I came to Japan in the mid 90's and eventually snagged a part time job at one of Japan's top tier universities. The material covered explained a lot of situations I saw - but I will leave it at that and close with a recent article translated from Sapio magazine (circa 2005) which explains the book's premise better than I can:
Japan's colleges facing 'meltdown'
Sapio (Sept. 28)
"One has to think of education in Japan," wrote sociologist Ronald Dore in 1982, "as an enormously elaborate, very expensive testing system with some educational spinoffs, rather than as the other way around."
Criticism in that vein fueled 20 years of off-and-on education reform, a gradual deregulation process culminating, on April 1, 2004, in government-affiliated national universities becoming "independent agencies."
So where does Japan stand today, pedagogically speaking?
"Japan's universities," declares Sapio, "are on the brink of meltdown."
Intellectual bankruptcy is already here; financial bankruptcy is around the corner; and the nation's demography, with its rapidly declining university-age population, hardly promises an academic resurgence any time soon. That is the broad picture emerging from Sapio's series of reports on the state of "reformed" higher education in Japan.
Two professors, Tsuneharu Okabe of Saitama University and Yo Kawanari of Hosei University, focus in back-to-back articles on intellectual bankruptcy. Okabe expresses astonishment and frustration at how dense, immature and ignorant students are nowadays. And professors, Kawanari maintains, are little better.
Students' academic ability is in free-fall, writes Okabe. Simple logical thinking is beyond them. Their vocabulary is childish, their grasp of mathematics feeble, their curiosity nowhere in evidence. The latter is doubly surprising, he points out, in view of the young generation's easy familiarity with the Internet -- but the Net apparently appeals to them more as a playground than as a research venue.
Kawanari saves his venom for his professorial colleagues. It is remarkable, he writes, how many authors' names appear on even brief research papers, some no more than a page long. "All those 'authors'," he says, "leave it uncertain as to whose work it really is. If a question arises, who do you address it to? Evasion of responsibility is written into the very system" -- which helps explain, he adds, why Japan's roster of currently active professors includes not a single Nobel Prize winner -- as against 48 at the U.K's Cambridge University alone.
Kawanari marvels at how sloppily written many academic papers are -- "but that's not the worst of it," he says, citing an Education Ministry survey showing that a quarter of all university teachers have not published anything at all in the past five years.
Maybe that's not the worst of it either. In June, Hagi International University in Yamaguchi Prefecture declared bankruptcy. Others will follow, predicts economic journalist Kiyoshi Shimano in his contribution to Sapio's series. "My estimate," he writes, "is that by 2010, 50 universities will have gone bankrupt -- and 50 others will have downsized."
The reason, he says, is clear. In 1991 there were 2.01 million 18-year-olds in Japan. In 2004 there were 1.38 million. In 2014 there will probably be 1.21 million.
Accompanying this demographic plunge has been a wave of university foundings which, on the face of it, seems absurd. Between 1996 and 2005, 167 new four-year universities opened, most of them private, raising the total nationwide number to 710. The apparent explanation is the rising proportion -- now some 50 percent -- of high-school students going on to college. But ultimately, the student numbers weren't there to justify the expansion. When universities must scramble for entrants -- when no paying customer is turned away -- standards go out the window.
Why, then, not appeal to foreign students as a prime source of financial relief and intellectual invigoration? The idea goes back at least to 1983, conceived as part of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's efforts to internationalize Japan. His goal of 100,000 foreign students was reached in 2003, a year ahead of schedule.
So far so good, but Japan has yet to really warm to foreign students, writes former university administrator Tsutomu Kimura, and those who come, he says, often find their reception somewhat chilly. It's one symptom among many of Japan's intellectual decay, to which no end seems in sight.
I taught in a Japanese branch of an American college for 8 years. As the author points out, Japanese undergraduate education entails 4 years of partying. Students often don't attend a single class in order to get a BA. The Malaysian Ministry of Education won't recognize Japanese undergraduate degrees. Japanese should not be admitted to American graduate schools based on what they did in Japan.
As the book points out, College is the last gasp of so called "freedom" many Japanese have before becoming wage slaves to Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Honda, etc. The reason companies will hire BA's in spite of their lack of education is:
1) all training for general management positions is OJT - and
2) companies want to mold employees in the image of Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, etc. - therefore anyone with their own ideas need not apply. They are looking for a "blank slate".
Need someone with specialized knowledge? Why in heck do you think they hire foreign advisors? The Chinese "Miracle", like the Japanese, depends very heavily on foreign investment and foreign know how.
