Having just completed my six year term as President of Tama University, and having
spent much of that time also as a member of various government committees on education,
including the National Peoples Conference on Education Reform, allow me to pass on
a few thoughts about what I see as the main problems in the Japanese education system.
Problem number one is clearly the system that says a student's entire future essentially
is decided by one exam - the university entrance exam - since the reputation of the
university entered is the main criterion by which employers judge candidates. So
the main aim of many students is simply to gain the minimum number of credits needed
to graduate within four years, and to enjoy life in between - the so-called 'university
as a leisureland' phenomenon. This is especially true for male students - the result
maybe of some perverted samurai ethic maybe that praises success with minimum of
Ironically it is the prestige universities that are the worst. Good mid-rank universities
such as my own at least have some incentive to improve education so that they too
can attract better students and themselves come to be regarded as prestige.
Nor is there any hope at the official level. In numerous committees I have heard
time and time again appeals for stricter grading of student quality (genkaku ni hyoka).
Another favourite catchcall is for a 'wider entrance gate to the university and for
a narrower exit gate'. When I have asked how the entrance gate can be widened given
strict Monbusho (the former Education Ministry) student quota numbers for each university,
I have got no reply. When I have asked how the exit gate could be narrowed given
the extreme barriers - Mombusho rules, legal and cultural restraints - to expelling
bad students, I again got no reply. All that can be done with bad students is to
force them to repeat a year, I was told. But under the Mombusho quota system, stricter
grading of students simply means that the number of bad students increases at the
expense of good students. Again, no reply when this is pointed out.
In the final report of the National Peoples' Conference on Education Reform I managed
to get included an endorsement for provisional university entrance (zantei nyugaku).
This would allow borderline entrance examinees to enter university, provided they
can pass another exam at the end of their first year. At the very least this would
guarantee at least one year of intensive study. It would also lift some of the burden
on students imposed by rigid pass/fail entrance exams.
But when my university sought to act as pioneer for a provisional entry scheme, restrictions
imposed by the Mombusho effectively reduced it to honenuki. One area where I was
more effective was in persuading the Conference to recommend permission for university
entrance at age 17, rather than force talented students to wait till the mandatory
age of 18. A law to overcome Monbusho objections and restrictions has finally been
introduced. It is this lack of the sensible study incentives that is killing Japanese
education, and not just at universities. High school education has been reduced to
a grim effort to memorise the textbook answers needed for artificially difficult
entrance exams. Meanwhile the authorities complain how the numbers of high-school
dropout students increases alarmingly. The rot has spread down into middle schools,
with even middle-class schools reporting large numbers of classes totally disrupted
by aggressively indolent, drop-out students - a problem also fostered by the immaturity
of both students and teachers raised in the hothouse groupist ethic of postwar Japan.
Even Japan's hitherto excellent primary school system is beginning suffer the disease
of gakkyu hokai.
In short, the facts plus my own experience convince me that little can now be done
to rescue the system. Declining population numbers mean university standards will
become even laxer.. In two other official committees, in the Justice Ministry and
the Foreign Ministry, I have pushed for a visa system that would allow Asian students
to be accepted for zantei nyugaku at Japanese universities and then be allowed the
same freedom as young people from Western nations to stay and work in Japan freely
long enough to earn the money and learn enough of the language needed for university
study. This would not only help preserve Japan's reputation as an Asian nation it
would also boost the numbers of good students needed to keep many universities alive.
Two birds with one stone. But bureaucratic conservatism makes it most likely this
idea also will be killed. But needless to say, all this was rejected.
In yet another Mombusho committee I pressed hard for ending the current three years
of meaningless English language education at high school sand for providing students
the option of intensive language education at universities under a double major system
now found in Western universities. (eg. economics and English, law and Chinese, etc.)
Shifting language teaching from the high schools to the universities would (a) greatly
improve teaching of English, (b) provide more high school time for studying other
topics and so halt the alarming decline in academic standards generally and in the
numbers studying science and math, (c) help reduce the numbers who drop out of high
schools specifically because they dislike juken Eigo (the distorted English needed
to pass university entrance exams) and (d) allow more students to study languages
other than English. Four birds with one stone. But needless to say this too was rejected.
The bureaucrats had decided in advance that our committee would recommend that high
school study of foreign languages, hitherto ostensibly optional, would become compulsory!
One hope for the future is that employers will begin to put more weight on post-graduate
education - business and other professional education especially - and that entrance
to top business, law and other post-graduate schools will depend on the results of
under-graduate study. At the more academic level, a situation where prestige universities
such as Tokyo University turned themselves into post-graduate universities accepting
bright students from all over the nation would also help.