Education Problems in Japan

Date January 31, 2011
Speaker TACHIBANAKI Toshiaki (Adviser, RIETI / Professor, Faculty of Economics, Doshisha University)


TACHIBANAKI ToshiakiWhen I took part in the Basic Policy Subcommittee of the Industrial Structure Committee on educational issues, I called for Japan to enrich its education programs and heighten the qualities of its citizens to raise productivity and economic efficiency, and I offered a report showing what policies are needed to do this. I was shocked to hear that my proposals had attracted a rather unfavorable response within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). But I later heard that a high officer at the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) filed a complaint against METI for interposing its views on the educational policies behind all this. I am now trying to view in a positive light the fact that the report, which was the target of objections and fault-finding, had in fact garnered interest.

I still believe that the most important policy for a country like Japan that owns no natural resources is to heighten the quality of its labor force. How we raise people's attributes through education is a vital issue for Japanese society, so I would like to offer my ideas from this perspective and I hope to receive your comments and criticism.

About six months ago, I published Nihon no kyouiku kakusa [Educational Inequality in Japan] (Iwanami Shinsho), which summarized the current state of education in Japan. I will discuss eight issues based on what I wrote in this publication.

Influence of household circumstances on education children can receive

Differences in household circumstances (parents' incomes and jobs) greatly affect the level of education a child can receive. The academic field of social mobility studies how the parent's social status relates to that of the child, and is a research subject of educators and sociologists rather than economists. Simply put, it views the relationship between the parents' jobs and the child and changes in their social position; i.e., does a child of a farmer become a farmer and a child of a doctor a doctor? It is important to note that education plays a part in this process.

Using a doctor as an example, we all know that the medical schools of every university now require extraordinarily high entrance exam scores. Medical schools are difficult to enter. This is evidenced in one peculiar case at a national university where the lowest such score for its medical school tops the highest score for any other department. That is why, when a parent is a doctor and the child also wants to be a doctor, the family must desperately consider what kind of education the child needs from early life, and which junior and senior high schools the child must attend to get into medical school. This example certainly gives a good picture of the importance of the issue of the relationship between a child's household and what kind of education he or she receives.

Looking at another example, until a generation ago most children of farmer parents tended to take over the farm, but a farmer child who just happened to be intelligent was able to choose a career path of, for instance, attending the faculty of law at the University of Tokyo and then working in a central government agency. A major reason behind this possibility, other than the child's intelligence, was that tuition was cheap. Tuition for public high schools was once very low. When I was a student, tuition at a national university was 1,000 yen a month, 12,000 yen annually. There was a time when inexpensive tuition allowed children to receive the education they wanted solely based on their skill and motivation, regardless of the parents' income or occupations.

But tuition for a national university is now around 540,000-550,000 yen a year. It has risen at a pace over a dozen times higher than the growth of the consumer price index. It is easy to see how this prevents children from poor families from enrolling in a national university even when they have the capacity and will to do so. Tuition for private universities used to be six to seven times higher than that of national universities, but that difference has shrunk today to about double. In the past, even if your family was too poor to send you to a private university, you could still have enrolled in a national university if you studied hard. But today, you would not even be able to enroll in a national university. In other words, we are in an age where the parents' social status, such as their occupation and income, significantly affect the child's education. Here is another intuitive case. In my time, children of poor families went to national schools and those with more financial support went to private schools. If you compared the income of parents who send their children to Keio University with those sending children to the University of Tokyo, you found that the Keio parents had higher income. But did you know that this is now reversing? Current statistical data show that the University of Tokyo students' parents have higher income than those of Keio students. We see the same phenomena in Kyoto, where parents of Doshisha University students used to have higher income than those of Kyoto University students, but today the tables have turned. In this age you need high parental income to attend Tokyo or Kyoto.

We can indirectly prove why students need high parental income to go to national universities by looking into what types of high schools the students come from. Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya High School, a public school, had sent the most students to the University of Tokyo. The most typical path for an elite student was Bancho Elementary, Kojimachi Junior High, Hibiya High, and then the University of Tokyo. While many came from wealthy families, not all of them did.

But the situation changed drastically 20-30 years ago. Due to changes in the school district system, national and private schools such as Kaisei, Azabu, Nada, and Tokyo Educational University (currently University of Tsukuba) High School that offered grade 7-12 education rose above the rest, and public schools were now unable to send many students to national universities. To enroll in such top-level secondary schools, children had to attend cram schools or get a private tutor, which required money. It reportedly takes about 100,000 yen a month to send a child to cram school. Parents need to be wealthy to give their child extracurricular education at such a level; thus, in today's era, parents' income largely affects the level of education children receive or which school they attend.

