For the past two decades, the education ministry has worked hard to reform Japan’s university system. In fiscal 1991, the ministry adopted the policy of giving priority to postgraduate programs, leading a number of national universities to change gakubu — traditional undergraduate-level entities such as schools of engineering, medicine, economics, literature, etc. — into research departments (kenkyu-ka).

Under this change, gakubu teachers started to teach at graduate school kenkyu-ka, and graduate school teachers started to teach at gakubu.

In the past, all universities in Japan — be they national, prefectural, municipal or private — had gakubu as their research core. Postgraduate programs were regarded as subordinate to gakubu. In gakubu for liberal arts and humanities especially, only a small portion of students sought to advance to postgraduate curricula. The majority of those who did move on wanted to pursue academic careers.

One development that prompted the ministry to place greater emphasis on postgraduate programs was the requirement that job applicants to the United Nations and other international organizations have a master’s degree. Because there were not many students with postgraduate degrees in Japan, the number of posts filled at such organizations by Japanese citizens was not proportional to the amount of money that the Japanese government was giving to the organization.

Many young Japanese aspired to work at international agencies, but the lack of a postgraduate degree proved to be a stumbling block.

For this reason, the law school at the University of Tokyo was among the first national institutions to start strengthening its postgraduate programs. Many other national universities followed, after filing applications with the education ministry to expand their postgraduate curricula.

As a result, many national universities were allowed to increase student quotas at the postgraduate level. The education ministry demanded that these expanded quotas be filled. Those universities that could not fill them with their own students were forced to recruit graduates from other universities or students from other countries. For their part, private universities also increased postgraduate student quotas in an effort to qualify for larger government subsidies.

This emphasis on postgraduate education might have appeared on the surface as an effort to emulate the U.S. system, but it had big problems.

American high school students wishing to enter college or university take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is similar to a nationwide test taken by their Japanese counterparts. The difference is that American universities screen the applicants not just by the results of this test but by other criteria such as high school grades, letters of recommendation from teachers, extracurricular activities, hometown location, gender and ethnicity.

Another major difference between Japanese and American universities is that the latter do not have entities whose requirements correspond to those of Japanese university gakubu. The gakubu system is rigid: Once students enroll in a gakubu, they must pursue a particular undergraduate program curriculum until they complete it.

In the United States, upon entering university, a student is free to choose his or her “major” and “minor” subjects of study. If, after a while, one loses interest in a declared major or can’t do the work, he or she may switch majors — say, from mathematics to biology or economics. This flexibility stems from American primary and secondary education not being as rigidly programmed as in Japan and from the fact that American students don’t start learning the basics of a specific academic field until after they enter university.

While pursuing the four-year undergraduate program, American students may find that they are suited for certain academic careers. If so, they may go on to graduate school to receive academic training directly connected with the careers they aspire to.

There are a variety of postgraduate institutes, including law school, medical school, engineering school, business school, or the graduate school of arts and sciences. Applicants for these institutions are screened on the basis of a national test score, undergraduate scholastic records, letters of recommendation, gender and ethnicity. In addition, students from abroad must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

This American education system forms the qualification standard for various international organizations that require applicants to have pursued a program leading to a master’s degree. Such requirements derive from the notion that, in the U.S., students are not expected to possess any degree of professional knowledge unless he or she has obtained at least a master’s degree.

By contrast, Japanese students receive a rather advanced professional education before their postgraduate years. Upon entering university at 18, a student stands at the crossroads of choosing a gakubu whose curriculum is directly connected with his or her future career.

Giving priority to postgraduate programs was a mistake. The education ministry blundered by overlooking the fundamental differences between the Japanese and American education systems. In shifting the emphasis to postgraduate programs, the ministry should have abolished gakubu altogether. Maintaining gakubu just put a fifth wheel on a carriage.

The ministry has made other mistakes such as creating postgraduate institutions for training “advanced-level professionals” — law schools, business schools, schools of public policy and the like. The poor results of this policy now speak for themselves.

In the first place, those with doctorate degrees are finding it hard to find jobs. When a university announces it will hire an associate professor or a lecturer, it receives scores of applications. The only good thing the ministry has done on this score is to provide huge sums of money to subsidize big research projects that allow universities to hire researchers with Ph.D.s for one to three years.

As for Japanese companies, they are not keen to hire people with postgraduate degrees, especially Ph.D.s., because their research work often involves such limited areas that it is unlikely that they will be interested in corporate research projects.

Second, recent graduates of four-year universities are more desirable for Japanese companies because the applicants have received a fairly advanced technical education at an age when their minds are considered malleable. In company entrance exams, four-year university graduates are said to fare better than those who have finished postgraduate work, especially in social science-related jobs. Generally speaking, undergraduate students have shown greater competence than graduate students at almost any university.

Third, those who advance to graduate schools hoping to become scholars are greatly troubled by the deteriorating teaching standards. Again, this shows that the education ministry’s shift in emphasis to postgraduate programs has contributed to lower academic and scientific standards in Japan.

The lack of foresight on the part of the ministry is particularly obvious in its haphazard creation of law schools whose quotas total more than 5,000 students. The ministry ignored the fact that Japan, where people, for example, usually do not concern themselves with the details of contracts, does not need as many lawyers as the U.S.

Indeed, at the request of bar associations, the number of students passing the bar exam has been limited to fewer than 2,000 per year. At present, it is not easy even for those who have passed the bar exam to find a job practicing law.

In short, the education ministry has seriously erred. It has changed the Japanese education system for the worse in total disregard of the differences between Japan and the U.S., simply to try to imitate American practices.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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