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.