A survey conducted by the Faculty of Education at the University of Tokyo offered figures that support this fact in greater detail. When looking at differences in the university enrollment ratio according to parents' household incomes, the result was 28.2% for households with 2 million yen income or less and 62.8% for those with 12 million yen or more, verifying the fact that university enrollment more than doubles for households with high parental income. Looking further at the actual universities they enrolled in, parents of children who entered top-class universities or medical schools indeed had very high income, while children of low-income households were unable to enter such schools.

Whether a child goes to university or which university he or she enters is, of course, not merely a matter of household income. The child's ability and will are also of great importance, as well as what type of education he or she receives in junior and senior high school. Although parental income is not the only variable behind how much education a child receives, it is a factor that may be needed today in order to realize a child's wishes.

In light of this situation, my first conclusion is that we are in an age where education is not necessarily available equally to all children.

Is "pressure-free education" the cause of decline in academic competency?

Regarding declining academic competency, we have heard a range of stories over the last decade or so, such as economics students being unable to calculate fractions. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey that compares academic competency of students worldwide, Japan had kept its position in the top level until several years ago. But the competency of Japanese elementary, junior high and high school students had dropped significantly in the last several years, losing the top spot despite remaining in the top 10.

MEXT originally championed the need to begin pressure-free education, and the public was probably largely in agreement. Sentiment grew stronger that cram-style education was wrong and we needed cut back on fundamental studies and provide a more all-around style of education. The debate on whether pressure-free education was the primary cause of our decline in academic competency will be left to education experts, but the air of this notion is there, and children now study less and their academic competency has dropped; so in the last several years there have been calls for a return to cram education. As if that movement pushed MEXT into action, the ministry is now revising its pressure-free education and nearing a return to cram education, which you probably already know about.

My conclusion here is that we need to clarify what caused the decline in academic competency among Japanese children, and to start an era of sound education. I personally believe that a certain level of cram education is needed.

Should school districts be small or large?

The educational policy of most all prefectures in the past was to have small school districts with children attending the elementary, junior high and high schools close to the community in which they were born and lived. This comes from the view that there should be no academic inequality among schools. The Japan Teachers' Union maintained overwhelming power back then, and though it was aware of varying academic competency among children, it professed that there should be no academic inequality among schools that openly recognized such differences, and thus believed that small school districts were superior since children of all academic inclinations could attend the same school. That was the Japanese education circle's thinking over 30 years ago.

The most noted example of this notion was seen in Kyoto Prefecture. Kyoto underwent educational reform and insisted on a small school district system. The system made children attend elementary to high school in the district in which they lived. It subsequently achieved its objective of eliminating inequality among schools, and the system of providing every child with equal education took hold.

This however resulted in extremely low numbers of students from Kyoto high schools entering Kyoto University. The road for Kyoto elites used to start at First or Second Prefectural Junior High, go on to Third High School, and then to Kyoto University. This was the path for people like Hideki Yukawa and Shinichiro Tomonaga, who received the Nobel Prize for physics. But when Kyoto Prefecture stuck to small school districts, fewer students from Kyoto found their way to Kyoto University, allowing more entries from high schools in Osaka Prefecture. Public high schools in Osaka were not under the small school district system and instead formed groups of about ten schools each, allowing numerous students from prestigious public high schools such as Tennoji, Kitano, and Otemae to enter Kyoto University.

In this light, a small school district system has its pros and cons. It is suitable in terms of offering equal education, but it can be subject to criticism that it buries competent talent. The same went for the school group system in Tokyo, after enactment of which prestigious schools such as Hibiya, Nishi, and Toyama High School, which used to send a hundred and several tens of students to the University of Tokyo, saw their figures drop. The fact largely correlates with problems of the small school district system.

These issues in school districts directly raise the key questions that the government must ask itself when considering what educational policy it should draft--questions on what educational systems work, how much restriction is appropriate, and whether we want equality.

When private and national schools offering grade 7-12 education rose in popularity, the Tokyo Metropolitan government established public schools that offer grade 7-12 education, eliminated the school district system from junior high schools and allowed children to attend schools in remote districts. I feel that we should sustain the small school district system through elementary school. There are dangers in small children riding the train and attending far off schools. Elementary children should grow up in the local community among many different children, and then from junior or senior high school they should have the freedom to go to a school in a district system that matches their level of ability and ambition. There are no school districts for universities, so I personally believe we should have a system that increasingly eliminates school districts at each higher level of education.

Role of extracurricular education

How should we view extracurricular education? Since cram schools and private tutors are becoming increasingly important and a child's likelihood of receiving such extracurricular education depends solely on the parents' income, the most difficult part of the issue is right here.

It would be ideal if children could go to their university of choice without going to cram schools and simply studying what they learn in elementary, junior high, and senior high schools. But considering the benefits of extracurricular education that can develop a competent child even further, we could never make a policy that prohibits extracurricular education. Even if we did set such a policy, it is quite unlikely that we would ever see an age when studying only at regular schools would put a child into a good university. If schools matched entrance exam questions to the level of school education, everyone would get perfect scores and prep schools would not be able to differentiate themselves. This is where extracurricular education plays a certain role.

