Education: What are we paying all the money for?

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.


Send comments on this issue and Hotline to Nagata-cho submissions of 500-700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • “Again, kids from well-to-do families are able to buy information denied those who are less wealthy.”

    That’s only because public schools create a monopoly on education for lower-middle class earners. They can’t afford to pay twice, once in tax and again in tuition. But if there were no public schools, there would be incentive for such low-cost private schools to exist and compete. You would then be free to choose the one that best suited your values and your child.

    • WithMalice

      “…if there were no public schools…”
      That’s a rather unusual stance to take.

      I think the point of this is that the ‘well-to-do’ schools aren’t peddling a better education, they’re just peddling status and perhaps better test preparation. Perhaps.

  • Mark Garrett

    “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.”

    LOL. You’ve obviously been in Japan too long. You’re being duped by the same nonsense that the rest of the sheep here have.

    Why do you fell obligated to place your child into a more expensive school?

    You would seriously change the buttons on your kid’s jacket and wear a certain color of slipper to appeal to the hierarchy of these institutions?? Shame on you!

    And what are these fine universities you allude to? By my count Japan has two that merit any kind of accolades. That means the overwhelming majority of great schools are located overseas, mostly in the U.S. and U.K.

    In this golden age of technology and the internet, there is no need to acquiesce to the slow death being administered to today’s youth in Japan. Homeschooling is a viable alternative that is gaining more and more traction worldwide.

    The biggest problem I’m dealing with as a parent is how to balance the needs of my child, who wants to be just like all of his friends, and the needs I feel are important for his adult life. I can promise you one thing though, I will not be entering my child into any institution that bases its decision on the material of his buttons!

  • Scott Durand

    Do you think after twenty years of economic stagnation, very little in the manner of new industry created and a real struggle to compete globally most people would look at change in the education system. Not Japan. A place where the rich just keep keepin on, and the rest work to consume for them.

  • japangone

    Why would any parent put their child through such a dreadful educational system (assuming they have a choice)? Home schooling is not really an answer, I fear, as your child willbe socially isolated, especially in a country of “groups” such as Japan. You should leave Japan and educate your children in a better place, for your child’s sake. IMO.

    • 思德

      Have you been home schooled? I know someone who has. Homeschooling parents network together and set up group activities. My friend had opportunities to be with other kids. The idea that homeschoolers are all socially deficient is a myth. Maybe a number of them are, but I think that would have to do with their parents more than anything else. And at any rate, if the public school system is failing to do its job, there is little to lose by trying to teach your child yourself. At least you know them better than any teacher (hopefully!).

      • Mark Garrett

        Thank you David. You beat me to it! I would even go so far as to say that the social aspects of typical Japanese schools can often be a detriment to learning, not to mention the potential for ostracism and bullying. We’ve all read far too many horror stories of where that kind of social interaction can lead.

        Homeschooling can be a tremendously rewarding or frustratingly difficult experience depending on the child and parent(s). The big difference with it and traditional schooling here is that the educators are handcuffed by a system that does not empower them and does not allow individuality or creativity in the classroom.

        Unless you live in true inaka, social isolation is not a worry. There is plenty of time for interacting with friends after school and on weekends.

      • WithMalice

        ” We’ve all read far too many horror stories of where that kind of social interaction can lead.”

        Are you really asserting that bullying is worse here than it is in Western countries? Mark… as a former teacher in a Western country, I can assure you – unfortunately – that bullying is a global issue. Not just one found in Japan (and yes, on at *least* the same scale).

      • Mark Garrett

        I don’t recall making any such assertion, but it’s quite apparent to even the most casual observer that what is going on here cuts far deeper than demanding lunch money and the occasional wedgie.

        Bullying (Iijime) in Japan is not only prevalent in all aspects of society, it is considered acceptable behavior. Bosses bully their employees, parents bully their children, coaches bully their athletes, and yes, teachers and students bully students. Very few, if any, developed countries allow the kind of abuse to take place in the workplace, home, or classroom that is commonly practiced here.

