Education: What are we paying all the money for?

Dear Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura,

My son started elementary school this month. Had we decided to place him in an international or private Japanese school, I would have been looking at a potential bill for his first school year that exceeded all the money my parents spent on the entire 13 years of my education in the U.K., as well as the four I spent at university.

Although state education in Japan is practically free, one feels almost obligated to place children in what are perceived to be the better schools and cram schools in an attempt at one-upmanship over the hordes of kids who are being pressured at such a young age to compete with their peers for a chance to gain entry into the finest universities.

We, too, spent a considerable amount of money over the course of one month at a private institution that offered advice on such important factors as what to wear to an interview and what to say. For a rather large fee, we were able to glean the inside information necessary to pass the interview to help our son gain entry into a school with a good reputation.

For example, we were told the order in which to enter the room: I, my son, and then my wife. We were also informed that we should wear black slippers, despite the fact that teachers at the particular school we applied to wear colored plastic toilet slippers. Even the buttons on my son’s new jacket had to be changed; apparently, metallic buttons equate to failure! Furthermore, we learned that we should say konnichi wa, in addition to stating our name, upon entry (duh!).

The fact that my son, in a test on his first visit to the preparatory school, came top of a class of students who had been studying for over a year (and in some cases for three years) was never mentioned. Apparently, academic ability comes a poor second to correct protocol.

In recent weeks I have also been astounded to discover just how little general knowledge many of my university students have. I teach at a number of institutes and I assume many or most of my students to be of above average intelligence. This assumption helped augment my disbelief when nearly 50 percent of them couldn’t tell me the name of the prime minister, the population of Japan or the main religions. When given clues such as the capital city, currency, famous landmarks, national dish or popular foods, they couldn’t name countries such as Thailand or Australia.

Many of them are undoubtedly gifted in their chosen speciality, but their standard of general knowledge is shocking, to say the least. These people, after all, are university students and should be expected to, as a minimum, name their own prime minister. What do they learn at the school level here?

For the money charged at private schools, which many of the students attended, one would expect much more. Private education costs around ¥1 million per year. Add to this the costs of cram schools, extracurricular activities, uniforms and other such fees and, after 12 years of schooling, parents have spent a horrific sum of money on their pride and joy. What exactly is being taught and how is the money used?

It is my belief that the Japanese education system lets many students down because it takes the fun out of studying. Hence, students who have spent the best part of their lives doing little else but memorizing large chunks of prose from books on history, geography, languages and science — without really understanding why they are doing so — are left with a creative and critical void. Instead of having a thirst for knowledge, they end up with an apathetic avoidance of all things new.

Some of the students I encountered with my son had presumably been memorizing how to pass a test since age 2. I cannot imagine how much money had been spent on these kids, but judging by the top-of-the-range cars in the car park and the designer clothes worn by the parents, they can certainly afford it.

However, the fact that these kids took three years of study to master a test means that they missed out on a major part of their childhood. The particular school we attended has since issued paraphernalia on the importance of preparing our kids now for entry into junior high. The thought that many parents are only too willing to subject their kids to a life of tedium isn’t a pleasant one.

In his book “Eastern Phoenix: Japan Since 1945,” Mikiso Hane explains that the goal of education in Japan is to gain entry into elite schools and, therefore, climb the social ladder. Brian J. McVeigh, in “Japanese Higher Education as Myth,” concurs, and goes on to write that the system leads to an extreme lack of motivation that ultimately leads to a reduced ability to learn. Spending so much time in the classroom means that students come to despise learning and view it with trepidation. McVeigh then discusses the dismissal of two Japanese teachers who tried to instill creative and critical thinking in their students. Evidently, in Japan, the very notion of students having opinions is seen as being detrimental to society. Instead, spending years and, more importantly, yen, on learning by rote and assuming a submissive role in the classroom is encouraged.

