]

    There is much to fear from an overeducated elite. Again, the obligatory nod to history serves us well here: The more egregious evils of recent Japanese history came about as a result of the craft of this so called “elite” – The policies of militarist Japan were not crafted by country bumpkin samurai – but by educated (both in Japan and the West) intellectuals who in their bid to descry hypocrisies and rectify abuses of structure ended up reifying the abstract with damaging and dastardly results. To bring it closer to home: The imperial abuses of Europe in much the same period owe their career to much the same intellectual theorizing: fanciful bids to locate hypocrisies and abuses of structure blessed us with Rousseauian madness, hypocrisy redux in the form of Marx, and fanciful theories about race from theorizers who had never even seen the folks they were theorizing about. The word – that prime tool of intellectual types – was transformed into a prime tool of cultural and racial slander: slander that still affects folks across the globe today, with various calls to take up the white man’s burden etc. The reality is that intellectuals have never been able to resist the allure of power – and rather than identifying hypocrisies and abuses of structure – like all other profit seeking opportunists, they have jumped on every bandwagon of iniquity to have ever traversed the human path.
    IMO – The Japanese system works just fine. Government doesnt need fancy intellectuals. The record of intellectuals in government has been a uniform disaster: While it is certainly alright for the Chomskys and the Churchills of this world to lambast the US of A – their career reminds us that the pernicious influence of theorizers extends far beyond their native shores.
    Hypocrisy and abuses of structure? Look no further than the academy itself. The State as an entity is constructed as it is on arbitrary and arrogant claims to territory: Why compound that by throwing the arbitrary and arrogant and totally detached theorizings of Intellectual types into the mix? Let the overeducated elites stay where they belong: And where they belong is outside government.

  7. alin Says:

    wowov , one small step from a maoist cultural revolution ! anyone here wear glasses ?

  8. Chuckles Says:

    Shouldnt a pince nez be the instrument of choice here?

  9. marxy Says:

    Any chance that you can you recommend an English language book or article on the subject? (Ironically, it’s for a college paper).

    There is a book about Confucianism in Modern Japan by a guy named Warren Smith. This is mostly about the Confucian influence on the founding princples of the Meiji nation: namely, the Imperial Rescript on Education and State Shinto’s morality. Most of my ideas about Confucianism are a mixture of readings about Japan and what I picked up from lectures by Prof. Wei-ming Tu. I am not sure I can point you to somewhere specific that will state the same things I say. Definitely start with The Analects if you have not already.

    so would you say that say a kojin karatani (toudai) or so many kyoto daigaku brilliant thinkers are all dokugaku

    These guys all hold graduate degrees, and graduate students have time to actually start hitting the books. They are also not involved in the government, which is my point.

    There is much to fear from an overeducated elite.

    Couldn’t you say that all of your bad guys abused theory rather than caused problems with it? Not like Marx himself was ordering mass exterminations. Lenin and Stalin were going to be dickheads anyway – Marx just gave them better winter coats.

  10. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:


  11. marxy Says:

    Another point I failed to mention: Japan was essentially a military state for a very long time and they twisted Confucianism to justify a samurai elite rather than an educated noble elite. The answer to my question may be simply: military men distrust abstract philosophy and pride loyalty/hierarchy too much to allow free thinkers in their ranks. This helped form the foundation of the modern Japanese state, even if the military is no longer existent.

  12. saru Says:

    While we call it “Confucianism,” the Japanese and Chinese do not. It’s 儒教–the Big C’s name is not in it. I think it’s important to bear that in mind. Confucius is of course a major figure in that tradition but he is not its prophet or anything like that. (Translation: don’t blame the evils of “Confucianism” on Confucius and don’t look too hard for a cohesive philosophy in The Analects. You’ll only be disappointed.)

  13. saru Says:

    Let me rephrase that:
    Lenin and Stalin were going to be dickheads anyway – Marx just gave them better winter coats.
    Substitute “Lenin and Stalin” with “The Meiji Emperor” and “Marx” with “Confucius.” (And the “winter coats” with “pompous German-looking military uniforms.” Or whatever.)

  14. marxy Says:

    don’t look too hard for a cohesive philosophy in The Analects. You’ll only be disappointed

    No but you will be entertained. I enjoy that book. You do need some commentary though to get the main point of his obsession with “ritual.” 儒教 is something like “teaching of the scholars,” by the way, so yes, it’s less of an ism and more of a pretty entrenched conservative body of thought.