        You say you’ve taught in a western country. Then the differences should be quite apparent to you. Classrooms overcrowded with children that are forced to endure together in the same space all day long every day. Nomadic teachers that are merely infrequent short term guests lacking any semblance of will or interest to even see the problem no less address it.

        Ridiculous pressure put on pubescent bodies and underdeveloped minds to attain test scores that are believed to be the defining criteria for success in life.

        Is bullying a global issue? Of course. But I think you really need to look at how each society views it to determine where the problem is greatest, and that is where Japan is severely lacking. The indifference and even acceptance is profoundly troubling to me.

      • WithMalice

        Err… “you say you’ve taught”? No Mark, I have.

        You paint pictures of the worst of the worst schools here in Japan… I’d suggest you need to go back to wherever your homeland is, and have a gander at some of the very bad schools in your own nation.

        There are very, very few nations who can hold their education system up as a paragon of virtue and excellence.

        You say that bullying that occurs here that doesn’t happen in “developed countries”? Mark… I’m guessing you haven’t taught in a Western country? Or if you have, you’ve had a pretty charmed existence.

        Whilst I agree that there are different kinds of pressures on the youth of Japan (I’d hesitate to say *worse* or *better*), to insinuate that bullying in Western or “developed countries” amounts to nothing more than “demanding lunch money and the occasional wedgie” is at best… ill-informed.

      • Mark Garrett

        I really don’t want to get into a meaningless spat with you over the breadth of our knowledge on the subject of bullying. You seem like a fairly intelligent and informed chap. I do take umbrage though with your knack for twisting my words to fit your supposition. If you’d like to disagree with me that’s fine, but let’s stick to facts please.

        Let me clarify for you, again. I never said that bullying that occurs here (Japan) doesn’t happen in developed countries. Where do you make that leap?? What I said was that very few allow it, as in condone, approve, accept. That is the distinction I draw between the problem here and the problem elsewhere. Teachers, coaches, and even parents not only allow it here, they often times encourage and even participate in it.

        I’d really like to get back on topic though as the point of my original post is that regardless of the degree to which bullying takes place here, in my country, or in yours, home schooling is an alternative. Is that something we can agree on?

      • WithMalice

        Fair ‘nough… I took –
        “the social aspects of typical Japanese schools can often be a detriment to learning, not to mention the potential for ostracism and bullying.”
        “Very few, if any, developed countries allow the kind of abuse to take place in the classroom that is commonly practiced here.”

        – to be intended as commentary about Japan, specifically.

        I do agree with you that sometimes – and this seems to be prevalent in sport – there’s a very “old school” (read “downright nasty”) demeanor with regards to what’s acceptable (and generally… very little of it is).

        I can’t really comment on homeschooling, as I’ve had very little experience with it. My one key worry would be the degree to which the *teacher* is qualified, and the socialization aspect. Also… conflict resolution. Not to do with bullying, but more the garden variety disagreements that kids encounter – and get through in a positive manner – on a daily basis.

      • Mark Garrett

        Regarding homeschooling, you’re right about the teacher qualifications, and I feel the same way which I stated, however the very same case can be made for public schools, especially here in Japan. I think “facilitators” is a better word to describe what their role in child development is.

        Again, the social aspect is a commonly voiced concern but it is far more myth than reality. Unless you’re living in a cabin in the woods, there are ample opportunities for kids to meet up and interact outside of the classroom. I think there’s also sufficient means to teach and be taught conflict resolution without being subjected to daily torment from undisciplined peers, teachers, and coaches.

        There will be pros and cons to everything and there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, contrary to popular belief in Japan. Personally I’m taking a wait and see attitude with my son. As long as he’s enjoying school then I think it’s good for him.

        To be honest, and I’m certainly in the minority here, I really don’t care in the least about rankings or test scores. There is simply no correlation between a good exam result and happiness in life. I think too many people lose sight of what’s really important. Why do we need a good education? To get a good job? Why do we need a good job? To get money? For what? Happiness? Why spend the better part of your childhood and the majority of your adult life being miserable just so you can afford to be happy once or twice a year? I’ll never understand that.