There are a large number of private schools and universities that charge astronomical fees and seem to act as nothing more than places where students from similar privileged backgrounds can socially interact and, as previously mentioned, cram schools that charge a great deal of money to ensure that kids have inside knowledge on what will be asked in certain high school exams. Again, kids from well-to-do families are able to buy information denied those who are less wealthy. However, the whole system shouldn’t be just about passing exams. School life should be a journey of discovery and growth, about self-awareness and becoming independent thinkers — not about paying money and spending endless hours memorizing information for tests.

Children today have fewer opportunities to play with friends and do what kids do. It isn’t natural for children to spend so much time each day studying at school and cram school, and then doing homework at home.

Some of my nephews are studying medicine at university in Scotland. They never attended cram school when they were younger. Instead, they spent time with friends and were able to differentiate between school life and play. They also know a thing or two about other countries and can name the prime ministers of the U.K. and of Japan! They are able to think critically and creatively, and they have opinions.

Time spent on play is valuable, and we are now beginning to see stress-related conditions in young adults who do not know how to interact with others. This is hardly surprising when we see very young children spending their days with their noses in books.

The very word “cram” should be off-putting to most parents, as the word has a rather negative connotation. School and university tests should be regulated by the government as this would do away with the need for cram schools. Every student would be studying a curriculum at school geared toward a common goal. In addition to one final test, three or four smaller tests given throughout the year should also contribute to the final score. This would ensure that students are not disadvantaged if they happen to have a “bad day.”

When we buy something tangible, we can see exactly what we are getting for our money. In the case of education this isn’t so. Changes to the current system are long overdue and, until such changes are implemented, I and many other people I know are extremely anxious about sending our kids to a school where they simply become automatons capable of nothing more than spewing out remembered facts in order to pass a test.


Send comments on this issue and Hotline to Nagata-cho submissions of 500-700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    “Again, kids from well-to-do families are able to buy information denied those who are less wealthy.”

    That’s only because public schools create a monopoly on education for lower-middle class earners. They can’t afford to pay twice, once in tax and again in tuition. But if there were no public schools, there would be incentive for such low-cost private schools to exist and compete. You would then be free to choose the one that best suited your values and your child.

  • Mark Garrett

    “Although state education in Japan is practically free, one feels almost obligated to place children in what are perceived to be the better schools and cram schools in an attempt at one-upmanship over the hordes of kids who are being pressured at such a young age to compete with their peers for a chance to gain entry into the finest universities.

    We, too, spent a considerable amount of money over the course of one month at a private institution that offered advice on such important factors as what to wear to an interview and what to say. For a rather large fee, we were able to glean the inside information necessary to pass the interview to help our son gain entry into a school with a good reputation.”

    LOL. You’ve obviously been in Japan too long. You’re being duped by the same nonsense that the rest of the sheep here have.

    Why do you fell obligated to place your child into a more expensive school?

    You would seriously change the buttons on your kid’s jacket and wear a certain color of slipper to appeal to the hierarchy of these institutions?? Shame on you!

    And what are these fine universities you allude to? By my count Japan has two that merit any kind of accolades. That means the overwhelming majority of great schools are located overseas, mostly in the U.S. and U.K.

    In this golden age of technology and the internet, there is no need to acquiesce to the slow death being administered to today’s youth in Japan. Homeschooling is a viable alternative that is gaining more and more traction worldwide.

    The biggest problem I’m dealing with as a parent is how to balance the needs of my child, who wants to be just like all of his friends, and the needs I feel are important for his adult life. I can promise you one thing though, I will not be entering my child into any institution that bases its decision on the material of his buttons!

  • Scott Durand

    Do you think after twenty years of economic stagnation, very little in the manner of new industry created and a real struggle to compete globally most people would look at change in the education system. Not Japan. A place where the rich just keep keepin on, and the rest work to consume for them.

