Chapter 26 (a)

Rescuing the Education System?

1. The Elite University Morass

a. The Keio Experience

b. No Originality, please

c. More Classroom ‘Atrocities’

d. Irresponsible ‘Elite’ Teachers

2. Rescue Possibilities?

a. Fast-Track Entry

b. A U.S. Model?

c. Lessons for Japan

1. The Elite University Morass – Some Family Experiences

The elite Japanese university is a strange animal.

Its teachers are guaranteed the prestige that comes from its name. Its graduates are guaranteed good jobs for the same reason. So it is under no pressure to improve its performance. It is not even under pressure to perform. Some of the goings-on defy belief.

If I know something about this it is due partly to the experiences of my two sons who went to such a university, Keio.

a. The Keio Experience

Both sons managed to get into the elitist Keio University, thanks in part to their English language ability (English carries inordinate weight in entrance exams for many universities, Keio especially).

One son had gone the conventional ‘escalator’ route – entry to Keio’s elite secondary school which guaranteed his entry to Keio, where he joined the economics faculty.

In one general education class, lecture attendance was compulsory. But numbers were far too large and only those in the front rows could hear what the teacher was saying, who in any case was doing no more than mumble his way through lecture notes he had been using for years.

Those in the front rows were looked down upon by the other students as swots (gariben). The rest spent their time chatting with friends, or the inevitable sleeping.

So what happened at exam time? No problem. Someone had got hold of the teacher’s notes, printed out copies and had put them on sale in the local cafeteria. If the day before the exam you bought the notes and could memorize the main points overnight you were guaranteed a pass.

Later I heard that the same thing went on in the Komaba campus of the even more allegedly elite Tokyo University.

Little wonder the graduates from this system were to be exposed as incompetent when Japan entered its period of economic and other difficulty after Bubble collapse.


Yet another ‘atrocity’ story was the ‘A-B’ course of another professor. For his final exam students were allowed to bring in the course textbook (written by himself, of course).

(Being allowed to bring your textbooks into the exam room was quite common at some universities. Making the students try to remember the contents was seen as much too difficult and unkind.)

Kind ‘A-B’ professor would then set an essay topic and obligingly tell the students the chapter of his textbook where that topic was discussed.

Students would open at the relevant page and begin writing. Those who could write quickly were guaranteed an A. Otherwise they would get a B.

b. No Originality, please

Then there was the time when my son was given a makeup essay for a course upon which his advance to the next study year depended.

He had been asked to write an essay on Asian economic progress through free trade.

The professor was a well-known free trader-free market fundamentalist. But I felt I could give my son some ideas to write what I thought would be a good original essay, pointing out how protectionism had also helped some Asian economies at times, Japan especially.

(Indeed, the Japanese government was itself at the time putting out material trying to counter the excessively dogmatic free trade doctrines being imposed on Asian economies by the World Bank.)

But none of that made any impression on this fanatically market fundamentalist professor (Keio was notorious for this fundamentalism which, via one of its more second-rate professors, Takenaka Heizo, was to do such damage to the Japanese economy).

My son was failed.

Contradicting your teacher and injecting your own original ideas is not greatly welcomed by Japan’s education system, it seems.

But did that mean that I, also an economics professor and one with much Asian experience, was also failure material?


Once, when setting an essay topic at Tama, I had told the students that if they could present well the ideas I had tried to explain during the course I would be happy to give them a 100 percent pass mark.

But if they could do equally well presenting some original arguments that contradicted my ideas completely they would get 120 percent.

The shock and puzzlement in my audience was large.

c. More Classroom ‘Atrocities’

My other son also had some bad experiences.

True, thanks to his English ability he had got into a quality secondary school; it was famous for being able to get most of its graduates into one or other of Tokyo’s top four universities, with one third going to Tokyo University.

But that precisely was the problem.

For three years the students did nothing but focus on the textbooks and former entrance exam papers that guaranteed success in the entry exams for those top universities.

My son was keen on chemistry. But the school chemistry laboratory was largely unused.

Just memorise the chemistry textbooks, he had been told. Laboratory experiments were of no use when it came to university entrance exams.

He had also got into trouble when he took a week off to go and work as a volunteer after the Kobe earthquake which, it seems, was against the rules.

So he decided he did not need that kind of education, and just walked away.

Technically, he had joined the growing ranks of Japan’s to ko kyohi (school attendance refusal) students. And I had joined the ranks of the failed parents with drop-out children.

Fortunately Japan has a system whereby you can also take a special nationwide exam (daiken), which if you pass qualifies you as a high school graduate ready for university entry.

Working from home my son disciplined himself to do the required study, and passed.

But he too was to be badly disappointed by the education system. So he poured his energies into squash – a game I had taught him - ending up as one of Japan’s top players.

A determined lad, with some of his father’s liking for doing things the unconventional way.

d. Irresponsible ‘Elite’ Teachers

Entering university, the bad experiences continued.

He had decided to broaden his study by taking a general course in Russian affairs, allegedly covering geography, economy, politics, etc.

But the teacher had other ideas. He spent the entire three months lecturing on traditional folk costumes of the 19th century and a favorite Russian author.

I happened to know the senior academic in charge of Keio classes. But when I told him about what was going on he just laughed.

‘Yes, we have always had a problem with that teacher.’