I dealt with many apathetic, sometimes out of control students - most of whom never did required assignments. Many would sleep in class - or talk loudly - or listen to music - or eat - or whatever. When I saw pandemonium going on in the classrooms of my Japanese co-workers, I looked at their grade books, and somehow wasn't surprised to find that no one got a grade less than "B". Some students I observed often didn't show.
I had one group of college students who would insist on smoking in class. I ended up being more of a cop than a teacher, confiscating cigarettes and imposing discipline than getting any teaching done. About 40% of my classes were in the "out of control" category. The other 60% ranged from apathetic to somewhat cooperative. If I gave students D's or F's, the school office would change those to A's and B's.
A colleague who worked in a high school there found that they padded their school math scores by giving the evaluation tests only to good math students. A Ph.D. in psychology I worked with who worked in California with brain damaged kids said she had more progress with them than with the Japanese she had to teach. A co-worker who taught in a "night" high school was reprimanded by the principal for waking up the students. "It is rude" he was told.
And forget special ed. Learning disabled students are thrown in with the rest - "sink or swim". No special intervention for them. Japan's educational system is in the dark ages. Ask a Japanese teacher what learning disabled or dyslexia is, most don't have a clue.
Cram school and longer school hours are excuses for mothers to get the kids out of the house so mom can go shopping with friends. "Have a baby and do what you want" is a popular expression in Japan. I only understood it after years of being there.
In fact, the only time you ever see kids studying is IN cram school.
I asked a girl what she did in school on Saturday:
"We clean the school."
"Class?" I asked.
So much for Japan's longer school week, free janitorial service included.
Americans confuse the behavior of Asian immigrants with that of Asian natives. Two completely different groups, people. Asian immigrants have to try harder, being a minority. Not so when they are in the majority.
The US was inundated in the 1980's with c**pola from Japan in the form of PBS "documentaries" - nearly all of which lauded Japan's "superior" education system. Look at the credits - these documentaries are made in Japan by the Japanese government, Tourist Bureau and Japan Airlines. Can you spell "propaganda"?
Japan's educational system at the grade school to high school levels is based on 19th century Prussia's (note the uniforms) with its emphasis on the doctrine of Hegel i.e. turn out unthinking cogs for the state. A researcher from Stanford and another from U. of Nevada at Reno came to Japan and both came to the same conclusion: It's a great system to teach memorization, but thinking goes by the wayside.
There is no discipline from grade school to high school EXCEPT for three years of Junior High. The few Junior High School students I taught were the best behaved, mainly because they were too exhausted to give me trouble. I have spoken to Japanese who have been open enough to tell about the situation in high schools in Japan. Some schools in Tokyo have most of their windows broken, and, according to my sources, a group of students upon graduation will gang up on their least favorite teacher and give them a beating. Bullying in schools is widespread, used to keep those who do not "conform" in line - and often encouraged by teachers and staff.
So, you've read "Learning to Bow" - god knows, maybe things are different out in the sticks (I never taught there) - or maybe the school was aware their teacher was writing a book on them, and made sure the kids were on their best behavior. You've got me. The well-disciplined student was something I rarely encountered in Tokyo.
I found in my own experience that Japanese had a very difficult time with anything abstract. They could only think in terms of the concrete. Ask an American what freedom (an abstract term) is, and they will answer you most of the time with an abstract - such as "Freedom means life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Ask a Japanese, and they will give you a concrete: "Freedom means being able to smoke". So much for "superior education".
"Bitter and whiny?" No, this is an objective work of research with facts carefully referenced. I didn't notice any negative tone to the book.
But a comment like that would be typical coming from a foreign English instructor. Most I worked with were not the brightest bulbs on the string, and a few of the dumber ones would defend education in Japan even though they had to deal with the sorry results of it every day. Some people never "get it" or don't want to, depending on their situation (and IQ). Most foreigners don't read much about Japan (too busy counting their yen) and the insecure ones (many) are exceptionally two-faced - my out-of control students would have another teacher who would label them "geniuses" and would claim they didn't have a problem with them. This was a lame tactic to make themselves look good, and not incur the wrath of the overly sensitive Japanese. When I asked to observe what they were doing to make these impossible students "geniuses" I was flat out refused. I went by and observed anyway, and found that they were even more out of control than when I had them. The Emperor had no clothes.
Foreigners who are married to a local oftentimes (at least for the first couple of years) will defend Japan to the death. So will those whose job is unbelievably cushy - like university instructors who have 12 hour weeks, 100K salaries and all the female attention a nerdy looking guy could ask for.
The "Defenders of Japan" club was certainly a strange phenomena when I was there - you couldn't say one critical thing about the country without being labeled "bitter and whiny" - PU-LEEZE!
