If You Think We Have Problems ... Japan's Inferior University System

By Mack-Cozzo, Jane Barnes | The American Enterprise, September 2002 | Go to article overview

If You Think We Have Problems ... Japan's Inferior University System


Mack-Cozzo, Jane Barnes, The American Enterprise


After more than 12 years of living and teaching in Japan, I'm still amazed at the plethora of myths and cliches surrounding Japanese culture. Perhaps the most egregiously false of these perceptions is that of Japan's "superior" educational system.

The Japanese educational system does, indeed, work differently from those in the West. That Japanese elementary and high school students are assigned hours of daily homework and sent to juku (cram schools), is well known among educated Westerners. It's also well known that so-called kyoiku mamas ("education mamas"), ambitious for their children, have them enrolled in pre-kindergarten cram schools almost as soon as they're born. These schools cost nearly $750 a month for two days a week. Over a quarter of pre-schoolers attend such cram schools in order to be admitted to a prestigious kindergarten. From there, in the "escalator system," pupils are virtually assured admission to primary, middle, and high school. This, in turn, facilitates acceptance at a corresponding university.

All this effort is expended in preparation for the vaunted and near-sacred university entrance examination, the successful completion of which will determine the course of these young people's lives. "Examination hell," as it is known in Japan, is considered a small price to pay for admission to a national university such as Todai (Tokyo University) or one of the roku dai (Six Best) private universities in the country.

The ritual associated with these exams is treated with an almost religious solemnity. During my years of teaching at Japanese universities, I was able to witness this annual event firsthand. It's different from the way we do things, but it isn't better.

Consider, for starters, the English language exams. Selected members of examination committees are charged with writing the all-important English language questions. Quite literally, hours are spent analyzing everything from usage to punctuation. We gaijin (foreigners) are asked to serve on these committees, ostensibly for native speaker input.

Yet we native speakers find ourselves in a verbal tug-of-war with Japanese sensei (professors), who insist that our usage is incorrect. These same professors, however, don't even conduct their upper-level classes in English. One listening comprehension question concerned the town of Carmel, California. I corrected the town's pronunciation from the accent on the first syllable to the accent on the second, but this carried no weight, even though I am a native Californian. The professors' Japanese dictionary stated that the first usage was correct.

All of this pointless pedantry results in students memorizing grammatical rules but failing to acquire speaking proficiency. Those who are admitted to a university have already had six years of English, but can hardly speak a word because their study of the language is oriented to passing the grammar and reading-comprehension questions on the entrance exams. Indeed, Japanese scores on the international TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam are among the lowest in the world.

Katagana, the system of characters the Japanese use for foreign words, also holds students back. Because katagana conforms to the constrictions of Japanese pronunciation, English words are consistently mispronounced. Years ago, a student mentioned she had seen the American film "Buru Berubeto." After many requests to repeat the title, I deduced she was talking about the film Blue Velvet. (Katagana changes V to B and L to R.)

Once students gain admission to university, virtually all learning and study cease. What passes for education would be a source of embarrassment to almost any other university system in the world. My colleagues have had students who attend perhaps two classes during the entire school year and then show up for the final exam thinking that if they are allowed to take it, they will automatically pass the course--knowing full well that attendance was mandatory. …

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