East Asia: Gradgrind's Heirs

Despite what the U.S. Department of Education says, you would not want your kids to go to a Japanese secondary school

THE ONE TRULY magnificent office I have seen in Japan does not belong to a cabinet minister or the head of a major bank or an executive with Matsushita or Nissan. Japanese managers are famous for working in big partitionless areas like old-fashioned newsrooms, with the desks pushed together to form long lines. The big men at MIT, as they coordinate Japan’s next industrial campaign, operate from cubicles that U.S. government typists might disdain. Private offices do exist, but most are unimposing. So who merits a wood-paneled office some thirty feet square that resembles the one that Darrell Royal occupied when he was the head football coach at the University of Texas? Like Royal’s, this office has an academic affiliation and reflects the priorities of an entire culture. It belongs to the director of Japan’s university-entrance-examination system.

The importance of entrance examinations, and the “exam hell” through which Japanese students must pass if they hope to succeed, are to Americans the second-best-known feature of Japanese education. The most famous feature, of course, is the intimidating success of Japanese schools in teaching nearly everyone to read, think, calculate, and perform. Almost all Japanese students (90 percent or more) finish high school, while only about 75 percent of American ones do. The Japanese spend more hours per day at school, and more days per week and weeks per year. (One account dryly notes, “The school year begins on April 1 and ends at the end of March the following year.”)

Even before Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone reminded his countrymen, and the world, of the intelligence gap last fall, most Japanese seemed well aware that the nation’s IQ scores are, on average, eight to ten points higher than America’s. For reasons I will discuss later, most Japanese believe that the difference owes more to schools and culture than to genetics. Thomas Rohlen, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, recently wrote that “in many respects the upper half of Japan’s graduating high-school students possess a level of knowledge and the analytic skills equivalent to the average American graduating from college.”Many of those same Japanese students are still about even with American college graduates four years later, when they finish college, but that’s a different story. No one has ever bragged about Japanese universities, which are viewed as a Club Med-style interlude between the examhell years and life as a salaryman.

The schools’ contribution to Japan’s economic success is obvious, and a report on Japanese education recently released by the U.S. Department of Education is right to single it out. The country is said to have the world’s most literate work force. Executives and union officials have told me that when they set up manufacturing plants in other countries, including the United States, their first challenge is to screen the blue-collar force for reading and math skills, or train it.

It’s natural for Americans to look at the good side of Japanese schooling and think there might be some useful lessons that we, too, could apply. But my impression is that this quest will be even more frustrating than, say, trying to sell rice to the Japanese or getting them to cover our defense costs would be. From what I’ve seen of the schools, they are of interest mainly as windows onto deep cultural differences between Japan and the United States—differences that do more to explain Japan’s success than do simple details of pedagogy.

As AMERICANS HAVE debated basic school reform in the past few years, so have the Japanese. In fact, education is a rare case of mutual grass-is-greenerism in the U.S.-Japan relationship, with each side admiring the strengths of the other’s system. While most Japanese seem to take for granted the mastery of academic skills that we find so enviable, they complain bitterly about the system as a whole—more, it seems, than about any other national institution. The official reports, personal complaints, private conversations, letters to the editor, and so forth turn on two criticisms: that students are put under too much pressure, and that they are taught too much by rote.

The pressure on students is readily apparent to the outside observer. Yes, everyone in Japan seems to be putting in long hours: the average Japanese worker puts in 300 more hours a year, or the equivalent of seven and a half more forty-hour weeks, than the average American. But somehow the impact on the children is most sobering.

Last summer a Japanese magazine quoted Merry White, of the Harvard School of Education, who was said to be writing a book on the Japanese motherchild relationship. By the time the book was published, early this year, the titlehad become The Japanese Educational Challenge. In the book White repeats the slogan I heard at several high schools: “Pass With Four, Fail With Five!" The numbers refer to the hours of sleep a student allows himself whilepreparing for exams. According to White, examination fever is confined to a relatively small group of students, for relatively few years. On the whole, she claims, Japanese students like school and schooling better than American students do, and feel more amply nurtured during their educational trials by parents and teachers alike.

Maybe she’s right, but to the casual observer Japan’s young people look as if they’re under tremendous strain. I recognize that this is partly an irrational aesthetic impression. Japanese boys of junior-high-school age seem to live in severe, dark tunic-style uniforms, which the Meiji-era reformers modeled on Prussian cadet outfits of the late nineteenth century. At the end of the afternoon, when the subway is full of students traveling from school to afterschool special classes, it looks as if some grim Orwellian youth patrol has taken command. At a minimum, since the girls are dressed in sailor-style outfits, the uniforms make Tokyo look like the mobilized home front of a nation at war.

