For more than 130 years, the University of Tokyo has been unrivaled as the gateway to elite careers for thousands of hopeful candidates who pass the exam to get in.
Established by the Meiji government, the university commonly called Todai was established as the nation’s first national university. Its mandate was to produce great minds to enable Japan to catch with the West. Graduates of law, in particular, have traditionally gone on to hold key positions in government.
But recently, observers say the school is losing its hitherto uncontested prestige as employers look for qualitative skills in employees and its graduates branch out into careers other than the bureaucracy.
Following are some questions and answers about the University of Tokyo:
What is the University of Tokyo’s reputation in Japan?
The school was originally bent on churning out elite-track bureaucrats to lead Japan’s development and catch up with the Western powers. Todai graduates have filled top bureaucratic positions since the Meiji Era, particularly those from its law school.
“The shining brand of a Tokyo law graduate was the magic key to opening the door to the powerful elite,” journalist Yo Mizuki writes in his book “University of Tokyo Law Department.”
Climbing to the top of the bureaucratic ladder without Todai law credentials has been difficult, he writes. In fact, about a quarter of Japan’s 59 prime ministers studied law at the university.
Todai law graduates have also traditionally dominated the business world, Mizuki writes, noting they have often filled the presidency of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren).
Todai graduates outnumber those from other schools in passing the notoriously competitive civil service examinations and legal examinations, according to the “2010 University rankings,” published by the Asahi Shimbun.
Last year saw 224 Todai graduates pass the civil service tests in administration, law and finance, compared with 67 from prestigious Waseda University, which is also in Tokyo.
Last year, 200 Todai graduates passed the bar examination, outclassing their closest competitors from Tokyo’s Chuo University, who numbered 196.
Why do some say Todai is losing its sheen?
In recent years it appears some of the best and brightest are electing to go to other schools, and graduates from other institutions are making inroads into leadership positions in government and politics.
In 1993, then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa ordered government ministries to employ fewer Todai graduates in an effort to diversify the backgrounds of bureaucrats to create a government that could cope more flexibly with quickly changing economic and international situations.
The 1990s also saw a raft of corruption scandals embroiling elite bureaucrats, severely damaging their social reputation, and they were also targeted by various deregulatory measures to dilute their power.
With the bureaucracy’s long-lasting cache on the wane, Todai graduates began to pursue other avenues for elite careers, including the fields of law and finance.
According to the university, more than 27 percent of its law students who graduated in March 2008 joined the finance and insurance sectors, while fewer than a quarter pursued the civil service.
Of all the 2008 graduates, only 14 percent chose the civil service, fewer than those who went into manufacturing or information technology and communications, while 25 percent were employed at financial or insurance firms.
Journalist Yo Mizuki said this is because jobs in law and finance enjoy relative independence from the system, and foreign firms have a less vertical organizational structures and pay higher salaries.
How does Todai stack up with top universities overseas?
According to the Times Higher Education, a London magazine noted for its annual rankings of the world’s universities, Todai came in 19th last year. The rest of the top 20 was dominated by U.S. and U.K. schools. Todai has maintained its position in the top 20 for the last few years, creeping into the top 10 in engineering and IT in subject-specific lists.
The ranking measures the international esteem of each school’s research as well as academic peer reviews, employers’ ratings of graduates, staff-to-student ratio and quota of international staff and students.
By comparison, Kyoto University ranked 25th and Osaka University 44th. The University of Hong Kong is the highest ranking Asian institution outside Japan, at 26th place.
What about the reputation of Todai graduates among employers in the private sector?
Todai graduates may not be the most sought after by Japanese employers in the private sector, according to a 2006 survey by Shukan Diamond magazine.
The survey ranked Todai’s science department sixth. Its literature department came in even lower, at 20th, based on an evaluation of “useful” graduates.
Waseda’s departments in these fields, meanwhile, ranked highest in the survey of 563 human resources managers who responded to a poll sent to 4,500 major companies.
Keio’s literature department ranked third.
According to Shukan Diamond, what employers look for most in workers are qualities such as positiveness and cheerfulness as well as fundamental academic ability, activeness and communications skills.
How did Todai start, how has it changed and what is the current makeup of its student body?
Established by the Meiji government in 1877 on the former estate of an Edo Period feudal family, the university was the result of merging two governmental schools, specializing in Western studies and medicine. The purpose of Todai’s founding was to produce top minds to modernize Japan.
Initially named the University of Tokyo, the school was renamed Imperial University near the end of the 19th century, then quickly afterward Tokyo Imperial University. After the war, it reverted to its original name.
In the years after World War II, coeducation was introduced as well as the present undergraduate and graduate systems.
Todai students were at the heart of the peace activist movement in the 1960s.
Todai now has a student body of 30,000, including graduate students, attending classes at its three campuses in Komaba, Meguro Ward, Hongo, Bunkyo Ward, and Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture.
Females constitute 20 percent of the undergraduates, numbering between 2,700 and 2,800 each year for the last decade.
In recent years, there have been roughly three or four applicants per one undergraduate opening.
What is the foreign representation like at Todai?
International students have been increasing steadily in recent years, from 1,924 in 1999 to 2,444 in 2008, accounting for about 15 percent of the roster. In comparison, Harvard University has 3,800 international students.
Chinese account for almost 30 percent of Todai’s foreign students, followed by South Koreans at 23 percent. Europeans constitute 9 percent and North Americans 3 percent.
According to Hiroshi Komiyama, the university’s president until last March, Todai needs to attract more Indian and Chinese students.
“The weapons are lesson fee exemption, distribution of scholarships and improvement of student lodgings,” he writes in his book “I will tell you about the University of Tokyo.”
Although Japan has overtaken the U.S. in recent years in the number of Chinese students, now around 80,000, “we are still losing against the U.S. in terms of quality,” Komiyama said.
The U.S. attracts around 50,000 Chinese students each year, he added.
Who are key Todai alumni?
Graduates include writer Yukio Mishima and Nobel Prize in literature laureates Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.
Other Nobel laureates include the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and physicist Yoichiro Nambu.
Todai graduates among leading politicians include Yukio Hatoyama, president of the Democratic Party of Japan and the likely candidate to be the next prime minister, and his brother Kunio, former justice and internal affairs ministers, as well as labor and welfare minister Yoichi Masuzoe.
Astronaut Soichi Noguchi, singer Tokiko Kato and theater director Hideki Noda are also graduates of the University of Tokyo.