  • japangone

    Why would any parent put their child through such a dreadful educational system (assuming they have a choice)? Home schooling is not really an answer, I fear, as your child willbe socially isolated, especially in a country of “groups” such as Japan. You should leave Japan and educate your children in a better place, for your child’s sake. IMO.

  • Anders Gronlund

    From what I’ve heard from japanese people themselves, when the japanese finally get into university they study very little, if at all. And the name of the univeristy is much more important than the subject. So if you want to get into finance it is OK to study law as long as the university is famous. So the education as such does not seem important.
    I think it would be wiser to let the japanese kids have a fun and healthy childhood and gradually study harder and make the biggest effort once they get into university and while there, study a subjuct that is in line with their future job.

  • WithMalice

    Welcome to Japan’s true caste system. And one that ensures the continuation of the nation’s global decline.

  • トム ( Tom )

    I love your article… As a future parent I really need to start thinking where I want to raise a family

  • Captain Obvious

    I live in Japan now with my wife and our two year old son. We will be fleeing Japan before our boy’s brain is assaulted by the Japanese education system. It sucks royally. Change will never come because only loyal drones get promoted to decision making positions. And no one in authority makes decisions, they just follow precedent.

  • Captain Obvious

    Also, one great scam that is not mentioned. Private schools are funded in part by public money. How wrong is that???

  • Eric

    As an Eikaiwa- owner, I must say- Shhhh!!!! Are you trying to run me out of business? My whole business principle is based on the current attitude toward education!
    All kidding aside- I teach my kids to be creative individuals at home, and to “fit in the box” – if they want to- at school. They are pretty normal. I also don’t care if they go to university if they are more interested in a trade than an office job. It would be a waste of money to go to Keio or Waseda and become a bakery owner or a cabinet maker. If they are happy and can support themselves, I am happy.

  • Mark Mitchell

    Isn’t this article completely backwards? The best universities and high schools in Japan are public. Tokyo Univ. , Nagoya Univ. etc. The best three high schools in my area are also public.

  • kyushuphil

    We just had another suicide of the kids at the high school where I teach.

    This kid was the best in his class. Very kind, quiet, and sensitive, he was also the smartest — and he lived in isolation — just did not have the strength or ability to reach out to the others all who’d bought in to the mindlessless.

    Japan has many great, great individuals — read Alex Kerr’s “Lost Japan.” But the schools organize to kill that. So sad to see, so even now the death of another good kid has the stat of suicide, when we’d call it institutional murder, if we had any schools capable of asking real questions.

  • J. Ricohermoso

    I understand how you feel. I am a parent of three kids and with less resources. However, my wife and I have decided to nurture our kids’ abilities and encourage academic advancement by giving them more freedom and assistance as we see fit.

    My eldest is now a freshman in a university in the Kansai region. We are thankful to God for His blessing, allowing her to enter university in a manner that is so different from the conventional path you described in this article.

    Certainly, there is a better way to develop talent and cost shouldn’t be equated with success.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gordieg1 Geeter Mckluskie

    Yet again, a bunch of mewling about rote learning and the Japanese education system. A cursory glance at my son’s English syllabus this week reveals lessons that cover the passive and various applications of the subjunctive clause. I fail to see how these useful tools of communication can be construed as useless facts. The geometry test he brought home posed various problems followed by blank spaces on which he was to demonstrate the ability to calculate various things such as the area of a circle . The drills he did in class and repeated as homework enabled him to demonstrate that knowledge on the test. How is this bad? Besides academics he learns social skills by being given responsibilities such as cleaning or taking his turn as a class representative. I’m originally from Canada, which has a very good education system…However, I feel much more confident with my son and daughter in a Japanese school. Two plus two equals four anywhere you are, the discipline and care kids get in Japanese schools makes them the preferred choice for me.

  • SwedishreaderKristinehamn93

    Education should be for free so every one can learn the same things as someone else. In Sweden, for example, it’s the community who pay for the education for any child no matter who they are.