    Substitute “Lenin and Stalin” with “The Meiji Emperor” and “Marx” with “Confucius.”

    A big difference would be that Lenin and Stalin said, we are Marxists, where the Meiji crew robbed Confucianism and called themselves Shinto.

  15. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    I wonder what kind of nation Japan would be today if it hadn’t been for the 250 years under the bootheel of police-stateism during the Edo period. Did the Tokugawa Shogunate, by cutting off the oxygen of foreign contact, permanently damage the Japanese psyche? Or would Japan have evolved into a giant anthill anyway (with salaryman/factory worker drones feeding the big, maggot-like Iron Triangle queen)?

  16. alin Says:

    looks like someone’s been watching too much anime but, fair enough, good question. my opinion is that if you don’t start looking at all the points where the above is not true you’re never going to get farther than a dopey feeling of self-satisfaction but , again, fair enough, if that’s what you’re after.

  17. marxy Says:

    I think that’s a good point, but isn’t that why you are here? I am most frustrated at your comments when they point to the solution offscreen and most pleased when the offer specific counterexamples. Countertheories are fine too, but they all seem to originate from late 20th century French literary theorists.

  18. smack Says:

    From what I recall of the Analects, Confucius posits a state that derives its sovereignty from the mandate of heaven. He limits his comments on Heaven to that general statement explaining that the Will of Heaven is unknowable. He then turns to the relations between men, and argues that they should be based on Jen (brotherly love), but this, like the Mandate of Heaven is difficult to know, so what we can rely on directly is ritual. Through ritual, we can successfully carry out the mandate of heaven and properly express brotherly love.

    When the ritual is divorced from what it is supposed to do, effect the mandate of heaven and brotherly love, the sovereignty of the king is revoked and heaven gives the mandate to another king, who will revitalize the rituals with his innate knowledge of brotherly love and heaven’s will.

    so, if that is an accurate description of the confucian world, maybe what you are pointing out, the apparent divorce of wisdom from ritual (my paraphrasing)in the Japanese bureaucracy, maybe we will see the revocation of the present sovereign’s mandate? what can we expect next?

  19. john Says:

    Is pointing out the greater theme of societies keeping their traditions until a major upheaval or disruption displaces or disrupts those traditions a cop out?

    The current system of education is entrenched in how this culture thinks since their last major disruption. The fear here is that of ANY change, not just the change that results in a bunch of Japanese intellectuals spearing their own culture and adjusting it.

    I think this is why the whole school-exam-rescheduling debacle unfurling over the last month is so extremely important. It reflects the schools embracing Japan’s test-based reality over government-created standards (the same shift in how education is done is reflected in teaching for the state required tests mandated by “No Child Left Behind”). This change acknowledges and “solves” the problem of students not getting into the right 4-year vacation programs and hopefully, bettering their positions in life post-college, rather than fulfilling the students’ intellectual needs.

  20. alin Says:

    the solution offscreen

    but it’s not like i ‘have the answers’ in fact i doubt there are answers as such though i do kind of believe that a relevant defferal ‘offscreen’ that might force one to think harder is indeed a form of answer. i am actualy making positive proposals as well. For example what i called the ‘bonsai machine’ i think is something that should be seriously taken in consideration in just about everything about japanese society – but this is quite dangerous stuff since to an american this must simply look like a ‘retard machine’.

    20th century French literary theorists

    yes but one thing is that , probably more than anything, it is the french (literary??) theorists that have been assimilated or seriously considered by most relevant contamporary japanese theorists themselves. (and capitalists, as the Asada interview youy linked to shows) so in that sense they’re surely more relevant than confucius.

  21. alin Says:

    i appologize for bad habit of repeat of the same word in the one sentence which i’m sure makes reading awkward; if i had the energy i would work on turning that into a ‘style’ rather than correct it.

  22. alin Says:

    same for cut and pasting the syntax without then post without re-read. (just did it above)

  23. alin Says:

    their last major disruption.

    i think japan in particular moves in short but intense bursts rather than any sort of logical progression. again the metaphor of the bonsai is quite suitable both in terms of the (refined) intensity built and what happens when it can’t be contained anymore. (the ending of Akira, the anime, also comes to mind).