Appearances aside, most parents I have spoken with say that competitive pressure is much greater now than it was when they were students, and that their children need to buckle down much earlier. When I asked a group of highschoolers in suburban Tokyo how important the tests were, one girl said, “They’re the only thing that’s important. If I weren’t here I’d be studying right now.”She had nearly three years to go before taking her university-entrance exams. (Merry White says that American students of the same age list sex as most important.) Outside Shinto shrines visitors hang prayer cards. Many request world peace or the blessing of a child, but a sizable minority ask for success on the tests.

An obsession with tests is in fact perfectly rational, because they matter much more in Japan than they ever have in the United States or Europe. At two stages in life a Japanese student’s test scores place him at his precise rank on the nation’s Great Chain of Being. The first stage comes at the end of junior high school, with the high school admissions tests. In theory the nation’s compulsory schooling system runs only through grade nine, even though almost everyone goes on to finish high school. (Japan uses the six years, three years, three Years sequence of elementary, junior high, and high school that is typical in America, because it was introduced by American officials after the war.) The first nine years of schooling are handled mainly in neighborhood schools, with iittle or no classroom “tracking.”But high school, being “optional,” is competitive and specialized, and admission is by test scores. The only students who are spared this weeding-out process are those who have enrolled in “linked" private schools that provide an automatic transfer from junior high to high school.

Then comes the struggle for college admission, which for the white-collar part of the populace is the most important hurdle they will ever have to jump. Americans sometimes grumble that standardized tests are too important and that the Old School Tie counts for too much. Compared with Japan, America seems to offer a big, open lottery on life’s prospects. Admission to Japan’s most prestigious universities, the former imperial universities at Tokyo, Kyoto, and elsewhere, is by examination scores only. No glowing recommendations, no well-rounded history of activities, no skill as an athlete, no amount of artisticpromise, counts fora bit. Each student’s hensachi—statistical deviation from the standard test score—is calculated, and universities start accepting strictly from the top of the list. The ruthless efficiency of the admissions process is compounded by the equally clear-cut ranking of the “top" and “bottom" schools. There’s no real equivalent in American life, because the American hierarchy isn’t quite so clear. The closest comparison might be clerkships for law-school graduates, where the Supreme Court is clearly the big prize. If all law students in the country took a standardized clerkship test, with top scorers going to the Supreme Court and the next group to appeals courts, the U.S. system would begin to resemble the Japanese one.

Among Japanese universities the University of Tokyo is undoubtedly number one. Naturally, there are fine gradations of prestige within “Todai,” the common abbreviation from the Japanese name, Tokyo Daigaku. Even in this non-litigious society admission to the (undergraduate) law school has traditionally been the most prized, since it is the most reliable route to a high-prestige job in the Ministry of Finance or Foreign Affairs. After Todai come other old imperial universities, especially the University of Kyoto, and private schools in Tokyo, such as Waseda and Keio.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF university admission can hardly be overstated. In the United States there are dozens of excellent universities and a hundred more that could be considered very good. Some offer better connections than others, bur none would be considered a real handicap. Moreover, in America being admitted to a good university and then doing poorly isn’t much of a life-long advantage. But in japan, I’ve been told time and again, getting into the university is all that matters, except for the few people who plan to become academics. When companies do their hiring, they’re much less interested in the college grade-point average than in the college’s name. (Herbert Passin, of Columbia, has pointed out that in pre-war Japan private companies paid new employees according to their university. Mitsui Mining’s pay schedule for administrative workers, for example, listed seventy-five yen a month for graduates of the imperial universities, sixty-five yen for Waseda and Keio, and so on.) Public and private power in Japan is dominated by Todai graduates, with a supporting cast from Kyoto and the top private universities, to a degree that resembles the role of Oxford and Cambridge in pre-war England.

In short, because university admission is important, the tests are important. Success on the tests, which are heavily based on memorized knowledge, depends on boning up during the long preceding years. This brings us to another building block of the system, and a source of pressure on students: the famous “cram schools,” known as juku. Before visiting them, I had imagined grim Dickensian warrens, where hapless students worked bleary-eyed at the abacus. In fact the several juku I saw, usually housed in office buildings, looked cleaner and spiffier than the average public school, which is drab and Dickensian. The big Tokyo juku I saw were run like ordinary schools, except that students were overwhelmingly male and there were more students to a classroom—150 or more, instead of the forty or fifty per class typical of Japanese public schools. At the Sundai Juku, one of Tokyo’s most famous, the 200-odd students in one mathematics class followed a strict rotation for seats in the front rows—lest those who lined up early and rushed to the seats nearest the teacher have an unfair edge.