The primary objective of elementary and junior high school education is not in raising the academic ability of its top-level students but rather in raising its students' average competency. I venture to say that it is more important for elementary and junior high school education to raise competency of academically low students. In such a case, an academically inclined child will only be frustrated if he or she is only allowed to study at the public school level and cannot expand his or her abilities. Such children should be allowed the alternative of receiving extracurricular education and going to a good high school and university.

My idea on this issue is to create inequality within an elementary or junior high school. Each school should form classes in the order of high to low academic level and allocate funds and teaching staff to the class with the lowest academic competency in order to raise its level. Students in the class with the highest competency should compete with each other and work hard.

Differences in public and private schools

How should we view the differences between public and private schools? I mentioned this in my first topic. Differences between national/public and private are seen in universities and even in earlier stage schools. These have to do with the types of objectives in school education or the notion that public schools should not create too much inequality in the academic competency within the school. Private schools have greater freedom in that aspect and could run their own education based on their founding principles, but public schools are tax-funded so being under MEXT supervision they cannot necessarily do whatever they want. Due to these restrictions, we must always be mindful of the differences between public and private schools when we think about educational issues.

The position of practical education in high schools and universities

The topic of practical education in high school and university surfaces when we talk about the objectives and roles of education. While one of the major roles/objectives is to train a person capable of developing into a good citizen and to develop a mature individual, another is to develop a good worker. Everyone takes on a job after finishing school. Since the kind of education received in school affects a person's traits as a worker, developing a competent labor force is one of the primary roles of education.

We can take this understanding of the two primary roles/objectives of education to look at Japan's school education today. High schools 30-40 years ago had vocational courses such as commerce, engineering, agriculture, and fishery science, and around 40% of students studied in such courses that produced workers, while about 60% studied in general education. A significantly large portion of high school education was geared toward producing good workers.

But the proportion of vocational courses gradually diminished. This relates closely with the fact that the university enrollment ratio has increased rapidly since 30 years ago. In other words, as the Japanese economy prospered, consecutive generations shifted their goals to university enrollment. Students enrolling in general education courses thus increased; and the proportion today sees vocational courses under 20% and general education over 80%. This overwhelmingly large proportion of general education translates to the view that Japanese high school education today only teaches Japanese, science, social studies, English, and math, and offers barely any practical education, such as electricity, bookkeeping, and agriculture, that workers would need.

In real terms, 50% of the 18-year-old population today enrolls in university. We are now in an age in which everyone takes general education for the purpose of entering university, but this is where the problem arises. If 80% of children take general education and 50% move on to university, that should mean the remaining 30% go on to work. When we studied what kind of vocational life these students went on to lead, we found that a high percentage tend to become either part-time workers, unemployed, or temporary workers, and fall into one of the two extreme ends of the rich/poor gap. Students of normal courses have only studied Japanese, English, math, social studies, and science, and possess no vocational skill. To make matters worse, since general education courses are basically geared toward university enrollment, the teachers are focused only on students aiming in that direction, so students who fall behind are left out. These students would then go find a job, but without any skills they are unable to land one, so they end up as part-timers or unemployed. It is from this perspective that I believe high schools should enhance their vocational courses.

This, in fact, applies to universities as well. A high percentage of science students will see their education come to use in their work, but an overwhelming majority of university students study in liberal arts departments such as literature or fine arts, which do not necessarily offer direct links to employment. It is my belief that high schools and universities should gear themselves toward placing greater emphasis on practical education.

Japanese society's discrimination against science graduates

In Japanese companies and public offices, liberal arts graduates have an advantage over science graduates, who tend to be poorly treated. Public offices are known to be cold toward technicians, warm to administrators, and the same goes for private companies. We look at academic backgrounds of all the presidents of Nippon Steel Corporation (NSC) and other than one or two science majors, the remaining several dozen presidents after the war were all liberal arts majors. Even though NSC is a technical company and employs an overwhelming number of science graduates, those at the top are liberal arts graduates.

We need to treat science graduates better or they have the potential to stage a revolt. Several years ago, the number of applicants to the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Tokyo fell short of its target enrollment. If we keep neglecting science students like this, be warned that Japan could face an era when science/engineering jobs lack competent talent, despite the fact that our nation can only survive on skilled work.

Low education expenditure in the public sector

Since the Japanese have a philosophy that considers education to be a private good and the people who receive it should bear the cost, households have borne education fees and the country has barely spent anything. This resulted in inequality and an age where children of high-income parents receive good education and those with low-income parents cannot. The nation needs to spend more on education in order to correct this distortion.

