Japanese Higher Education in Transition?

Observing the Dynamics of Reform

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 6, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2006). First published in ejcjs on 10 January 2006.

Eades, J.S., Goodman, Roger and Hada, Yumiko (eds) (2005) The 'Big Bang' in Japanese Higher Education Reform: The 2004 Reforms and the Dynamics of Change, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press. Paperback, 337 pages. References, Notes, Index. ISBN: 1876843233.

Lee-Cunin, Marina (2004) Student Views in Japan: A Study of Japanese Students' Perceptions of Their First Years at University, St. Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago and Rochdale, UK: Fieldwork Publications. Paperback, 310 pages. References, Notes. ISBN: 095472450X.

In common with many other countries around the world the Japanese government has for some years now sought to reform its system of higher education. Moreover, it appears to have begun to address this seriously through a series of measures, with the 2004 dokuritsu gyōsei hōjinka (the process of converting the universities into independent administrative institutions – or IAI) being the most significant step so far. Jerry Eades, Roger Goodman and Yumiko Hada in their edited collection, in recognition of its potential to herald deep-seated changes to the whole system of education in Japan, which also has repercussions for the whole of Japanese society, have borrowed from the terminology of financial reform in the UK to term this process and their book, The 'Big Bang' in Japanese Higher Education.

Given the complex and multi-dimensional nature of its subject matter the book is long, and is divided into 14 chapters written by a broad range of experts from Japan, the UK and the USA (see below for a list of chapters and authors). At 323 pages it is a detailed examination of 'the dynamics of change' in Japan's system of higher education. However, 'long' does not mean tiring, since the research and analysis contained in the book is timely, well thought out, and challenging to both the reader and the system itself.

Getting the ball rolling, Roger Goodman introduces the book's tone and lays out its themes and chapters by asking the reader to consider, 'W(h)ither the Japanese university?' The book continues in a similar vein throughout by peeling back layer upon layer of historical, political, economic, systemic, cultural and behavioural aspects of Japan's university system to leave the reader in no doubt that, first, the system is, and has been for quite some time, decaying from within and, second, that it will take some considerable time before we shall know whether the reforms have been successful in achieving what they claim to be aimed at solving. This is not to say that the authors of this volume believe the system to be ungovernable or unreformable; just that, on the whole, they appear to think that the system is in serious need of improvement.

Selecting only some of what the book has to offer, the chapters by McVeigh, Kinmonth, Walker, and Bachnik especially convey to the reader the notion that 'higher education' might be considered to be, at least as it is practised among the broad mass of non-élite institutions, and in the words of McVeigh's (2002) earlier work on the subject, a 'myth'. In examining the internationalisation of Japanese higher education, Walker refers to much of Japan's higher education system as an 'intellectual wasteland' (p. 181) and, as a concomitant to this, Japan as 'a society in decline' (p. 180). Reviewing the history of the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the institutions of higher education, McVeigh calls Japan's universities 'superfluous institutions' (p. 88). And looking into the relationship between Japan's declining population and the economics of Japan's private universities, which by far outnumber public institutions, Kinmonth (p. 128) bemoans a system of entry which has 'resulted in engineering students who have not studied physics and medical students who have not studied biology.' Kinmonth concludes by predicting that:

A small number of people from relatively affluent backgrounds will work hard during primary and secondary education to gain admission to the small number of private colleges that can maintain selectivity, while a vastly larger number will coast through primary and secondary education before spending four years at institutions that represent 'higher education' in name only. (p. 130).

Significantly, in terms of the subject matter of the whole volume, in the penultimate chapter Bachnik examines the implementation of information technology systems in Japanese universities as a case study in how the reforms are being carried out in actual practice. She shows, quite brilliantly in my opinion, how the reforms themselves are being used as a screen behind which existing hierarchies of power, money, and knowledge are, perversely, being reinforced and further entrenched. She concludes by saying, '(t)o the extent that it preserves, rather than challenges, the status quo, the IAI reforms appear to be thwarting the very reform process it is intended to initiate.'

Although the rest of the book is also very informative and interesting, and not as hard-hitting as the above mentioned chapters, intellectually speaking at least, it is these four chapters that, I would argue, represent the pivot around which the book is arranged. For it is in these pages that the multiple layers of oblique obfuscation, self-serving rhetoric, and manipulation of meaning have begun to be pulled away by the authors to reveal a system that, in large part, currently does not serve the interests to which it is, ostensibly at least, intended to serve.

