On the Future of Education in Japan

by on 1999年11月22日


Although education is something outside my field, I am keenly aware of one major problem: If the current situation continues, the intellectuals of Japan will soon lag behind those of China, in knowledge or originality, or both.

An outside opinion seems to confirm this trend. Many professors teaching at U.S. universities say that Japanese students seem inferior to their Chinese counterparts, not only with respect to academic achievement, but also in terms of character and resourcefulness.

Of course, there is an enormous difference in the populations of the two countries. Chinese students are selected from among a population that is 10 times larger than Japan’s, and it may well be that the Chinese students, who have emerged from a far more competitive screening process, are more talented.

But the Chinese intellectual appetite is said to be far greater than can be explained by such demographic comparisons.

University entrance examinations in China were reinstituted in 1978, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Those who were 18 years old then are 39 this year. While people in their 30s are still burdened by the handicap of having received their elementary and middle school education during the Cultural Revolution, those now in their 20s are children of an entirely new era.

A salient difference between Japanese and Chinese education systems is that while all aspects of the Cultural Revolution have been removed completely from education in China, Japan has been unable to eliminate remnants of the mode of thinking that was prevalent in the wake of the nation’s defeat in World War II and the Allied Occupation. This mind-set has been upheld and propagated by the leftist-led Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso).

If the current education system is not changed, the discrepancy between the intellectual abilities of Japanese and Chinese will become an unquestioned fact by the time the Chinese people now in their 20s reach their 30s and 40s.

Moreover, should Japan lag behind China in scientific originality, it could lead to this nation’s decline.

From Russia also, generations of people who completely reject the values espoused during 70 years of communist rule are certain to emerge, although about 10 years later than in China.

Up to now, Japanese intellectuals have managed to maintain higher intellectual standards than their counterparts from China or Russia because those two countries experienced long periods of intellectual nullity.

However, Japan’s advantage is likely to be short-lived.

Prewar Education System

What should be done? I would like to reflect on how Japan modernized its education system on its own throughout the transitional phases from the feudal Edo period (1603-1868) to the Meiji era (1868-1912), and from the Meiji era to the end of World War II.

Since my motivation is what is stated above, I would like to focus not on the education of the public in general, but instead on the education of an elite class. For the sake of the national interest, it is necessary to foster intellectuals who can truly represent the country in the international arena.

By unceasing effort and reform after the Meiji Restoration, Japan accomplished on its own the modernization of the education system in a manner that best suited the country. But this all ended with the country’s defeat in World War II.

Of course, the Occupation period was a time of reform, from the redistribution of farming land to allowing freedom of speech, to passing legislation protecting workers’ rights and giving women the vote.

Worthy of note, however, is the fact that all of the preparations for these reforms were under way before the war. In fact, all the reforms above were initiated by the government as soon as peace arrived, without waiting for directives from the Occupation authorities. Certainly, the Occupation authorities supported and accelerated them. And they took deep root in Japanese society because the Japanese themselves had already planted the seeds of change. However, those reforms carried out under the initiative of the Allied forces, such as the changes that culminated in Article 9 of the Constitution and education reform, were completely unexpected.

After 50 years, there is no consensus among Japanese that these reforms imposed by the Allies were worthwhile.

When it came to the education of elites before World War II, what was of vital importance was the role played by “higher schools,” today referred to as kyusei koto gakko (old-system high schools). The key was that virtually all the graduates of these schools, which were funded by the central government, were assured entrance to state-run Imperial universities.

The dream of youths in the Meiji and Taisho (1912-1926) eras was to gain admission to a national higher school. My father used to tell me that the happiest event in his life was getting into a national higher school. On his first day, the students were received by the school principal, who told them, “You are all gentlemen now.”

The advantage of the old higher school system is represented by episodes such as this. Boys who entered higher school at the age of 16 or 17 were promised a bright future, assured of their positions as prospective members of the elite.

Still, they had six years until graduation from an Imperial university.

Students could spend a year or two of youthful dedication to, for instance, the study of German philosophy, or reading the entire works of Shakespeare.

Those with athletic ability could spend their time mastering kendo or judo.

Higher school students in the old days were allowed to cultivate their minds and reflect on the meaning of life for a few years, thus enriching their character. This is in sharp contrast to modern-day high school students, who are compelled to spend their late teens honing memorization skills, cramming for university entrance examinations and studying day and night doing nothing except trying to get into a university or college.

7-Year Higher School

Under the prewar education system, gifted graduates of higher schools from throughout the nation came to Tokyo to be groomed as elite government bureaucrats and industrialists. And schools well suited for educating their children emerged–the seven-year higher schools.

These schools were both public and private. In Tokyo, there was the government-run Tokyo Higher School and the Tokyo Metropolitan Higher School.

In Osaka, there was the Osaka Prefectural Naniwa Higher School. The government even established a seven-year higher school in Taipei when Taiwan was a colony. Graduates of the school include Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. Among private seven-year higher schools were Musashi, Seikei and Seijo, which exist to this day.

This system ensured that as soon as a boy entered the middle school course of a seven-year higher school, he was guaranteed admission to an Imperial university.

One of the privileges of seven-year higher schools was that students were allowed to receive higher school education after only four years of middle school. Students who went to regular middle schools had to spend five years before going on to national higher schools, although students were allowed to skip their last year of middle school if they could pass the national higher school entrance examination in their fourth year.

