Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Japanese education system

The college I attend started to be a four year college only recently; it was only a two year university prior. Excluding all the foreign students that attend here, the student body (of 600 or so) is 90% female. This majority is consistent with other two year colleges in Japan. Men make up the majority of students in four year institutions, but the majority is not quite so extreme. Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies is a language school, and most of the students here are English majors. Some want to work abroad in the U.S. as English or Japanese teachers, although a lot want to become airline stewardesses. This “go to college for a job that doesn’t require a college education even in Japan” thing exemplifies the still pretty rigid gender roles in Japan. Women are not expected to have high career aspirations.

A popular phrase in Japan is shiken jigoku, which means “examination hell.” The tough competition to get into the right schools can begin as early as preschool, as certain schools claim affiliation and feed into each other. Getting into university is one of those times where shiken jigoku directly applies. In order to get into a university, a student must pass a tough entrance examination. High schools in Japan have different curriculums based on a student’s aspirations, similar to some in the U.S. Those that intend to get into college will spend their last one or two years focusing on getting ready for the exam from their school of choice. Japanese universities may provide practice exams to the high schools, and students can take these to determine if they would stand a chance at admission. To aid in preparation for the exam, most students (around 70%--taken from a text book) attend juku. These are classes offered outside of school hours, on weekends or evenings. They can be offered by the school, by professors from their desired university, or by qualified people in their homes. For those that don’t make it into university on the first try, but are still interested may continue attending juku for years. These unaffiliated high school graduates are known as ronin, a term originally used for masterless samurai. Japan’s current/future population issues (i.e. consistent decreases and a disproportionately large amount of elderly people with no one to take care of them) are having various effects on the nation. For example, there are rural villages suddenly ceasing to exist, as their exclusively elderly population cannot any longer support it, and, in a surprisingly extreme measure, the Japanese government is considering legislation to welcome in large amounts of foreign laborers to replace the eventual gaping void in their workforce. However, the effect this is having on education is a reduction in competition to get into university, and universities are being more lax with their acceptance requirements, except at the most prestigious level.

Whereas students are put under extreme pressure to do well in junior high in order to get into a good high school, and then again to get into college, the college experience itself is far different. The painfully dry textbook I have to read for my sociology class refers to Japanese college as “leisure land.” The reason for this is that Japanese companies care more about what college a student gets into rather than their actual performance in that college. This is why there is so much pressure to do well on the entrance examinations. Japanese businesses work in cooperation with certain schools to feed students directly into their workforce upon graduation, creating tough competition between schools for these contracts, and basically guaranteeing a job for the students. Once a person graduates college and is ready for work, they go to a “company college” where for a few years they undergo rigorous training and indoctrination in company policy and psychological shaping. Companies invest considerable time and money in training their junior workers, so it is kind of understandable that they give little care to the student’s prior college performance. One of the main criteria that students are evaluated on, however, is how well the company thinks the person may be assimilated into the company. They want moldable conformists, not individuals (which is the case for many schools as well). This psychological aspect is taken very seriously. People who leave work to live abroad for a few years or leave for family reasons may not be able to return to their jobs since this psychological training is suspected to be lost.

So, college is basically the last chance Japanese have to express themselves before entering the workforce. The lack of rigor in college level Japanese education is a particularly negative aspect, especially after considering a few things. First, very few Japanese go to graduate school. It is possible to teach at the university level with just a baccalaureate. Second, the concept of “publish or perish” is nonexistent here. One of my professors argues that his Japanese colleagues aren’t “academics” since they don’t publish. I haven’t noticed that college here is too much different from at home. There are a lot of foreign professors here, who bring teaching styles from their respective countries. I have professors from Germany, the U.K., and Australia, as well as the U.S. and Japan.

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