Leaders of the juku industry talk with unselfconscious joy about the “seven golden years” that are about to begin. A miniature baby boom will raise Japan’s college-age population in the next few years, but the country does not plan to increase the number of university admissions. Steadily through the postwar years the proportion of high school graduates who go to college has increased. (It’s now 29 percent in Japan, while it’s 58 percent in the United States.) The result is a supply-demand imbalance that makes the tests more important, and creates business for the juku.

Business is even better for juku operators because of the phenomenon of ronin. In the old days a ronin was a samurai warrior who had somehow lost his master. The ronin wandered the country, purposeless, deprived of the feudal duty that had given him a reason to live. Today’s ronin are students who didn’t do well enough the first time they took the exams. Instead of entering an inferior college—thereby accepting a miserable station in life—they spend an extra year or two cramming full-time and then retake the exams. One fifth of male high school graduates are said to become ronin—about 140,000 at one time. They are allowed to take the tests as many times as they like, and they are not looked down on if they make it into Todai on the third or fourth try. In his recent autobiography Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony, gave hope to ronin by disclosing that he had been one of them, in pre-war Japan.

The practical pressures, from exams and juku, that arc piled onto Japanese children are generally assumed to create psychological problems. Although the teenage suicide rate is actually lower in Japan than in the United States, the cases seem much more flamboyant here. That is partly because the rest of Japanese life is so tame and controlled, and partly because the suicide notes, talking about the shame of bad exam scores, suggest such a weight on these young hearts.

In the past few years a different kind of teen suicide has become even more famous in Japan. This is deaths induced by ijime. The phenomenon probably has more to do with the group-oriented culture of Japan than with the schools themselves, but it is usually cited as part of the general high-pressure school syndrome. Ijime is usually translated as “bullying,” but it must have a much more powerful connotation, since its destructive power exceeds anything that we associate with school-yard bullies. Every week or two the papers carry a story about an ijime victim who has hanged himself or jumped off a bridge, to escape the torment that awaits him at school. I have talked to groups of students perhaps a dozen times. Every time they have turned the talk to ijime, as the problem most on their minds. Apparently, something in the life of today’s young Japanese makes them single out a victim who seems vulnerable or “different,” and something in Japan’s ethos of fitting in makes this treatment unendurable. One chubby high school girl in Tokyo, who had been ijimed for three months the previous year, said, “It feels like you’re always strangling in your neck.” I met another girl with a bad stutter, who had suffered so much from ijime that she had dropped out of high school altogether and was trying to work as a cartoonist. “It is like a small killing field,” she said. Here is an aspect of Japanese education that you won’t find celebrated by our Department of Education.

THE SECOND STANDARD criticism of Japanese schools concerns what they don’t teach—namely, creativity, I don’t propose to raise the deadly question of whether Japanese culture is inherently “uncreative,” which touches off more irresolvable discussions here than abortion does in America. But when it comes to the school curriculum and the tests, one can see what parents are complaining about.

Compared with American or European schools, those in Japan seem more designed to pour in facts. The tests determine how much the student can pour back out. In some disciplines, such as the hard sciences and, above all, the written Japanese language, brute-force memorization is unavoidable. But many people complain that it dominates schooling far more thoroughly than it should.

Nowhere is the problem more obvious than in foreign-language instruction. Nearly all students headed for college study “English” in preparation for their entrance exams, but what they learn bears almost no resemblance to what we speak. (Students can choose to take the foreign-language portion of the exam in French or German, but only a handful do.) English is taught not as a language at all, in the sense that students might actually speak it, but as a corpus of abstract facts and symbols that students must memorize to prove they are serious about school—the way theology students learn Greek. On the basis of the four or five classes I have seen, it would seem that English is taught from passages so stupefyingly vacuous that the students are lucky they can’t really understand them. In a famous juku in Tokyo students were asked to translate the likes of “It is well to be thoroughly impressed with a sense of the difficulty of judging about others; still, judge we must, and sometimes very hastily; the purposes of life require it.”In another class, for sixth-year English students, I heard the teacher expound for ten minutes, in Japanese, on the supposed difference between attain and attain to in English. It is no wonder the Japanese think they can’t learn languages—nobody could with this approach.