    For a brilliant visual depiction of the flip-side of the bonsai i strongly recommend the work of Aksegawa Gempei (超芸術トーマソン).

    The thing though is i really believe that basically this is a normal and perfectly valid way for things to move , a lot of evil stuff can come from not realizing this.

  24. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    Alin is spot on about the relevance of French Post-Structuralism in Japan. Todai (= the Japanese educational establishment) has spent the postwar era gobbling up the sophistic whimsy of neo-stalinist hacks like Foucault and Derrida. Wonder why modern architecture in Japan is so ugly? It’s because the dead hand of Le Courbusier has Todai in its totalitarian death grip.

    Actually, as I think about it, Todai in its monopoly on providing mandarins for Japan is very similar to France’s Ecole Nationale, alma mater of the French ruling class.

  25. alin Says:

    we can talk now of deleuze, derrida & co having become some sort of perverse backbone of global capitalism but in japan this happened long ago. If you look at what happened to the 68 revo spirit (marxy) it’s not that it’s been crushed but it’s been assimilated (captured if you want, pretty much in real time) – that’s why i can say about a retro issue of studio voice that it’s less about nostalgia more a (perverted? maybe) benjaminian revolution within the culture machine (the creative class). Thing is though the whole (advanced??) world has pretty much moved in that direction so momus’ remark ages ago , if there was a karl marx now he’d be in japan, a sort of of variation of marx’ own if you want to know about the ape study the human or something , does make sense.

  26. alin Says:

    on a light, positive note, Zizek somewhere (_?_) is using the ‘close door’ button in an elevator – which basically doesn’t do anything, the door still closes as slowly as it would if you just pressed the floor button – as a metaphor for so-called freedom in a neo-liberal, multi-cultural society.
    One thing that struck me when i came to japan was exactly the opposite, the fact that elevator doors do close instantly when you press the button. A cynic will quickly say that it’s simply so ant-salarymen can be more productive etc. I’d say compiling a thorough list of such little ‘freedoms’ first might not be a waste of time.

  27. alin Says:

    btw, zizek is not french.

  28. Your Humble Janitor Says:


    boy that pretty much sums up my last 4 years in a brand name Japanese company that takes its orders from the state.

    retard machine

    See above.

    bursts of activity

    Yeah, true. Been seeing that over the last few months in regards to things which started getting talked about two years or more ago. The thing is though, the results of these are often much more oriented to form rather than function (as marxy so often points out). After endless rounds of nemawashi and ego games, the bosses finally say “we must achieve this goal” and everyone hurries off towards there with no thought about why. And ya know what? Sometimes thats not so good. Its very hard to explain this without going into more detail than I can or publicly identifying the company I work for, but I’ve seen the incredibly negative results of this way of thinking over and over and over again.

    As far as basing things on broken minded French philosophers all I can say is I’m glad we dont have the massive unemployment problems that France has ended up with. Even if economic growth here is driven by Dumb Luck & The American Military Industrial Complex, I’d rather live with that than the insanity of people coming out of uni with degrees in basket weaving thinking the State owes them a living. Many of the people I work with may be incompetant, but they mostly do have a genuine desire to work.

  29. alin Says:

    a positive feature of japanese capitalism/education is i think the fact that, how should i put it, the ‘betrayal span’ is much narrower. i mean i remember at school thinking how on earth can these people (students and teachers) get so seemingly passionate say in leftist critique of media but at the same time aspire, or encourage to aspire to become an asshole ad-man. what sort of bad faith have we here. the situation in japan is somewhat different in that i think you already have a minor gap between one’s subjectivity and the theory/critique on the other theory and praxis are not as polarly opposed – thus reducing also the cynicism required to negociate the two. this might seem like another retard feature but i kind of see it as a ground where something like karitani & co “possible communism” project doesn’t seem ridiculous.

  30. alin Says:

    4 years in a brand name Japanese company

    chris, mate, you do realize that, however limited, you do have choices, don’t you? but then you seem to be enjoying it so i don’t know.

  31. alin Says:

    to get back to the original post, chris, you’re the guy in the cave who’s seen the sunlight then. or rather you’re some guy who meets the cave guy during his short sojourn outside, hears about the cave, decides to go inside to check it out for himself then forgets that he can leave.

  32. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Enjoying it? No. Forgotten? No. When you got bills to pay you learn to live with babylon system. Trying to get out? Yes. It takes more time to get out than it took to get in.