‘We could not use him in the language department so we decided to transfer him to general studies.’


A strong sense of responsibility to students is not a feature of elite university education.

After all, if the students are going to be guaranteed good jobs regardless of the poor education they receive, why bother to teach properly.


Graduate students at elite universities suffer from the same irresponsibility – teachers too busy with their own affairs to meet with students needing guidance; who force students to focus on their own narrow specialization; who seek solely to expand their empires, and so on.

(The same problems exist at undergraduate level. I once employed a law graduate whose studies had not gone beyond the Japanese Constitution. Another agriculture graduate I had used on my Boso farm had had to spend all his time studying his teacher’s nitrogen fertilizer specialization but could not tell the difference between cabbages and carrots at the growing stage.)

Tokyo University is reputed to be the worst. Presumably their excuse once again is that they are the elite of the elite.

Reform is urgent.

2. Rescue Possibilities?

On the face of things, reform seems almost impossible.

And I say that after almost forty years in the industry - four universities, innumerable conferences, several Education Ministry shingikai (policy-making committees) and even a Cabinet-level commission devoted to reform.

All the ideas and reforms that I and others have put forward are largely meaningless in a situation where weak or lazy students cannot be failed, or even made to feel embarrassed.

(Indeed, poor results can even be a source of pride rather than shame – proof that you never sank to gariben status.)

If students can graduate without studying any more than the absolute minimum then guess what? Students will graduate without studying any more than the absolute minimum.

No amount of tinkering and meddling with the system can change that reality.

Make it so graduates with poor grade find it difficult to get good jobs (as at Oxford when I was there)?

Impossible. Even the employers who suffer from the present system all work to prevent that.


Even the few reforms that I helped to push through were just scratching the surface.

And some were killed at birth.

a. Fast-Track Entry

One especially painful experience was the way our efforts to allow talented students in the sciences and math to enter university below the compulsory age 18 were emasculated.

This more than anything else convinced me that Japan cannot be serious about real education reform (see references in previous chapters).

Inevitably group instincts and outdated rules will prevail.

The main objection was fear of the harm to group uniformity and togetherness if some were allowed to go ahead and graduate ahead of others.

In the West we would regard this as a trivial problem. But in Japan it is taken seriously, even to the point of denying a reform crucial to Japan’s emergence as a scientific leader in this century.


Nor do I think new reforms currently being pushed – September university entry, more international exchanges etc – will improve things much.

They may help give students more maturity. But if the system guarantees that you do not need maturity?

(These reforms, incidentally, were also among my approved proposals in the 1999 Obuchi education reform commission, and later implemented by my Akita university.)

Even genuine reform efforts are virtually meaningless in a situation where weak or lazy students cannot be failed, or where there is no real incentive for talented or motivated students.

This remains the key problem in Japan’s university education system.

What to do?

b. A U.S. Model?

US basic education is often criticized, but at the higher post-graduate level it is rightly respected.

This was brought home to me by a recent experience at a US airport terminal.

I was sitting close to a middle-class immigrant father keen to see his three twenty-ish sons get a good future. The sons were equally keen.

For over an hour then went back and forth over the problems of getting into the quality graduate school. From there they could hope to graduate into quality jobs.

Would this GPA at such-and-such a university be sufficient, or should they change universities? Would these SAT scores qualify? Would this graduate school guarantee the job they wanted? What undergraduate results would be needed and from where in order to gain entry to that graduate school? And so on.

This gave me a hint: We all tend to look forward in seeking reforms – better schools, leading to better undergraduates, leading to better post-graduates.

But if the education focus is on graduate school, it is much easier to work backwards to improve the entire system.

As in Japan, there may be competition to get into an undergraduate faculty in an elite university and that provides an incentive for a kind of study.

But in the US, that by itself is not enough. You need good undergraduate results - a high GPA for example - to get into a good graduate school (at the best graduate schools the application to opening rates can be in the double digits).

So the universities are under pressure to provide good teaching, and the under-graduate students are under pressure to study.

And the graduate schools are under pressure to provide the good teaching needed to maintain their reputation and job placement ability

c. Lessons for Japan

True, the key to the US model is having employers keen to have graduates with good grades from good post-graduate schools.

Sadly that situation does not yet exist in Japan. On the contrary. Such graduates continue to be seen as over-educated gariben. Companies still like to think that judging entrants by personality and the name of the university from which they graduated, plus attempts at in-house training, rotation and cohort promotion will solve problems.

But that could change greatly with greater emphasis on post-graduate education – MBAs for example which emphasized language ability and international business which have now become the latest fads.

In any case, are Japanese employers now facing stiff international competition, from China and South Korea especially, likely to continue for ever to prefer the immature, poorly educated types currently emerging from university under-graduate departments whose only asset (rapidly declining) is a willingness to be molded into the group culture of the enterprise?

Already some see this closed, groupist, familial emphasis as a formula for enterprise stagnation. And increasing job-hopping must eventually create a situation where employers begin to prefer to recruit more mature graduates with skills gained before entry rather than rely on in-house training.

If the universities were to increase and improve their post-graduate schools things could begin to change.


Imagine the changes that would follow.

Undergraduates would then, as in the US, begin to realize that good under-graduate results were needed to get into good graduate schools.

Employers would be to favor good graduates from those schools.

Soon the education dilemma would begin gradually to unravel itself.