Last week in Counterpoint I wrote about the three deep gaps crisscrossing this country, turning it into a kakusa shakai (society of disparities). These rifts, amply recognized today among the populace and in the media, are: the income, or wealth, gap; the goal gap; and the education gap.

Only one of these can bridge the other two. Only one of them is the vehicle that has the potential to propel Japan forward once again into the vangard of advanced nations. This is education.

There are many moves afoot to reform the creaking, rust-encrusted structures of tertiary education in Japan. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has been encouraging universities to bolster their international credentials by, among other means, vastly increasing the number of foreign teaching staff and the number of subjects taught in English. (Why, however, this ministry is wearing more hats than a Ringling Bros. circus clown is beyond me. It’s as if education today weren’t sufficient in itself to merit ministry status.)

The University of Tokyo has announced that, five years from now, it is planning to shift enrollment for undergraduates from spring to fall. This is being done to align university admission in Japan with that in European, American and Chinese universities.

It is hoped that most, if not all, Japanese universities will follow suit, and that this will lead to an enlargement of the foreign student body at them. At present, foreign students at the highly prestigious University of Tokyo make up less than 2 percent of the total of undergraduates. As for foreign teaching staff, the figure is below 7 percent.

The move from spring to fall admission would certainly bring Japan in line with the rest of the developed world. But is it only a case of rearranging the music stands of the band on the Titanic?

The fact is that the ship that is Japanese higher education has to be redesigned, from the engine room that powers it to the manual followed by staff. The biggest problem is that the ship is pointing in the wrong direction.

Most Japanese universities still treat students like ciphers in an equation that will figure favorably in the nation’s economic balance sheet. This was arguably a useful equation in an era when Japan’s postwar economy had to be refigured and rebuilt. Japanese university students needed to be trained, like soldiers, to be united in a strategic goal. Education was about giving young people skills applicable to nation-building as it was being led by huge manufacturing and trading firms. The salaryman — untiring, industrious and loyal — was the man (and, in rare cases, the woman) that students wanted to be. Not anymore.

Some two decades ago, the old blueprints for building up the nation were beginning to prove all but useless. And yet, the educational establishment has continued using them to erect their steel-and-glass towers.

What is to be done?

Reformers must look not only at scheduling issues for admission — but at the entire educational infrastructure and how it views students.

Students are admitted on the basis of the results of entrance exams that test rote-learned knowledge. There is little or no space for students to demonstrate their individual creativity. There is nothing wrong with using a standard test as a universal guide, so long as universities are given additional flexibility in choosing students by other means, such as recommendations, essays, interviews, etc.

Admissions officers should be looking not just for the tough private who can trudge along and get to the mountain, but for the agile-minded original thinker who will tell others where to go once they have arrived, and the visionary who will know which peak to head for in the first place.

This is society’s problem as a whole. Why would a university strive to produce iconoclastic thinkers when most companies still seem to ask for yes-men, yes-women and risk-averse followers?

The best and brightest are told, “You too will be in charge with your ideas in 20 or 30 years from now if you buckle down.” The trouble is: How do you retain your soaring ideas when you’ve been buckled down for 20 or 30 years? Your imagination will be stunted just as the imagination of the older generation was.

Both Japanese universities and Japanese companies have a hard time viewing the student and the young employee as a whole person. They are still considered ciphers in the bigger equation, despite the fact that that equation no longer adds up to success in the international market of things and ideas.

Nonetheless, everything still has to be directed toward the pragmatic and the “useful.” All the dots must be put down in a straight line. Kono michi hitosuji — keep on the “straight and narrow” all the way to the end.

In the case of foreign-language education, specifically that of English, university textbooks featuring literature or drama are rarities. Universities are training students to “communicate,” yes. They want them to be able to speak with non-Japanese online and to be competent business envoys of Japan. But I recall the student who once said to me, “I now speak fluent English, but I have nothing to say!” A foreign language is not a smartphone app. Once inside you, it grows as you do.

If you want to understand the Americans and know where they are coming from, read Langston Hughes and Thomas Wolfe and Tennessee Williams and Philip Roth, not the speeches of Ben Bernanke and Newt Gingrich. (On second thought, perhaps reading the latter’s speeches will give you insight into the mind of Americans — but which Americans will depend on which week’s speeches you read.)

What is necessary now in Japan is “whole-person education.” Students have cultural, as well as practical, needs; and it is these, when fulfilled, that will prepare them to take this country’s messages to the outside world and make them understood persuasively.

This whole-person notion applies to foreign teaching staff brought here as well. How many universities have effective housing offices to help foreign professors and their families settle in? Will they assist the professor’s partner in finding a job? Will they help professors get their children into an appropriate school?

Some years ago a major government institution — not an educational one, in this case — invited a British dramatist to Japan for three months, all expenses paid. They met her at the airport, took her to an apartment, handed her the key and a wad of money and then left her to fend for herself.

A week later, she phoned me in desperation. She didn’t know how to meet her counterparts in Tokyo. I was able to introduce her to a number of theater people here who took her under their wing. But such a thing was the responsibility of the institution that brought her to Japan.

Back to the educational front.

It’s fine to reschedule your semesters to bring them in line with international practice. But unless you take a more holistic approach to the personality, character and individual gifts of students, and the needs of invited teaching staff, the result will be the same old songs played by the same old band on the deck of the same old — slowly sinking — misguided ship of state.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.