      • WithMalice

        A lot of the issues you describe, are exactly the same in Western nations…

      • japangone

        If you are homeschooled in Japan, you will undoubtedly be socially isolated. That’s such an obvious point that it doesn’t even merit discussion, to be honest. Japan is a country where pretty much all social relationships are cultivated within institutions, and pretty hierarchical ones at that. Perhaps homeschooling in other countries is a reasonable idea, but not in Japan. Then again, Public and private schooling are not great ideas in Japan either! (IMO)

  • Anders Gronlund

    From what I’ve heard from japanese people themselves, when the japanese finally get into university they study very little, if at all. And the name of the univeristy is much more important than the subject. So if you want to get into finance it is OK to study law as long as the university is famous. So the education as such does not seem important.
    I think it would be wiser to let the japanese kids have a fun and healthy childhood and gradually study harder and make the biggest effort once they get into university and while there, study a subjuct that is in line with their future job.

  • WithMalice

    Welcome to Japan’s true caste system. And one that ensures the continuation of the nation’s global decline.

  • トム ( Tom )

    I love your article… As a future parent I really need to start thinking where I want to raise a family

  • Captain Obvious

    I live in Japan now with my wife and our two year old son. We will be fleeing Japan before our boy’s brain is assaulted by the Japanese education system. It sucks royally. Change will never come because only loyal drones get promoted to decision making positions. And no one in authority makes decisions, they just follow precedent.

  • Captain Obvious

    Also, one great scam that is not mentioned. Private schools are funded in part by public money. How wrong is that???

  • Eric

    As an Eikaiwa- owner, I must say- Shhhh!!!! Are you trying to run me out of business? My whole business principle is based on the current attitude toward education!
    All kidding aside- I teach my kids to be creative individuals at home, and to “fit in the box” – if they want to- at school. They are pretty normal. I also don’t care if they go to university if they are more interested in a trade than an office job. It would be a waste of money to go to Keio or Waseda and become a bakery owner or a cabinet maker. If they are happy and can support themselves, I am happy.

  • Mark Mitchell

    Isn’t this article completely backwards? The best universities and high schools in Japan are public. Tokyo Univ. , Nagoya Univ. etc. The best three high schools in my area are also public.

  • kyushuphil

    We just had another suicide of the kids at the high school where I teach.

    This kid was the best in his class. Very kind, quiet, and sensitive, he was also the smartest — and he lived in isolation — just did not have the strength or ability to reach out to the others all who’d bought in to the mindlessless.

    Japan has many great, great individuals — read Alex Kerr’s “Lost Japan.” But the schools organize to kill that. So sad to see, so even now the death of another good kid has the stat of suicide, when we’d call it institutional murder, if we had any schools capable of asking real questions.

  • J. Ricohermoso

    I understand how you feel. I am a parent of three kids and with less resources. However, my wife and I have decided to nurture our kids’ abilities and encourage academic advancement by giving them more freedom and assistance as we see fit.

    My eldest is now a freshman in a university in the Kansai region. We are thankful to God for His blessing, allowing her to enter university in a manner that is so different from the conventional path you described in this article.

    Certainly, there is a better way to develop talent and cost shouldn’t be equated with success.

  • Yet again, a bunch of mewling about rote learning and the Japanese education system. A cursory glance at my son’s English syllabus this week reveals lessons that cover the passive and various applications of the subjunctive clause. I fail to see how these useful tools of communication can be construed as useless facts. The geometry test he brought home posed various problems followed by blank spaces on which he was to demonstrate the ability to calculate various things such as the area of a circle . The drills he did in class and repeated as homework enabled him to demonstrate that knowledge on the test. How is this bad? Besides academics he learns social skills by being given responsibilities such as cleaning or taking his turn as a class representative. I’m originally from Canada, which has a very good education system…However, I feel much more confident with my son and daughter in a Japanese school. Two plus two equals four anywhere you are, the discipline and care kids get in Japanese schools makes them the preferred choice for me.

    • Mark Garrett

      Good luck with that.

  • SwedishreaderKristinehamn93

    Education should be for free so every one can learn the same things as someone else. In Sweden, for example, it’s the community who pay for the education for any child no matter who they are.