No-one, least of all the authors of these chapters, would wish to claim that the entire system has been corrupted and that there is nothing of any value going on in Japan's universities. There continue to exist a small number of élite institutions (approximately 30 according to the Ministry of Education's own estimation [See Yakushiji 2002]), both public and private, where excellent scholars, teachers, and students come together to produce work of an internationally acclaimed quality. However, in total there exist more than twenty times that number of universities in Japan (as of 2002 there were 99 national, 72 prefectural and municipal, and 478 private universities [Yakushiji 2002]) and a large proportion of these appear not to be teaching or producing research at the standard that many scholars worldwide would expect of a 'university'.

Readers of this review who are unfamiliar with Japan or its system of higher education may be somewhat surprised at the tone of such a critique, especially when they consider that Japan is one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world. However, this is neither the first nor the most critical analysis of this part of Japan's education sector (See, for example, McVeigh 2002). Furthermore, and as Kinmonth perceptively points out in his chapter, although many education experts from all over the world have visited Japan on the assumption that its education system has been the motor of its industrial success, it is probable that they made their visit twenty years too late. Since it was perhaps the education system of the 1970s and 1980s that gave birth to the economic troubles of the 1990s and 2000s.

Thus, it is here that we can view in microcosm the magnitude of the problem that the Japanese people face if they are to achieve a sustained recovery from their current doldrums, as it appears that the difficulties that Japanese society is facing are more than simply the issue of a poor economic climate or old-fashioned institutions. For, as Bachnik shows, it is the very people who are charged and trusted with the responsibility for revitalising the political economy who may represent the biggest obstacle to change. And it is Japan's hard working, tax paying, and scrupulously honest ordinary men and women who may, ultimately, be the victims. Moreover, for this to be happening in such a strategic sector as higher education does not bode well for the long term success of the administrative reform process elsewhere in Japan's political economy. In this sense, therefore, this book should be read as an important and timely contribution not just to the study of Japanese higher education but to an understanding of the entire revitalization process on which Japan's future prosperity and security hinges.

In addition to contributing a chapter in the above book that introduces Japanese university students' perspectives on their time at university, Marina Lee-Cunin has examined this subject at greater length in her earlier book, Student Views in Japan: A study of Japanese students' perceptions of their first years at university. This work, which is based on her PhD dissertation, presents the results from and analysis of a questionnaire survey of students, mostly in their first year, at Shiga University, a small former national university located just north of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan.

Lee-Cunin correctly reminds us that, in all of the abundant scholarly literature that focuses on Japan's higher education system, little actually asks how the students themselves feel about their education, often assuming that students are either passive receptacles into which knowledge is evenly and skilfully poured by dedicated educators or that they are lazy and indolent, occupying a four year moratorium between school and the workplace with part-time work, club activities and personal relationships. This book begins the process of filling this important gap in our knowledge. In this way the author problematises our understanding of the university experience in Japan, its role in Japanese people's lives, and helps us to develop a more rounded appreciation of Japanese younger people's sensibilities.

The book suffers a little from a concentration on presenting in narrative fashion the results of a very long questionnaire. The issues covered by the questionnaire range from the students' academic experience through their thoughts on reform and the future, to their non-academic experiences in terms of their club activities, part-time jobs, and personal relationships. That being said, the data presents a very nice window through which one can view in micro-scale what goes on in one of Japan's mid-level and provincial 'national' universities on a day to day basis, and in so doing occasionally chimes with the work of the authors mentioned above.

To take one example from her data, an admittedly small sample, students in the humanities and social sciences at her university are apparently able to gain credits for some classes more or less through attendance alone, not having opened a single book along the way. In another, similar, university that I am familiar with, a similar amount of reading appears to be being done by students in the same subjects and the professoriate appears to be colluding with the students in this regard because a list of references is not required for many written assignments. As Lee-Cunin demonstrates with her data, more than 75 per cent of the students in her sample, by their own admission, are able to gain credits for more than 20 courses of study a year while having read between 1 and 5 relevant books (pp. 107 and 95) —ß meaning that 75 per cent of students in her sample gained credits for at least 75 per cent of their courses without having read anything at all of relevance to the course. And one must not assume that the other 25 per cent have all read more than 5 books per year, as opposed to having read less than 1!

