Media reports say Japan’s education bureaucrats are considering allowing students with “stellar” academic records to graduate from high school before they turn 18. In other words, the required three-year stint at high school might be cut to two.

In most countries, allowing university entry before age 18 would be seen as something quite normal, or even as desirable for bright math or science students. But not in Japan, at least to date.

Allowing bright students to enter university before age 18 has long been seen as rather dangerous. What would happen to group harmony in the high schools where everyone is supposed to move up together? And how about the individual concerned being seen as the nail that sticks out and facing severe discrimination?

In the late 1990s I found myself involved with an attempt by Chiba University to allow entry for bright 17-year-olds in math and science. A very conservative Education Ministry had finally given reluctant permission, but only as a test case and with strict conditions. The university first had to set up complex procedures to select the students. Those chosen had to be given special “care” after entry.

In 1997, after a nationwide search, we found 11 candidates from which three were selected. The fuss and bother was so great that the university president who had initiated the scheme was voted out of office. Yet, one of our select entrants was later accepted for Ph.D. physics research at MIT. He told a newspaper interviewer: If not for the Chiba University initiative, he probably would have ended up on the Tokyo University elite bureaucrat conveyer belt.

In 2000 I found myself on another committee, this time to reform university education as part of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s National Peoples Conference on Education Reform (Kyoiku kaikaku Kokumin kaigi). Some of us tried to get permission for early university entry accepted as national policy and not just as an exception to the rule. But once again the education bureaucrats intervened, insisting that an education law made 18 the minimum age for university entry. There was a dramatic moment when Foreign Minister (and later education minister), Nobutaka Machimura, faced down the bureaucrats and barked: “Well, change the law.” And change they did, a year later, to allow entry at age 17.

But once again there was the demand for special selection and “care.” Only a handful of universities have so far responded. Meanwhile, Japan wonders why it falls behind in the genius stakes.

During a long career in Japanese education, I have seen many other examples of the conservatism and bureaucratic rigidity that stifles individual talent in this otherwise worthy nation. I once found myself on an education ministry committee set up to recommend stricter grading standards for university students (it was no secret that many universities would graduate almost anyone who would pay the necessary fees). After going through the list of possibilities — greater use of GPA averages, stricter final graduation exams and so on — we were blandly told by the bureaucrats that any university that refused to graduate a student could be sued. Why? Because when it received the usual large fee for entry it was implicitly entering a contract to educate and graduate, no matter how bad the student was.

This time it was left to Orix Chairman Yoshihiko Miyauchi to blow the whistle: “Well, why are we wasting time here if graduation is guaranteed regardless of what standards we set?” The bureaucrats mumbled something about hoping university educators would need to realize their moral responsibility to improve standards, and left it at that.

For a long time, I had thought things might change if employers looked more at graduation results rather than the name of the graduating university when hiring people, only to be told by a captain of industry on one of the several business committees set up in the mid-’90s to consider education reform (the businessmen were said to be suffering from the low quality of graduates): “My company does not look at graduation results. We do not need swots (gariben). We want students with a good record of club and sports activities.” The final recommendation from that committee was that firms should allow fathers at least one night free to go home early and have dinner with their children.

What to do? Ultimately it is a matter of creating the right study incentives. For some years now I have been involved in helping set up a new university trying to establish such incentives. Fortunately it has been able to ride the current boom in “international education” — in our case all teaching is in English and one year of overseas study is compulsory — to the point where it now ranks with the top Japanese universities in terms of student quality and entrance difficulty.

But Japan should look further than these short-term fixes. I see good postgraduate education as the key. As job hopping increases, employers will want increasingly to employ mature people with professional qualifications rather than taking immature university graduates and trying to mold them with in-house training and company indoctrination. As in the United States they will look to the top postgraduate schools to provide their future managers.

Once that happens many things change. To get into the top postgraduate schools good undergraduate results become important. Those results are not created by artificial entrance exams into so-called elite universities at age 18, as in Japan at the moment. They can only come from three-four years of hard undergraduate study. Automatically the incentive problem at undergraduate level is solved.

As for so-called international education, that should be focused only on those who genuinely want it. Here again, the U.S. and some other Western nations provide the model with their systems of double degrees or majors and minors. Students would choose both a discipline — economics, law, etc. — and a language for three-four years of concentrated study. And the language would not have to be English. Hopefully some will choose some of the other languages — Chinese especially — crucial for Japan’s future.

Gregory Clark was president of Tama University after serving as professor of economics and comparative culture at Tokyo’s Sophia University. He was vice president and is now trustee of Kokusai Kyoyo (Akita International) University. During his career in diplomacy, journalism and education he has had to learn to speak and read Chinese, Russian, Japanese and Spanish.

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