In the seven-year higher schools, some teachers specialized in the basic middle school curriculum, which included English and mathematics. But students of the middle school curriculum also had opportunities to be taught by professors of the national higher schools. Such teachers were considered senior members of the same elite class, acting as brother mentors rather than schoolteachers.

When I was in my second year at one of these seven-year higher schools, I studied world history with Prof. Tomoo Matsuda. He taught us Greek history in the first term and we studied the Renaissance in the second. After that, he allowed us to spend the rest of the school year studying what we wanted.

Although I lost my notebooks in a fire during the war, I remember quite clearly that discussions in his class on the life of Dante and his “Divine Comedy” used to last more than a day. It was in this way that I learned the fundamentals of Western European civilization.

Physics and biology teachers were young professors about to enter the ranks of assistant professors at what is now Tokyo University. I remember one of the teachers, after finishing an explanation, exclaiming, “From this point on it is left in our hands!” Their enthusiasm for scholarly research was such that we, as very young students, were imbued with ambition. It was an era in which the world’s scientists were competing to be the first to develop an atomic bomb or succeed in reproducing photosynthesis.

The seven-year higher school education system began in the late Taisho period, and was discontinued by the postwar education reforms. It broke down before it could become a solid social institution. I wonder what would have happened if it had continued. Japanese intellectuals, who were still very unworldly and naive up until the beginning of the Showa period (1926-1989), might have become world-class. It may even be the case that the education system, had it been kept intact, would have led to the successful modernization of this country that our forefathers had been working so hard to complete since the Meiji period.

Reforms Necessary

Although this education system was not brought back after the war, I believe it would be a pity not to draw any lesson from the fact that Japan, before the war’s end, was about to enter the final stage of educational reform.

Bearing this in mind, I have a suggestion to make.

Today, there are several schools that those who fail to get into Tokyo University opt for as their second choice, such as Kyoto University, Tohoku University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Waseda University.

If any one of them started a university preparatory course that began at high school, if not middle school, what would happen?

The cream of the crop in the nation’s middle schools would race to pass the entrance examination to these schools now considered less prestigious than Tokyo University. Once they passed, they would not even try to enter Tokyo University.

Before and during the war, the military and naval academies were Japan’s elite schools, and good students from middle schools nationwide competed to enter them. But not one student from my seven-year higher school took their entrance examinations, much less an exam to enter the national First Higher School after the first four years. This fact should underscore the value of a liberal atmosphere in an academy not burdened with having to cram students full of entrance exam information.

It is even possible that students from universities with preparatory courses would be regarded more highly than students from Tokyo University.

The prefectural seven-year higher school I attended was established after the Tokyo Prefectural First Middle School (today’s metropolitan government-run Hibiya High School) had attempted to convert itself into a higher school to relieve its students of the burdens of preparing for university entrance examinations, but had been forced to abandon the plan because of opposition from other prefectural middle schools.

Ever since it was established, the natural course of things at my elementary school was for the student with the best grades to go to the seven-year higher school, while those coming second and third would opt to take prefectural middle school entrance examinations.

The seven-year school had become more prestigious than the traditional First Middle School and the national First Higher School course. If the system had continued, taking the First Higher School entrance examination would have become the backup plan for those who could not make it into the seven-year school. Similarly, university preparatory courses, once established, could turn taking the Tokyo University entrance examination into a last resort for those unable to get into preparatory schools.

Fostering Elite

Students fortunate enough to make it into the preparatory course I propose would be free from having to cram for university entrance examinations. They would have a total of seven years before graduating from a university after finishing middle school.

Aside from regular studies, they would be free to engage in whatever activities they wished–sports, music, or even taking a few years off to spend abroad. Or they could take advanced college-level classes in physics and mathematics and aspire to become Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

Some of them may not be able to handle the pressure of such high expectations. But the number of dropouts would be negligible. My guess is that a good 90 percent would become worthwhile citizens and the remaining 10 percent would be the true elite–those who would develop their talents to the fullest.

An elite education system nurtures a small minority of truly excellent people, even at the expense of one or two dropouts. If we can encourage the development of people with genuine talent, Japanese society should be able to acquire the vigor it needs to survive and prosper in the 21st century.

What I propose is quite simple. It is only a matter of establishing a consistent high school-cum-university education system that is not obsessed with university entrance examinations, as the current middle school-cum-high school system cannot free students from the entrance exam burden. Moves toward letting state-run universities go private, which will start next year, would present a good opportunity to do this.

Another important thing that should accompany the establishment of such a system is the fostering of an elite consciousness–the same kind that national higher school students had in prewar days–of confidence and pride, and a sense of noble duty to society.

In recent years, discussions on education seem to center around such issues as the criminal conduct of juvenile delinquents and youths with dyed hair who spend their days loitering around places like Harajuku. However, such youths have always been a part of society, regardless of the age we live in.

They are not a recent phenomenon. When you come down to the essence of things, it is only a matter of educating youths at the other end of the spectrum. As long as we have noble-spirited youths, Japan has nothing to be afraid of.

Although the sociopolitical atmosphere these days has changed and people no longer show outright resentment or hostility upon hearing the word “elite,”

I should add that the opportunity should be absolutely equal for everyone up until graduation from middle school. This was the case in prewar Japan. If a child was recognized as bright in elementary school, he would be encouraged and supported by those around him in the community to receive a higher education, no matter how poor his family was.

What we must do is to return to the old values of Japan, to foster youngsters who can support the pillars of Japanese society.