A while back I attended yet another symposium on the ever-popular theme of internationalization in education and employment. It was a high-powered event, with corporate backers, a classy venue and guest speakers flown in from abroad. The place was packed.

One speaker was an executive from one of the top research universities in the United States (and the world). I am working from memory, but he said something like this: “Every month I get visited by a delegation from China. Each one asks the same question: ‘We have $10 billion and want to replicate [name of institution] in China. What should we do?’ I give them all the same response: ‘It’s actually quite easy but you probably can’t do it. Because you have to be willing to invest a lot of money in really talented and creative people and not tell them what to do.’ ”

The speaker was followed by a Japanese bureaucrat who talked about higher education. Again, I am working from memory, but he prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer: “I have never taught at or held a position of responsibility at a university, but in the course of my career I was appointed as vice-principal of a junior high school for three years.”

Perhaps he was just trying to appear humble, but it was hard to listen to anything that followed; the contrast was so depressingly stark, particularly when you consider that he had almost certainly been air-dropped into the vice-principal post from an elite perch at the education ministry, rather than having put in years of service in the trenches of middle school education. Even more depressing was the knowledge that the foreign speaker would jet back to the heady task of funding brilliance while the bureaucrat would soon be back at his desk in Kasumigaseki, doling out modest amounts of money to just about everyone while micro-managing what they did with it.

People often use words to mask their areas of insecurity. If you have ever found yourself at a party trying to politely disengage from someone who insistently describes themselves as “emotionally stable,” it’s probably because their very need to do so suggests they have issues. The late political scientist Samuel Finer noted a comparable phenomenon with political names: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a totalitarian hellhole, and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is — well, you get the picture. Anyway, once you have seen a certain number of conferences and programs about “excellence,” “globalization” and “innovation,” you start to wonder how deep this particular seam of insecurity runs.

Japan’s government has been flogging various forms of these agendas for rather a while. Yet, according to recent surveys, the number of recent college graduates who want to work abroad or start their own companies has actually decreased. Perhaps no policy can counteract the powerfully rational desire to seek a predictable, safe job (government service being a dependable favorite). Or perhaps the string just needs to be pushed a different way: Maybe a new exam will do the trick. Committee of experts ahoy!

To look at educational policy in action, you can’t help but wonder if insularity and mediocrity might actually be the goal. Not just any mediocrity, mind you, but high-quality, world-class mediocrity that performs well on standardized tests. Everyone says they want to encourage creativity and innovation, but “not telling them what to do” makes it hard to justify your budget if you can’t measure performance through objective, predictive systems that can squeeze the fun and creativity out of just about any learning (or teaching) experience.

I have a bias, of course, having spent the past decade in Japan’s law school system watching ambition, initiative, community service, innovation, creativity, internationalization and just about any other positive-sounding aspirations unintentionally (I hope!) stymied by perverse regulations and the hugely burdensome requirements of the national bar exam.

The bar exam is intended to filter out people who fail to achieve a pre-assumed “correct understanding” of the law. It involves a lot of memorization for the students, and requires all law schools to teach to a government-sponsored set of common curricular goals. This essentially puts the government in the position of telling law schools what is worthy of student attention in subjects such as constitutional and administrative law. Granted, I seem to be the only person who finds this even conceptually problematic, but the requirements of the exam render innovative thinking about law a waste of time for just about everyone involved. Perhaps the whole point is to ensure that anyone likely to challenge the conventional wisdom is branded a failure and kept away from the cockpit.

Anyway, mediocrity may not be all so bad; after all, it’s probably a lot easier to control than excellence and creativity. Encouraging people to have realistic, mediocre ambitions may well be a factor in Japan’s social order, and perhaps even contributed to its past economic success. Americans famously tell their children that anyone can become president but, of course, it’s usually a lie. Most Japanese learn pretty quickly that they are objectively average (just like most people in the world!), with evidence supporting the proposition — over and over through the constant cycle of standardized exams. If you have ever listened to a Japanese parent talk about their child’s prospects — with the child present — you can see how many people might accept their lot from an early age: “Hiroshi will never get into a school like Keio, because he is only getting X on his exam scores.”

