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Can the education escalator be derailed?

by Philip Brasor

There’s a debate going on in government and in the media about revising the Japanese system of education. The forces for change want to do away with rote, test-based instruction, which they blame for all the youth-related problems we read about now, and replace it with something more individual-oriented and flexible. The debate is important, but so far no one has mentioned one of the major reasons why the current system won’t be easy to get rid of.

In Japan, a person’s educational level is still considered the primary means of measuring that person’s worth. This concept is so embedded into the country’s collective consciousness that it has given rise to a sukima education industry — meaning an education industry that occupies a “crevice” — which would be seriously undermined if educational reform is actively pursued.

The centerpiece of this industry is the juku system, which includes so-called cram schools, prep schools (yobiko) and all the supplementary textbooks, educational aids and secondary educational personnel (such as foreign language teachers) that tag along. If the reforms now being discussed are put into practice, the juku system’s reason for existence would vanish, since its sole purpose is to prepare young people for the tests they now have to take to advance up the educational ladder.

Right now, these juku are in the middle of their spring advertising push, which coincides with the start of the new school year but, more significantly, follows on the heels of the announcement of all those test results. The schools want to attract the attention of students (and their parents) who failed to get into the schools they were aiming for.

The juku are obvious about their role in the scheme of things, which is not education so much as educational strategies. The problem is that educational strategies are difficult to sell in advertising form. It’s easier and perhaps more effective to gain attention simply by making inflated claims. That’s why most ads for juku mention Tokyo University.

Todai is and will always remain educational Valhalla; the place that confers God-like status and endless employment possibilities on all who enter its hallowed gates. Sundai Juku, for example, sells itself by including in its ads the number of Sundai charges who have actually gone on to Todai. Sundai itself is a prestigious prep school with its own entrance tests. Advertising, in fact, was mostly unnecessary in the past, but with the birthrate and, consequently, school enrollment dropping, cram and prep schools (not to mention private schools in general) have to compete for a smaller pool of potential students.

In such a desperate environment, juku and yobiko have become bolder about mentioning Todai in their ads, regardless of how suspect their claims are. One prep school’s poster ad shows a young man who obviously has nothing better to do with his time than sit astride a concrete panda in a children’s playground. “What?” the young man says, with an expression of Alfred E. Newman complacency, “Me go to Tokyo University?”

It’s a measure of the education industry’s confidence in the current system that they can continue boosting it while an increasing number of companies adopt Sony’s lead and announce that they no longer consider the names of universities when hiring new college graduates. Even the media has toned down its Todai obsession a little. In the past, the weekly magazines published the names of all the lucky young men and women who passed the entrance exam, but this past month only Sunday Mainichi continued the tradition.

But prejudices die hard. Last week, Asahi TV’s “News Station” visited the Tokyo University campus and interviewed the new graduates. They asked these “new members of society” how they envisioned Japan 10 years from now, thus reinforcing the belief that Todai alumni will continue to steer the course for the nation in the new millennium.

A lot of students at prestigious schools are now being hired by media companies (one of the Todai interviewees, in fact, was about to enter Asahi TV, and treated the female interviewer as his senpai), thus showing how the media has replaced the financial sector as one of the most desirable areas of employment, after the federal bureaucracy, for new graduates.

Since these grads reached their desired goal the current way, we can assume that they aren’t necessarily inclined toward educational reform. So while isolated pundits may continue to complain in the media about the existing system, common media practices such as emphasizing a subject’s alma mater rather than his achievements in news interviews will likely continue. These practices perpetuate a condition wherein society values elitism over accomplishments.

This kind of thinking goes deeper than you might think. A local concert promoter once asked me to translate an essay about George Gershwin. The essay had been written by a Japanese music critic for a program booklet the promoter wanted to sell at performances of “Porgy and Bess.” The Gershwin family insists on approving all commercial merchandise associated with the opera, and demanded that the promoter provide them with an English translation of the booklet.

After I finished, a woman from the promoter’s office called and asked me to change a sentence about Gershwin being a high school drop-out. She wanted me to euphemize the sentence, since she was afraid the Gershwin family would be offended.

I explained that in the United States the fact that George Gershwin became the greatest American composer of the century without the benefit of higher education makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. Americans, in fact, love such stories. The woman accepted the explanation and left the sentence as it was, but I could tell she still wasn’t completely convinced.