The upshot of all the emphasis on memory work is a system that foreigners in Japan regard with suspicion. I have a few friends who have placed their children in Japanese elementary schools. At that stage, the schools are a clear plus: the students learn all the math-and-science basic skills, they are encouraged in art and music, and they grow up speaking Japanese. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I have not yet met a foreigner who is eager to send his children to a Japanese high school. It is great preparation for life as a full-fledged Japanese, working in a Japanese company and living by Japanese rules. But no foreigner will be accepted in that role anyway, and for any other life path a Japanese education is limiting—like being apprenticed to a silversmith at age thirteen. The United States has ten to fifteen times as many foreigners coming to study in its colleges as it has citizens going overseas. Japan has only about half as many foreigners coming in to college as it has citizens going out. The number of foreigners in Japanese high schools is practically nil. The explanation might be that the Japanese are more willing to learn about the outside world, but it might also be that Japanese higher education is not attractive to anyone outside the fold.

Owing to the pressure and the lack of creativity, many Japanese seem uneasy about what the system does to their children. “It’s all so well designed to produce very good mediocre people,” I was told by Shuichi Kato, a famous literary critic in his sixties. “It’s geared to a high level of mediocrity. The best secondrate engineers. The best second-rate workers.” But most parents also say that they will keep sending their children to juku, because it’s too risky to do anything else. Theirs is a more dramatic version of the quandary that has American parents supporting public schools but, motivated by a similar fear, sending their own children to better, private schools. According to a nationwide survey conducted in 1984 by Yomiuri Shimbun, a major newspaper, only four percent of Japanese favored keeping the test-andadmission system unchanged. Forty-five percent wanted to see significant changes, and 38 percent favored outright abolition of the tests. Still, enrollment in juku is steadily rising. “People are now aware that this is a stupid competition,”I was told by Naohiro Amaya, a very well known figure in Japan, who was once a senior official at MITI and now directs an education-reform panel. “But it is difficult for anyone to step off the moving machine.”

Is THERE ANYTHINC; for outsiders to “learn” from Japanese schools? I think not, if we’re looking for practical improvements we could make tomorrow. But I find impressive the social assumptions the schools reveal—assumptions that do suggest the steps toward better education that America can and cannot take. The principles that undergird Japanese schooling are connected, but I think they consist of two fundamental kinds.

The first is a sweeping idea of equality surpassing anything the United States has ever known. America is of course the land of political equality— one man-one vote, jury of your peers, don’t tread on me. The Japanese are not so interested in such abstractions, but they have built a society in which the distance from top to bottom makes the distance in ours look like a chasm.

The average IQ is higher in Japan than in the United States. If the bell curve showing the distribution of IQ scores had the same shape in Japan as in America, then a small difference in average scores would mean an enormous disproportion at the upper end. According to statistical theory, the ten-point difference in average scores should give the Japanese forty or fifty times as many people with 150-plus scores on IQ tests. But that’s not the case, according to Japanese psychologists I have spoken with. Japan’s average score is higher because its lowest scores are so much better than ours. Their bell curve has a different shape: fewer people at the extremes, many more in the middle.

I am ignoring the endless arguments about IQ tests, because the bell curve makes an important symbolic point: not just in IQ but in almost every aspect of society the Japanese curve is different from ours. It’s clearly better to be rich in America than in Japan. Japan has nothing to match the mansions in Beverly Hills and Southampton (although some Japanese now have the money to buy those mansions for themselves). The highest levels of just about everything, from physical comfort to highly refined academic skill, are higher in America than in Japan. But our lowest levels of just about everything are much lower than Japan’s, and the difference is beginning to tell. One American reporter told me not long ago, “Japan’s secret is that it has the best bottom fifty percent in the world.”

Japan’s practically applied equality probably rests on its much advertised racial “purity.” It’s easier to form a consensus on sharing society’s benefits if everybody feels part of one big tribe. We can’t imitate that. We haven’t ever ruled out real excess at the top, because American culture has nursed the dream of making it to the top and enjoying the excess yourself. Still, Japan’s example suggests that social compacts can change. Material equality is hardlv a time-honored principle in Japan. Up until the beginning of the Second World War, it was as thoroughly feudal and class-ridden a society as anything found in Europe. Even now Japan is socially less democratic than America: women defer to men, the young defer to the old, everyone fits in above and below someone on the nationwide chain of command. These facts suggest that societies can deliberately be made more egalitarian (although in Japan’s case the process required nothing less than total military defeat, followed by the benign dictatorship of the American occupation), and that material equality can coexist with a proudly hierarchical social system. Most of all they suggest that if we’re serious about reforming American education, we don’t need to pour more money into the Harvards and Berkeleys, where we’re already strong. The battle should instead be fought where we’re now weakest: in the big-city public high schools and the mediocre elementary schools. In the past twenty years the best bottom half in the world has been up against the best upper half, and the bottom half is winning.

