On Nov. 8, the results of the 2023 sitting of Japan’s national bar exam (NBE) were announced. A pass rate of just over 45% brought it close to the California State bar exam, the United States’ most difficult, with a recent pass rate of 51.5%. Still, considering that pass rates for the NBE hovered between 1% and 4% for decades, the recent score may seem like a great improvement. In fact, it is the latest in a more complex, less upbeat saga.

The NBE was revamped with the opening of graduate professional law schools in 2004. The pass rate on the “new” NBE was 48% at its first sitting in 2006, though it immediately declined in the years that followed before bottoming out at 22.6% in 2014. It then recovered to the 40%-plus rates that have prevailed since 2021.

This progression might seem to tell a story of challenges in legal education that were overcome. In fact, it is more a story of triumph in making legal education unattractive.