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Why can’t Japanese kids get into Harvard?

by Robert Dujarric and Yuki Allyson Honjo

Makoto Kobayashi, Toshihide Masakawa, Osamu Shimomura and Japan-born U.S. citizen Yoichiro Nambu won the 2008 Nobel Prize for their work in physics and chemistry. At first glance, Japan’s place as a global knowledge center is secure, but these individuals are the exception, rather than the rule. Indeed, Shimomura’s research was conducted at U.S. institutions and largely funded by U.S. grants for basic research.

For a country such as Japan, internationalization must start with education. Japan is an island nation, conversing in a language spoken nowhere else on our planet, with few immigrants and foreigners. Japanese universities have thus far failed to attract the best students from abroad, the only option is a foreign education. Therefore, to internationalize themselves, the Japanese must seek a foreign education. Internationalization must include the elite since they are the ones who will have the most influence on Japan’s future.

There are about 6.4 million college-age Japanese, compared to only 3.2 million for South Korea. Japan is also much richer, with per capita GDP more than twice Korea’s. Yet, there are 39 Koreans studying at Harvard College, compared with only five Japanese (excluding immigrants). Overall, Harvard University has nearly three times as many Koreans as Japanese.

Why are so few Japanese matriculating at Harvard College, or other U.S. Ivy League schools?

As Harvard graduates with an international background living in Japan, we have thought about this question for years. What we have discovered reveals the failure to internationalize: Japanese high school education, in our view, makes it almost impossible, even for extremely bright students with a superb work ethic, to be competitive in an Ivy League admissions process.

English is badly taught in Japan; therefore, even the best high school seniors are almost always well below the level necessary to survive in a U.S. college. Schools do not foster discussion and a debate in a give-and-take atmosphere. Consequently, Japanese high school graduates appear inarticulate to Americans.

Unlike the best U.S. high schools (from which most Ivy League students come), Japanese schools do not require their students to write long essays that demand both research and analytical skills. Consequently, Japanese students are also weak when it comes to written expression.

Finally, Japanese high schools lack the flexibility of their best American counterparts, making it difficult for a student with exceptional gifts to stand out from the crowd. Students are not encouraged to pursue their extracurricular passions — be it writing, sciences, business or art. In an extremely competitive applicant pool, Japanese students, even with excellent test scores, fail to distinguish themselves.

Moreover, Japanese high school students are not rewarded for pursuing an American education. In Korea, the establishment knows that the top American universities are better than Korean ones. Therefore, young Koreans returning to their country with prestigious U.S. bachelor’s degrees get the recognition they deserve.

In Japan, they will be welcomed with open arms by foreign-owned companies (a very small segment of the labor market) but generally not by Japanese institutions. Japanese employers fear that these overseas-educated returnees will resist assimilation into the rigid and communitarian atmosphere of Japanese institutions.

Moreover, the graduates of leading Japanese universities who run Japanese businesses know that by choosing an American school these young men and women are telling Japanese-educated executives “your (Japanese) alma mater isn’t as good as our (American) one.” Therefore, it is unfortunately logical for many Japanese students to avoid applying to colleges overseas.

Japan’s underrepresentation in Ivy League institutions is indicative of Japan’s growing insularity. As the rest of Asia is increasingly engaging the world in the exchange of ideas, Japan remains isolated. Unless the educational, political, and business establishment realizes that Japan must remedy this failure, “Japan passing” will relegate Japan to irrelevancy in the 21st century.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus. Yuki Allyson Honjo is senior vice president at Fox-Pitt, Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller.