Alex Usher desde Japón
Marzo 27, 2023

Letter from Japan

Morning all.  I’m in the midst of a couple of weeks in Japan (the sumo was fun, thanks, though the overall quality of the field is pretty weak since Hakuho retired and Terunofuji’s knees gave out) and though this trip has absolutely nothing to do with work, I have nevertheless had thoughts about the country and its higher education system.

Here’s the thing about Japan: it used to be the future.  It’s not anymore.

Go back to the early 1990s when the Japanese economy was burying the rest of the world.   China took over that role about two decades ago and isn’t giving it back.  Or cast your mind back to the early 2000s when Japanese pop culture looked set to rule the world: Korea arguably matched them on that role about a decade ago (try to think of a Japanese export outside of video games that has done as well as Parasite, or Squid Game, or  – Gold help us all – Gagnam Style – in the past decade).

Japan remains a pleasant and well-run country, to be sure.  It still has the greatest transportation system in the world.  And – most miraculous of all to this Toronto observer – they can manage large urban building sites without annexing neighbouring sidewalks, bike and traffic lanes due to sheer DNGAF-ness.  But it’s not the future.   It feels a bit tired, worn out.  The technological superiority – and with it, the national swagger – is gone.

This plays out to some extent in higher education as well.  Over the past two decades, every single Japanese university in the Shanghai Rankings top 500 – which if nothing else is a good gauge of agglomerations of scientific talent – has seen its ranking position deteriorate.  And while Japan has picked up twenty Nobel prizes in the sciences over the past twenty years, a good half of them were for work done in America or in corporate research labs.

Now the traditional view in higher education-booster circles would be that more vibrant universities = more vibrant societies/economies, so that the loss of economic dynamism must in part be due to weakening universities.  And that’s possible, I suppose.  But consider the possibility that strong universities are an outcome of economic growth, not a precursor to it.

Look at Japan’s post-war history.  In 1945, the country was a smoking ruin.  By 1990 it one of the richest countries in the world.  In almost no sense was this miracle achieved through higher education.  It was achieved above all by i) adoption of foreign technology (in particular the transistor), ii) adoption of advanced management techniques (anyone remember all those business books from the early 1990s which tried to teach “Kaizen 101”?) and iii) large fractions of the population working unbelievably long hours.    Domestic research played a role in economic hyper-growth, but to a very large extent this research was done in corporate research labs, not university ones; semiconductor research might be the only exception here, where quite a bit of work was done at Nagoya University.   There was no tradition of university spin-off companies making tons of money, as there has been in China.  And on the cultural side of things, too, very little of “Cool Japan” has anything to do with universities easier.

And if strong universities were not a factor in Japan’s rise, why should we assume that they have had an outsized role in the country’s decline?  Maybe, in fact, universities’ role in economic growth is simply not very big compared to things like geography and national culture.

To be clear, I’m not saying universities played no role in Japan’s rise.  Pretty clearly, the biggest bottleneck that existed between 1945 and 1990 was the lack of qualified technical personnel.  Somebody had to train those workers, and to some extent at least this is down to universities (though even I suspect a large portion of the credit is actually due to the secondary system rather than the post-secondary one – certainly most Japan-watchers in the late 20th century remarked on the extraordinary efforts put forth by Japanese students in high school and the relative “coasting” that students did while in university).

But what I am saying is that the idea that universities lead technological change, or even that the rate of technological change or diffusion in any given country is based on research efforts which occur in that country is an easily falsifiable one.  It’s bad reasoning and bad policy to suggest the opposite.

Just look at Japan.  Really look at it.  You’ll see.


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