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.


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