THE SECOND SOCIAL assumption also concerns equality. When you discuss higher education in America, sooner or later you get trapped in the aptitude-versus-achievement debate. Are students’ native abilities (aptitude) more important than anything else—and are they inherited, and do they differ by race and class? Or is a certain level of achievement—mastery of specific facts and skills—across the board more important?

These arguments never seem to get started in Japan, because most people, including educators, act as if ability didn’t matter. Yes, some students are quicker than others, but almost everyone is assumed to have “enough” ability. What counts is how hard he tries. I will repeat, because in my experience it is difficult for Americans to believe, that Japan allows virtually no tracking or ability grouping before high school. The whole class is supposed to move along together. Sure, some students are going to more-advanced juku than others, but that doesn’t prove that they were born smart. It mainly demonstrates a superior will to succeed. With effort anything can be done.

This assumption is visible in hundreds of aspects of Japanese life. When I was touring Sanya, Tokyo’s one real slum, a tenderhearted doctor explained how the local derelicts sometimes died. They would decide one day to shake off their years of alcoholism, steel their will for day labor at a construction site, and collapse while lifting bricks. The most illuminating book I have read about Japan, and the funniest, is Robert Whiting’s The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, about Japanese baseball. (The title is, of course, a takeoff on Ruth Benedict’s famous Second World War—era study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.) Its subtheme is the cultural war between the Japanese baseball players and the two gaijin (foreign) players each team is allowed to bring from America each year. The gaijin stars seem to be of a different species from the Japanese. They are enormous, they have big moustaches and muscles, they often seem selfish and crude. Two of last year’s gaijin stars were known, in the newspaper box scores and in letters across their jerseys, as “Animal" and “Boomer.” In raw talent they are miles ahead of their Japanese teammates—and it drives the Japanese crazy that most gaijin want to coast on talent alone. The gaijin resist taking the “drill of the thousand fungoes.” They assume that if they win the batting championship, as they usually do, the manager shouldn’t care if they skip the calisthenics. The Japanese hate this, because it undermines their faith in kanto —“fighting spirit,”which equips people to rise above weakness or pain. They are happier with results like that of last fall’s sumo tournament, when the smallest wrestler won the “fighting spirit" prize. His victory was a parable for the whole nation’s, overcoming near-insuperable physical odds by force of will alone.

This celebration of effort is at once the most wonderful and the most terrifying thing about Japan. It’s probably the basic explanation for Pearl Harbor: who cares that America is so big, the Japanese leaders must have thought, when our fighting spirit is so strong? Its manifestations can seem pathetic or admirable, depending on how you’re feeling each day. As they stand waiting for the morning train, salarymen will meticulously practice their golf strokes with imaginary clubs. They are totally engaged, they are displaying fighting spirit, they are trying to get it right, even though they may never have the chance to step onto a real golf course. Merry White quotes an official statement of purpose for Japanese elementary schools: “It is desirable that, in the lower grades, one should learn to bear hardship, and in the middle grades, to persist to the end with patience, and in the upper grades, to be steadfast and accomplish goals undaunted by obstacles or failures.”As students bear down for their exams, friends and family constantly tell them, “Gambatte!”—“You can do it! Tough it out!”

The emphasis on effort explains why the four-hour nights and numbing memory work of exam hell can be seen as demonstrations of virtue in Japan. It doesn’t matter if the knowledge is obscure or that you’ll never be able to speak English. The tests aren’t really about their stated subjects anyway— they’re about your determination to try. Americans boast about walking into tests unprepared and acing them on raw brains. Japanese students would not brag about it even if they could do it, because the years of buildup are the point. Effort is what the country values, and it can select for it through the exams. The country is meant to be a pure meritocracy, based not on inherited mental abilities but on determination and will. Effort is also what employers value, which is why they hire so strictly according to entrance-exam scores. Companies don’t even pretend that there is a connection between university education and business skills—they actively look for generalists, whom they can retrain. But they value students who survived the exams, because they’ve proved their iron will.

Most Americans couldn’t stand Japanese schools, and some Japanese apparently feel the same way. But the assumptions about equality and effort— those, it seems, we could, in our own way, apply. After visiting Japanese schools, I saw an issue of Esquire proclaiming that America’s new watchword should be “cooling out.” My God! After “laid back” and “Miller Time,” haven’t we had enough of this already? I propose a different phrase, a truly vital import from Japan: Gambatte!

—James Fallows