Why Japan’s Universities Need To Toughen Up (And Why They Won’t)

Japanese Universities are often little more than waiting lobbies for students to be scooped up by corporations. Students are often not held to high academic standards, with some even able to receive a passing grade without attending class.

“Our university demands excellence, but I’ve talked to professors at others who were told by the administration they couldn’t fail students,” said one university professor who asked not to be named.

A recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review pointed out Japanese universities’ struggle to maintain respectability in the global education arena. Of the world’s top 100 in 2013, the University of Tokyo ranked only 32nd. That was a drop from 30th in 2012, which was an even bigger drop from 25th in 2011. So when the California Institute of Technology refused to establish a credit-transfer program with the Tokyo Institute of Technology based on its insufficient academic standards, it was a clear message that even Japan’s most respected universities need to toughen up.

Why are Japanese universities falling into such low global esteem? Japanese business culture. Companies provide new hires with all their training in-house and rely on what’s called the shinsotsu, or the “new graduate” system, for recruitment. According to DISCO, a Japanese bilingual career development firm, recruits hired though the shinsotsu system have “no job-specific skills, but are hired strictly on their character, communication skills and ambition.”

With the shinsotsu system giving precedence to a university’s clout over academic performance, students have little motivation aim for high marks. Rather than receiving a quality education, the lure of Japan’s top universities is that attendance itself lands many students a job. The only other factor is tests and attending seminars held by prospective companies in students’ third year. It’s why, according to the Asian Review article, the Japanese education system’s response to the dwindling interest in studying abroad wasn’t to raise its own standards, but to cut study abroad programs into bite-sized portions students can swallow.

Or just having the programs at Disney World. In the article, the Disney World exchange program was designed to give Japanese students “a mental toughness to survive among people of different racial backgrounds.” And nothing does that like having them work at Disney World, right?

Studying abroad isn’t about education in Japan, but toughing students up through living overseas. That’s hardly appealing to the college hosting them, which is basically being asked to babysit a Japanese student with no interest in classes. Shinsotsu has also created a climate of fear that students may miss career opportunities while overseas. It’s no wonder the article stated that the number of foreign exchange students has halved in recent years.

Until the Japanese job market starts putting an emphasis on academics, Japan’s universities will continue to fall in the ranks. And that will hurt students looking for jobs in fields that do require high marks, like medical science and engineers–or just force them to study abroad. And that will only send Japan’s universities further down the spiral they’ve fallen into.

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3 Comments on “Why Japan’s Universities Need To Toughen Up (And Why They Won’t)”

  1. ThroughTheLookingGlassAndDownTheRabbitHole
    December 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    I’ve often heard it’s the getting into the uni that’s the tough part, and after that it’s a walk in the park. It would seem that is the case, based on your article.
    I most definitely have a beef with Japanese business culture, ha ha 🙂

  2. fingknitcoolgal
    December 22, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    I went to UCL and studied up to post graduate but it was really tough. However, the experience it really changed my life and I am really grateful for that formative years, burning midnight oil. Japanese universities are like brand names in general – the same as Toyota, Panasonic, Nissan, etc. Big companies want to pick students from well-known universities for a safe bet. And students believe their life is complete once they manage to pass the entrance exam to universities. The system never creates “outstanding” individuals but “average” ones. And they all behave as a homogeneous mass which I find it rather depressing… (=_=)

    • introvertnathan
      December 25, 2013 at 5:09 am #

      Yeah, unless something changes, I think Japanese universities will just continue to fall in the ranks until the HAVE to do something.

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