Category Archives: Politics

Plus ça change…

Exactly a year ago, Feb 3, 2012, I published an editorial in the Japan Times. I didn’t come up with the title, but it was called “Exam Forces Students to Cram Irrelevant Facts” [note that the Japan Times seems to have changed its archiving, but for now the article continues to be available].

Today, Feb 3, 2013, the editors of the Japan Times wrote a piece entitled, “Entrance Exam Change Needed“. Sounds like similar arguments? Yup, the thrust of the argument is virtually the same as mine, i.e. university entrance examinations in Japan test “test-taking skills at the age of 18 will be of little help later in a fast-changing society”.

While I could flatter myself that the editorial writers of the Japan Times re-discovered my year-old editorial, or that “great minds think alike”, what’s really going on here is that nothing has changed in the past year regarding the main problem with entrance examinations to Japanese universities, namely the fact that they don’t test anything particularly useful, interesting or relevant to future learning or societies real and imagined needs.

When I had published that editorial a year ago, most colleagues and other readers reacted with, “You’re totally right, but nothing is ever going to change anyway.”

I’m afraid that my reaction to today’s editorial would have to be the same at this point.

There are a number of reasons for this pessimism and no single factor prevents changes to the entrance examinations.

Obviously, Japanese politics and policy-making is not exactly in a particularly dynamic area in any policy area.

More specifically to education policy, any attempts at changing content are probably doomed as reformers have clearly been burnt by the fate of the yutori reforms ten years ago. These reforms had been motivated in part by a desire to make space in teaching for just the kind of things that one might see as more useful through project learning. To create this space, the volume of multiple-choice-testable “knowledge” was reduced. It’s this reduction that has inspired years of talk about the decline of academic abilities and led to a reversal of the reduction of content.

Reforms of this kind are thus currently not to be expected from MEXT or from national politicians.

What about the universities that actually set the exams? The multiple-choice format is obviously so well-institutionalized that no one can quite imagine an alternative or that everyone would be too scared of looking like they’re “soft on knowledge”.

An oft-repeated objection to test-formats that would focus more on analytical skills and understanding is that the setting and correcting of such exams is too costly given that university personnel is centrally involved in this process.

Where else could pressure come from? With declining student numbers due to demographic developments the funnel into tertiary education has grown wider and wider. Other than at the very top (national public universities, nationally prominent private universities) entrance to university is becoming less and less competitive. Ultimately, that might make the entrance examinations even less useful and thus exert pressures on universities to drop them entirely in favour of some other mechanism.

It could also be imagined that some of the best students and their families may recognize the futility of 受験 (entrance exam study) and opt out to pursue higher education abroad. This, however, does not appear to be happening given the many laments about the inward-looking focus of university-aged Japanese students.

All this leaves me thinking that we’ll continue to read editorials of this kind for the foreseeable future, even when most academics, analysts, and perhaps even readers might agree with the analysis.


Matsushita Seikei Juku

So – once again – Japan has a new prime minister. There’s nothing in particular about Yoshihiko Noda that makes him terribly interesting, he certainly does not look likely to emerge as the kind of integrative, innovative leader that the country could need following the ‘triple disaster‘. There’s also nothing that’s known about Mr. Noda that would make him of particular interest in terms of educational policy. The rollback of ゆとり教育 was completed this year in terms of curricular content, as was the abolition of school fees for high school and there are no large items remaining on the DPJ agenda. Given his age, I suspect that Mr. Noda might well have attended 学習塾 in his own educational career, but I don’t even know that.

What I do know and what was noted in the press in the election for the DPJ presidency and thus the prime ministership was that Mr. Noda is a former student at the Matsushita Seikei Juku (松下政経塾). And in the party election, he was not alone in this, Seiji Maehara, former foreign minister, is also a former student of the Seikei Juku.

I had previously heard about the 松下政経塾 from a number of juku operators in Tokyo. They often cite it as an example of the kind of transformative ambition that many of them have regarding the role of juku – as private initiatives – in the education system.

Interestingly, the Seikei Juku does not have a Wikipedia entry in English, though the Japanese entry is comprehensive in its information, and intriguingly, the German entry seems to have been recently deleted.

The Seikei Juku’s website as well as the Wikipedia entry both write about the Juku as the “Matsushita Institute of Government and Management“. This certainly makes it sound much greater than the more common translation of juku as ‘cram school’. The terminology is thus of some interest to me.

What makes the Seikei Juku a ‘juku’ as opposed to an ‘institute’ or ‘school’? Clearly, the Seikei Juku is meant to be a “private academy” of the kind that Richard Rubinger wrote about in his 1982 book Private Academies of Tokugawa Japan. It is also a ‘juku’ in the way that Keio University’s formal name at foundation and even today is 慶應義塾.

As an aside, I recently learned that the president of Keio University continues to be addressed as 塾長 not 学長, emphasizing the private roots and links with Keio’s founder Yukichi Fukuzawa.

The Seikei Juku was founded by Panasonic founder and CEO Konosuke Matsushita in 1979 and continues to be supported by various corporations in the Matsushita stable of firms. It was founded in part as a counter to the emerging tendency among Japanese politicians to be inheritors of their political office, i.e. the sons (rarely daughters), nephews or grandsons of major politicians, 世襲政治家. Both Mr. Noda as well as Mr. Maehara are good examples of this intention of the Seikei Juku in that neither are examples of such dynastic politics.

There are other aspects of the Seikei Juku that make it quite different from the typical academic juku that I focus on in my research. As far as I can tell, the Seikei Juku serves primarily as a meeting place for ambitious young men and women (though only an 8th of the students are women) who live in a dormitory together, receive some funding and attend invited lectures. There appears to be no permanent faculty/teaching staff nor a set curriculum, though activities are prescribed broadly and ‘enrolled’ students seem to sometimes attend the Juku as a gap-year activity (the gap year is also becoming more popular in Japan at the moment, by the way), but as a gap year between university education and entry into a corporation or while they are attending a university, most likely a well-known private or national university. Jukusei are between 22 and 35 years of age and they are enrolled in the Juku for four years.

Much more information on recent alumni, selection, and other features of the Seikei Juku can be gleaned from the Japanese wikipedia entry and the Juku’s webpage, so I won’t paraphrase that here.