Japan is one of the world’s most hierarchical societies. You could have a pretty good argument about whether or not this is an artefact of the Tokugawa bakufu of the 17 th century or if it goes back to the Kamakura regime of the 12th – 14 th centuries, but either way, it’s been that way a long-time. It’s in the language, the culture, the politics – pretty much everywhere. And so, too, in the higher education system.
This hierarchy manifests itself in a few ways, but maybe the most important is how which university one chooses to attend is unbelievably important. The big employers only choose students from “the best” universities, which means the most selective universities, which means what matters is university entrance examinations, not anything that happens afterwards. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Japanese were among the earliest adopters of university rankings outside the US. And equally unsurprisingly (if you follow rankings): these rankings all end up more or less confirming the same institutions at the top: that is, the ones that are most selective in their admissions.
(note: Japan has a national university entrance exam which is usually called “Daigaku Nyugakusha Senbatsu Daigaku Nyushi Center Shiken , or just “Center” (Sentā), which is ferociously competitive, just like China’s gaokao and inspires similar levels of after-hours cram-schooling or “ juku ”. But unlike China, the top universities set their own exams, adding an order or two of complexity to the whole thing).
But while institutions are deeply concerned about their position in the domestic pecking order, they’ve been peculiarly slow in doing very much about their international rankings. With the exception of University of Tokyo (or “Todai” as it is known locally) most have been sinking in the international rankings more or less from the moment these debuted about fifteen years ago. Various “excellence initiatives” have had little effect on arresting the slide; neither has a major change in the way national universities were managed (in the mid-2000s, they were all given North American-style boards and managerial independence from governments, in what, ironically for something which has had such little effect, was known as “the Big Bang”).
I’m not sure I’ve seen a particularly good argument as to why Japanese universities seem to be in such a slump. Prior to the Big Bang, there was an influential book called “ Japanese Higher Education as Myth
” that essentially claimed that Japanese universities worked on the principle of “we pretend to teach them and they pretend to learn” (if you’ve ever read the book, you’ll know that its author, Brian McVeigh, a professor at a Japanese university, genuinely seems to have loathed his students). Though his argument was more aimed at private universities than the elite nationals, the argument that students did all their real work in high school and treated university as a four-year exercise in socializing prior to joining the workforce still has pretty wide currency. It’s not 100% clear to me how that would affect graduate studies and research, but it perhaps speaks to the notion that results in higher education have more to do with culture than management.
Two last points about Japanese universities. The first is that although Japan has long had a reputation for conformism (and perhaps doubly so during the explosive growth years of the mid-60s to mid-80s), it has also been home to some of the western world’s most radical and violent student unions. I won’t bore you with too detailed a history of the national student movement Zengakuren
, or the insane nature of its internecine wars between Trotskyite factions throughout much of the 1970s (for that, and for many other things besides, I would recommend William Andrews’ Dissenting Japan
); suffice it to say that these groups spent at east as much time fighting each other as they did fighting The Man, and that the body count of these spats was in the dozens.
The second is that Japan is the only country (as far as I know) apart from the United States in which university sports act as specifically training grounds for professional sports. Yes, countries like Mexico and Chile have professional sports teams associated with universities, but they are not made up of students. Japanese baseball, on the other hand, is structured almost exactly the way the NCAA is for basketball and football, with the “ Big 6
” universities (five elite private universities in Tokyo plus perennial no-hopers Todai) competing to recruit the country’s top high school talent while acting as a way-station for professional baseball stars of the future.
Ok, that’s enough Japan for now. Thanks for putting up with my Japophilia; regular service again tomorrow.