As for the “telling them what to do” part of the educational process, that exerts itself long before university. Compulsory schooling has probably always been as much about control as quality. In the past it played a key role in the nation’s unification, modernization, militarization for war and mobilization for achieving the postwar economic miracle.

The Americans administering Japan during the postwar Occupation regarded educational reform as critical to democratizing the defeated nation. They introduced a U.S.-style system of elected school boards. These were easily dominated by vote-mobilizing teachers’ unions and by 1956 were replaced by the current system of more pliable appointed boards at both the municipal and prefectural level.

As often becomes the case with deliberative bodies in Japan, much of the actual control has come to be exercised by the jimukyoku, the bureaucracies that perform the administrative functions of each board. These are staffed by promising young teachers from the top educational faculty of their prefecture’s national university.

While designed around prefectural and local governments, the system has evolved into one that minimizes the autonomy of individual boards. Prefectural governments make personnel decisions about local schools, and the national government has a range of direct and indirect means of imposing policy.

For example, local school boards are supposedly free to choose the textbooks used in their schools. Restricting this freedom involves turning the constitutional right of children to be educated on its head and using it for control: Textbooks must be free, but since they are paid for with tax money, they must also be certified for “quality.” Moreover, it is more economically efficient if as many schools as possible use the same text. Quality and efficiency can thus be used to ensure schools use only a limited range of similar texts.

In 2013 the government ordered the school board of the town of Taketomi in Okinawa to use a right-slanted text it had previously rejected. The rationale was that schools in neighboring towns were using it so they should too. In reality the dispute was about how approved textbooks characterized the conduct of the Japanese military during the Battle of Okinawa, a sensitive subject in the prefecture.

The government also provides detailed curricular guidelines that schools are required to follow. Although not “law,” the Supreme Court in 1990 helpfully found that a teacher’s failure to follow the guidelines was analogous to a breach of law and thus suitable grounds for firing them.

So, students are told what to do by educators who are told what to do by bureaucrats who are told what to do by other bureaucrats: Respect other people’s views; the Constitution is wonderful; eat all your school meals; we need to change the Constitution. Everything is a certain way and much of it will be on the final exams. The multiple-choice questions have only one correct answer but you can be creative on the essay so long as you write it the expected way — the way you learned at cram school.

Somewhere along the line, children and adults alike may rationally conclude that it is just easier to stop asking “Why?” and learn to live with ambient cognitive dissonance: “Why do schools force their students to make human pyramids?”; “Why is it wrong for me to copy-paste big chunks of other people’s work into my Ph.D. thesis?”; “Why does my scientific research institute have so many ex-bureaucrats on its board of directors?”

Stop. Just asking “Why?” all the time can get annoying, and many of those to whom the question is directed may themselves have stopped thinking outside of the comfy, safe box that the system puts them in. How else can they respond except with some unsatisfying variant of “That’s just the way things are”?

Recently leaders have rightly taken to bragging about “Cool Japan” and the global appeal of their nation’s manga and anime. Perhaps they could spend some time reflecting on the likely correlation between the globally acknowledged creativity in such forms of expression and their relative freedom from government control. Such unbridled creativity could help Japan stay ahead in a world where it is becoming harder to compete in areas such as engineering skills and heavy industry.

Unfortunately, creativity may be fundamentally incompatible with the bureaucratic urge to quantify and control. Moreover, despite optimistic talk about innovation, entrepreneurship and recreating Silicon Valley in Japan, the forces behind this creativity-smothering urge will likely grow stronger.

For example, educational laws were recently amended to make individual university faculties weaker in relation to their deans. Supposedly about enhancing top-down innovation, it is a change that renders academia more amenable to centralized control. A proposal has also been floated by the LDP to subject schoolteachers to a national licensing requirement — another exam! Most recently, the government has announced that national universities should start preparing to shrink or even abolish their liberal arts faculties. Nothing innovative comes out of those disciplines, right?

Apparently Japan should have more engineers who can make things such as smartphones and robots. Perhaps the robots will become smart enough that they can take over innovation as well. They will certainly have the advantage of being numb to the relentless accumulation of small, petty, boring, illogical requirements that are such a powerful factor in stifling creativity, not to mention the human spirit itself.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Law of the Land appears on the second Monday Community Page of every month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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