Commentary / Japan

Fix Japan's misallocation of human resources

by Takamitsu Sawa

Medical schools at universities are becoming unprecedentedly popular among high school students seeking to advance to higher education. Many high schools’ websites exhibit not only the number of graduates who have successfully entered well-known national, public and private universities, but also how many have been admitted into medical schools at national and public institutions.

A medical school boom first started in the United States in the late 1960s and spread to Japan around 1970, apparently reflecting a transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Thereafter the medical school boom kept overheating in Japan and career guidance teachers at high schools pushed outstanding students to take the entrance exams of medical schools irrespective of their will.

In the 1960s, natural sciences and engineering were the leading forces of society. Students majoring in engineering, physics and chemistry were lionized as being instrumental in achieving technological innovations, which would contribute to achieving rapid economic growth. High school students throughout the country yearned to join the engineering and natural science departments at the University of Tokyo, the electric and electronic engineering department at Kyoto University and the science department at Kyoto University, which produced Hideki Yukawa and Shinichiro Tomonaga, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1949 and 1965, respectively.

In those days, Kyoto University made the highest and lowest scores of successful applicants in each department public. The lowest scores of students enrolled in its medical school were relatively high, but the highest scores were rather low. That is, the “common sense” among high school students in the 1960s was that the most talented students must seek to study natural sciences and engineering.

During the period of rapid economic expansion that began in July 1958, educating large numbers of young men and women in natural sciences and engineering was considered an essential part of the nation’s so-called growth strategy. The government’s 1960 plan to double national income in 10 years gave top priority to improving and expanding natural sciences and engineering departments at universities. The expansion of these departments at national universities was so fierce that at Kyoto University engineering majors accounted for one-third of first-year students.

Thus the nationwide endeavor to promote education in natural sciences and engineering bore fruit as brilliant high school students from all corners of the country flocked to study those subjects in the 1960s.

The impact of this trend came to the fore after a time lag. The international competitiveness of Japan’s manufacturing companies dramatically improved, leading Ezra Vogel to write his 1979 book, “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America.” Japan’s economy continued its rapid advances in the 1980s, leading the world in sectors such as electric appliances, automobiles, electronic devices and machine tools.

The shape of a nation is determined by how its human resources are distributed. In the early 1960s, Japan experienced a boom in the study of natural sciences and engineering, which led to the creation and expansion of departments of these disciplines at national universities, with many talented students from across the country majoring in physics, chemistry and engineering.

The most talented among them advanced to postgraduate courses and became world-renowned researchers. A number of young genius-type researchers were invited to teach at leading American universities as professors. It seems reasonable to assume that one Japanese scholar after another winning Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry since the turn of the century is the noticeable result of promoting natural sciences and engineering education in the 1960s.

Those who majored in natural sciences and engineering in their undergraduate and postgraduate days subsequently found jobs in manufacturing firms and devoted their knowledge and talent to technological innovation. They became the driving force that made Japan a global manufacturing powerhouse.

The Japanese economy reached its apex in the 1980s. In those years, those who entered universities in the 1960s were in their 30s and 40s, and in the prime of their careers. The outstanding members of these generations played key roles in bringing prosperity to Japan as engineers.

But under Japan’s unique labor practices such as seniority-based pay and promotion as well as lifetime employment, it was technically difficult to give appropriate financial rewards to the engineers who enabled their employers to make huge profits through their innovations. For this reason, in the early 1970s, the boom of natural sciences and engineering ground to a halt as the natural sciences and engineering departments lost their power to attract brilliant students, and was replaced by the boom in medical schools.

The end of the boom in natural sciences and engineering education led to the decline of Japan’s manufacturing industry — again after a time lag. The electric equipment sector, which once earned the largest trade surplus among Japanese industries, has been on a steady decline since hitting its peak in 1997. Apart from the U.S., which from the beginning dominated the field of information and communication-related software business, the electronics makers of South Korea, China and Taiwan have made rapid advances.

For nearly two decades since the turn of the century, South Korea and China have invested heavily their national budgets into the research of advanced technologies and pushed for their development. Today Japan lags behind these countries not in only fields such as ICT (information and communications technology) devices like smartphones and tablets, but batteries, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, which are key to the development and performance of electric vehicles.

Japan’s failure can perhaps be attributed to overlooking the impact of its human resources retreat from natural sciences and engineering, and from the manufacturing sector. In other words, the government’s failure to make efforts to turn engineering and scientific research into attractive jobs for younger people or professions that they yearn to join is the root cause of the Japanese economy losing its vigor.

There are four factors that underpin the medical school boom. First, doctors enjoy extremely high job security. Second, even doctors employed by medical institutions earn relatively high incomes. Third, treating illnesses and saving lives gives doctors a sense of mission. And fourth, doctors enjoy a high social status.

The flocking of high school students who excel in mathematics and physics to medical schools instead of natural sciences and engineering schools is an utter misallocation of human resources because skills in math or physics are hardly required for anyone seeking to become a clinical physician or even an expert in basic medicine.

Should such students follow career guidance at their schools and enter medical schools, it is certain they will become frustrated because there are no opportunities to give full play to their math and physics talent. Indeed, quite a few students who, after graduating from the medical schools of the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University and obtaining their medical licenses, switch to fields such as information science, artificial intelligence or business administration, where they can fully utilize their talent in math and physics.

Japan cannot hope to revitalize its economy without first rectifying the misallocation of highly valuable human resources that started around the mid-1970s. In order for Japan to regain its international competitive edge, which it has lost in the high-tech sector, it is essential to reboot the natural sciences and engineering boom by adopting a policy of offering due rewards to high-tech professionals.

Takamitsu Sawa is vice director of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture.