I haven’t done one of these in awhile and since I’m vacationing here, so it seems like it’s time.
Japan is a fascinating country for any number of reasons, but one of them is that it has played technological catch-up with the west not once but twice, and in both cases very successfully. As such, reflecting on the role universities have played sheds considerable light on what we think of as “universal truths” about the benefits of higher education.
Until the late nineteenth century, there really was no higher education in Japan. Although the country had bought into certain aspects of Confucianism, the bits about a meritocratic civil service weren’t among them. Because the samurai class monopolized the civil service, there was no equivalent of the Chinese or Korean Imperial examinations and consequently no academy system either. To the extent there was formal scientific study in Japan, much of it came through the study of Dutch scientific texts obtained through the trading colony at Nagasaki. And mostly, what they learned from those books – with a growing sense of dread – was how far behind the west Japan was and how vulnerable it had consequently become.
The arrival of the Matthew Perry’s (no, not that one , the other one ) Black Ships in 1853 and the subsequent end of two and a half centuries of isolation sped up Japanese thinking on science and development considerably, mainly because the Japanese were not unreasonably afraid of ending up invaded and carved up like China. Every year in the 1860s and into the 1870s, the Japanese government sent expeditions abroad (of which the most famous was the Iwakura Mission ) to work out exactly what it was they were dealing with. And the surprising conclusion was: “actually, these guys haven’t been so powerful for that long – it is possible to compete if we invest in science and technology the right way”. And so began the developing world’s first attempt at technological catch-up.
Study abroad was the first step – Japanese students were sent out mostly to the United States (still the easiest developed country to get to from Japan in the 1860s) and Great Britain, though later France and Germany became destinations as well. Importing specialists to advise individual ministries on modernization was another critical tactic. And third was creating a domestic knowledge-development system via higher education. The first of these was the Imperial University in Tokyo, but this was quickly joined – and by some definitions preceded – by a pair of private universities – Keio and Waseda. These institutions have maintained their position on the higher education prestige ladder, and this makes Japan one of the very few places in the world apart from the United States where private institutions – some of them, anyway – are part of the educational elite.
Eventually, the Imperial University was turned into a system of Imperial Universities. The original one became the University of Tokyo, whose status within the system is, if anything, greater than Harvard’s in the US or Oxford’s in the UK; others became the universities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu. An eighth imperial university was set up in Taipei, essentially as a training centre for future colonial administrators, which after the Japanese departure and the end of China’s civil war became the National University of Taiwan. These are often described as having been influenced by the German (or rather, Prussian) model of universities. There is some truth to that – Prussia had the world’s most innovative university system in the late 19th century and Meiji Japan often took Prussia as a model because it too was a late-rising power that seemed to have done quite well for itself. Nevertheless, an awful lot of early Japanese academics were products of American private institutions too, so the system has some North American roots as well (Professor Qiang Zha of York University has a recent paper which usefully touches on some of this: available here .)
Until after WWII, that was about it for higher education in Japan: the Imperials, a dozen or so private schools, plus one or two big tech/voc schools (e.g. Tokyo Institute of Technology). It was only in the 1950s that things started to expand: both national and prefectural governments started building and funding institutions but – most importantly – private universities started mushrooming. By the mid 1970s, Japan’s rate of higher education participation was second-highest in the world, behind only the United States, with around 80% of students attending private universities, although by this point, private universities had become eligible for public subsidies, so the difference between public and private was less marked than it was in some countries. Additionally, tuition at public institutions remained relatively high by international standards, partly because the institutions needed money (government funding is not enormously generous in Japan), but also because of what might be called “high policy” reasons. For much of the post-war period, the government encouraged very high savings rates so as to create large pools of capital that could be loaned out cheaply to heavy industry: high tuition fees, along with high land values (created in part through restrictive zoning, since greatly relaxed), were a key tool in inducing families to save.
So that’s basically the system today: Over 550 private universities educate 4 out of 5 students. A few of them are very prestigious but most are not. There are another 170 or so public universities, roughly half of which are “national”, the top dozen of which (the former imperials, mainly) are genuinely world-class.