A new government white paper calls into question the assumption that Japan’s impressive rankings on tests of international competition mean its students are optimistic about their future. The disconnect serves as a rebuttal to countries that are obsessed with these controversial exams.

Despite Japan’s ranking on the latest Program for International Student Assessment, which measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science every three years, only 61.6 percent of its students reported being hopeful about their prospects for a good life. This counterintuitive finding is puzzling only at first glance.

Japan’s education system since the end of World War II was built on cutthroat competition and high-stakes testing. Young people were imbued with the belief that good jobs awaited those with good scores on tests.

But this article of faith proved to be false when Japan’s economy imploded in the 1990s. At one point, one-third of workers were irregularly employed, including 70 percent of all female workers and half of all workers between 15 and 24. Seventy-seven percent of those irregularly employed earned wages less than poverty level.

Although the data are troubling, they are predictable. There is a distinct difference between a testing meritocracy and a talent meritocracy.

Japan’s schools are inordinately test-oriented at the expense of student creativity. In the new global economy, this has proved to be a decided liability.

Students feel they have been sold a faulty bill of goods. Intense discipline and study have not resulted in the good life they were promised. It’s little wonder that they are disaffected.

The same white paper reported that from 82.4 to 91.1 percent of students in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden and South Korea expressed far greater hope.

The U.S. stands out because of a paradox that began with the publication of two widely quoted documents. In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” warned that unless schools improved, the U.S. was economically doomed. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

This threat was reiterated in 1990 when the National Center on Education and the Economy issued “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.” It charged that public schools had failed to teach essential knowledge and skills, causing industrial production to “slow to a crawl.” But what followed was a quarter century of unprecedented economic growth in the U.S. that resulted in dazzling wealth creation and technological progress, despite the persistent lackluster ranking of its students on PISA.

Young people in Japan, like their counterparts in the U.S., have seen that high scores on tests have little to do with their job prospects. The difference, however, is that students in the U.S. have always maintained a healthy skepticism about what they were told. They’ve known that the honesty of capital markets, the accountability of corporations, sound fiscal policy, and heavy investment in research and development are more responsible for their economic prospects than the test scores they post.

Taking a cue from the U.S., Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to revitalize the economy by a mix of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and pro-growth measures. But he is facing an aging and shrinking population.

According to the Cabinet Office, Japan’s workforce is expected to decline by 41 percent from current levels to 38 million in the next four decades.

Perhaps that’s why Japanese students don’t share the optimism of their American counterparts. They know that there are factors beyond their control.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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