Moreover, little so far is being achieved in changing normative understandings among Japan's youth of what it means to be a student at university in Japan. A minority of students do study hard, many of these at the above mentioned well-known élite schools in the major urban centres and, to repeat, many of the professors at these institutions teach exemplary and up-to-date courses alongside producing research of the highest international calibre. But there is another side to Japan's universities that those foreign researchers who spend their time fulfilling research grants in the élite schools of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka may miss when they come to consider Japan's higher education. Although Lee-Cunin rightly demonstrates that Japanese students do not lack a certain level of critical awareness of their circumstances, it cannot be denied that a majority of Japanese students, in collusion with a substantial proportion of Japanese university professors and administrators, believe that when one attends university one is actually supposed not to study.

No-one would wish to deny that leisure, sports, and personal relationships are not important to every one of us, that time spent in contemplation is not valuable for personal development, and neither can one say that people do not have a right even to waste their own opportunities. But, personal enjoyment and contemplation achieved in the context of a deep and challenging course of study are more likely to produce a more mature individual with the appropriate skills and knowledge to contribute to his or her society upon graduation, than contemplation with little or no foundation in knowledge. Moreover, and more importantly for Japanese society as a whole, with Japan's public debt standing at record levels, apparently standing at the astonishing figure of 900 trillion yen (Clark 2006), and the dependency ratio between the number of older people and those actively engaged in the labour force narrowing (Chapple 2004), the consequences of such behaviour are something that the Japanese people, especially those that choose not to attend university and go straight into work, could well do without.

Both 'Big Bang' and 'Student Views' are suitable for scholars and students at all levels and, together, despite suffering from some disappointing editorial flaws —ß 'Big Bang' suffers from a large number of annoying typographical errors and Lee-Cunin's book lacks an index — these two books are much more than an excursion into the world of Japan's universities. Through their detailed research and penetrating analysis, the authors ably demonstrate to us how long and steep is the road to a sustained revitalisation of the Japanese socio-economy. Accordingly it seems that, contrary to the opinion of some Japan's leaders, the solution is not simply one of regulatory reform or financial management since, as we have seen, those that are charged with actually implementing the reforms on the ground may end up interpreting them according to their own vested interests and priorities, thereby further entrenching the very system that they are being asked to reform, if indeed 'reform' is what Japan's leaders are asking for. In this way, Japan's problems can be understood as being very deeply entrenched and involve having to address a whole spectrum of normative assumptions about what it means to be Japanese in Japan at the beginning of the 21st century.

'Big Bang' Table of Contents

1. W(h)ither the Japanese University? An Introduction to the 2004 Higher Education Reforms in Japan — Roger Goodman.

2. A History of the Japanese University — Akito Okada.

3. The Incorporation of National Universities: The Role of Missing Hybrids — Sachi Hatakenaka.

4. Higher Education and the Ministry: The Capitalist Developmental State, Strategic Schooling and National Renovationism — Brian J. McVeigh.

5. Government and the National Universities: Ministerial Bureaucrats and Dependent Universities — Shinichi Yamamoto.

6. From Selection to Seduction: The Impact of Demographic Change on Private Higher Education in Japan — Earl H. Kinmonth.

7. The Japanese Student Perspective on Universities — Marina Lee-Cunin.

8. Internationalising Japanese Higher Education: Reforming the System or Repositioning the Product? — Patricia Walker.

9. American Universities in Japan — John Mock.

10. University Entrance in Japan — Robert Aspinall.

11. Postgraduate and Professional Training in Japanese Universities: Causes and Directions of Change — Yumiko Hada.

12. Reform of the University English Language Teaching Curriculum in Japan: A Case Study — Gregory S. Poole.

13. The Paradox of the 'IT Revolution' and Japanese Higher Education Reform — Jane M. Bachnik.

14. The Japanese 21st Center of Excellence Program: Internationalisation in Action? — J.S. Eades.


Chapple, Julian (2004) The Dilemma Produced by Japan's Population Decline, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 18 October 2004, Accessed: 2 February 2006.

Clark, Gregory (2006) Horie and LDP Boosters Had it Coming, The Japan Times, 1 February 2006, Accessed: 2 February 2006.

McVeigh, Brian (2002) Japanese Higher Education as Myth, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Yakushiji, Taizo (2002) Changes in Japan's Higher Education System, GLOCOM Platform, May 30, 2002, Accessed: 1 February 2006.

About the Author

Peter Matanle studied for his undergraduate degree in History at St. John's College, University of Cambridge, and completed his Master's in Japanese Studies at the Contemporary Japan Centre, University of Essex in Britain. He received his doctorate from the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield in 2001. He is now Lecturer in Japanese Studies at SEAS and is currently spending two years (2004-2006) as a JSPS Post-doctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Human Sciences, Niigata University. He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies and the author of Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era: Re-fabricating lifetime employment relations (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

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