I am SO happy that someone finally wrote an objective book on education in Japan - thanks Brian. I feel vindicated.
As many of the other reviewers, I too have taught in Japan for several years. Apparently unlike many of them, however, I also speak and read Japanese, which perhaps gives me a different perspective. Japanese universities may suffer many of the problems that McVeigh identifies, but his evidence is overwhelmingly anecdotal and his approach is one of self-assured superiority. It is hard to see him other than as a white, American male following in a imperialist tradition of assuming the superiority of his own language and culture while lamenting the disgraceful ignorance of the benighted natives. His response to Japanese education, like those of his imperialist predecessors, is "Why can't they just learn to be more like us?"
Contrary to the impression given in the book, anyone who can read Japanese need only walk into a Japanese bookstore to see the utter ludicracy of McVeigh's basic claim that Japanese higher education is bankrupt. If the universities offer nothing more than "simulated learning," how does one account for all the flourishing intellectual activity? Even McVeigh refrains from claiming that his Japanese colleagues are intellectually stunted as are the students. If not from the universities, whence do bright Japanese professors come?
McVeigh's criticism of the university system, including the lack of standards, the overemphasis on moving students into employment and the inablity to fail students, seems largely accurate, though it is impossible to know how extensive such problems are from his impressionistic argument. Much of this criticism appears to me to be on the mark, though I kept waited futily for McVeigh to support his charges with data and statistics. (It is impossible to confirm any of his claims because he provides no names of specific students, professors or universities. Readers just have to take him at his word.)
The largest problems of the book fall into two main areas. The first, a characteristic mirrored by other commenters, is an apparent contempt for students, especially those struggling to express themselves in a foreign language. McVeigh completely ignores the influcence of language and never makes clear whether students are expressing themselves in Japanse or in English. It appears that most of the time he is measuring their intellectual ability and maturity on statements that they make in English. This gross unfairness of this manner of criticism would be immediately clear if one asked an American student of the Japanese language to explain in Japanese what "freedom" meant to them. If one complete discounted the fact that they were stuggling to express themselves in a difficult foreign language, one would have to conclude that they had no ability to handle abstractions.
Having said this, I would concede that many Japanese students are not trained in high school to think critically or analytically. I have also taught at several universities in America, however, and can assure readers that this problem is not at all limited to Japan. The challenge, it seems to me, is how to engages such students and help them grow intellectually and emotionally. McVeigh offers nothing but arrogant contempt. In my own teaching, I have seen students undergo remarkable transformations. I have often also discovered that Japanese students who seem ignorant and naive in English can be remarkably eloquent and sophisticated when writing in their own language (Of course, you would have to be willing and able to read their Japanese to glean such information.)
In addition to his contempt for Japanese students (which is truly lamentable for an educator), McVeigh's other conspicuous problem is his utter disregard for Japanese scholoarship written in Japanese. Other than a few newspaper articles, he relies almost completely on fellow American critics of Japanese education (some of it rather out-dated). This gives the grossly misleading impression that only he is somehow bright and brave enough to address the glaring problems of higher education in Japan, something which Japanese themselves are either too blind or too cowardly to do. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are numerous excellent criticisms of Japanese education written by committed Japanese scholars. Unlike McVeigh, they do not blame Japanese students for their educational system and, also unlike McVeigh, they typically demonstrate some historical awareness of the factors that have contributed to the development of Japanese universities. (McVeigh's book is history-free. He makes no attempt to trace the development of higher education in Japan.)
On a final note, I would recommend anyone who wants to help transform education into a process of student self-empowerment to read bell hooks. First of all, her writing, in contrast to McVeigh's imagined Western utopia, underscores problems in American education. Hooks tells stories of how she has struggled to connect with her students in order to make education truly meaningful. She has really helped me rethink my relationship with my students, and become more capable of learning from them.
I urge anyone who reads this review to reject the easy, arrogant contempt for Japanese students expressed by some of the other reviewers. Their eagerness to join with McVeigh in condemning Japanese students should give serious pause to any educator who feels sympathy with McVeigh's arguments. His own attitude of superiority is not as glaring as many of the reviewers, but their reviews reveal their assumption that they have found a comrade who shares their chauvenistic ideas.
Japanese students are fundamentally no different from students anywhere. Of course, all students and all people are in some way bound by their cultures. The point is, if you are an English teacher who can't speak or read Japanese, you must recognize that you are always dealing with them from a vastly superior position and that they will have a great deal of difficulty communicating with you because of cultural and linguistic factors. I would suggest that the best way to teach them would be to try to learn from them individually.