Some statistical data provide indirect support of this view. Of all OECD member states, Japan has one of the lowest figures for the proportion of the cost of education (ratio to GDP) that the public sector expends. My personal opinion is that the public sector should spend more on education.

Questions & answers


When you spoke of science and liberal arts graduates, you named an actual company and gave an example from public offices, but doesn't this depend on which sample you choose? RIETI Faculty Fellow Kazuo Nishimura recently began a research project on a similar subject and will be holding a discussion paper meeting sometime soon. He concludes that science graduates have higher income. Don't you think there is still room for discussion on which perspectives to take and how much we could generalize?

You also talked about medical schools. If the highest scoring, most competent science students go to medical schools, wouldn't your conclusion change if you included medical students, since medical students are science students?


I talked primarily of promotions in public offices and companies. I said that when we look at who becomes presidents, executives, vice-ministers, or directors-general, we find that most are liberal arts majors and that science majors are poorly treated in promotions.


A number of research cases can attest to the importance of the quality of teachers, and some consider that even a slight improvement in teacher quality would have a significant impact on GDP. What do you think we can do to raise the quality of teachers?


I feel there are two methods. One of these methods is to make classes smaller. Though this has no direct relationship to teacher quality, it is better for the sake of raising student competency to make classes of about 30 students, rather than 40-50, and downsize the class or maybe have two teachers mentor a single class. Lowering the number of students a teacher oversees in such ways would be my first point.

To raise teacher quality, Finland, for example, changed its system to mandate completion of a master's degree to become a teacher. Enforcing strict teacher education at the university level and requiring graduate school-level competency to become a teacher would be another method. Giving teachers better benefits would also be important.


You mentioned that Japan's expenditure on education is one of the lowest among all OECD member states. In a panel discussion at the RIETI policy symposium "Universities of the Future from Social and Economic Perspectives" a couple of years ago, a Ministry of Finance (MOF) participant indicated that while it is true that Japan's educational expenditure is low, it is also one of the nations with the lowest ratio of children among the entire population; and when the expenditure ratio to GDP is converted to per-child figures, it is not that low. I'd like to hear your comments.


I am well aware from budget debates between MEXT and MOF that MOF always makes such claims. But I also know that according to per-nation figures that in comparing the ratio of public sector spending and household burden to the entire educational expenditure, Japanese households bear an overwhelmingly high proportion of educational expenses per student that the public sector would pay for in other countries. This is another view that leads me to believe that Japan imposes an educational cost burden on the family.

Take examples of neighboring countries. University tuition in Europe used to be free, though the United Kingdom and Germany now charge tuition. Tuition in the United States is very high, with private schools costing around two million yen, but the country has an advanced scholarship system. Japan imposes the cost on families yet spends little on scholarships. From the perspective of who bears the educational costs, I have to say that Japan forces too much on the family.


Regarding tuition for national universities, you mentioned that it now costs about 500,000-600,000 yen per year. How could the nation keep the cost as low as 12,000 yen per month for over 20 years after the war?


One major reason was that there were few students then. The ratio of college students to the entire 18-year-old population was around 20%. The nation was capable of paying the cost at a time when only about 20% went to college.

Under the current circumstances, where more than 50% of the 18-year-old population goes to college, Japan would go bankrupt if it paid for all the students. That is why we must use methods like scholarships to help defray the cost.


Companies like UNIQLO and Rakuten are currently trying to make English their in-house language. Language is liberal arts, and it does come into use. What do you think we should do with language education?

Since we know that language education has greater effects the earlier a child starts, do you think it is useless or important to teach language in university? Please comment in terms of educational investment.


Considering the numerous examples today of English literature graduates unable to converse in English, I would think it is more important for language departments to teach more conversation than to be merely reading Somerset Maugham or Charles Dickens in English literature programs.


A fundamental issue you raised was that competent people who can't go to college due to finances or other circumstances are still able to take lectures from prominent schools online if they have the will.

Also, if people want to hear other opinions, they can do so at social networking services. The world is a vast community if one believes it is; so although some people who are motivated and competent may not have a conducive environment or public aid and thus might be deprived of opportunities, some can go beyond the framework of Japan's formal education and do so many things in this current age if they have the motivation to do so. Can't we be optimistic and think that this issue can eventually resolve itself naturally as it seeks a balance with these possibilities?


I wonder if a teenager can become a competent person without going to college and absorbing knowledge only from the Internet.

Perhaps a small segment of talented people could do it, but I do not think ordinary people are quite capable of achieving such a feat.


The Japanese education system had always used Japanese, math, science, and social studies to pick out those who were studious and motivated. But some people believe that a scholastic intellectual does not always demonstrate flexibility in society.

Those who go to the University of Tokyo may actually have high-income parents or may ace their exams, but those who graduate the same university do not necessarily earn high incomes or succeed as entrepreneurs.

Some argue that the importance of prestigious universities is declining. We could tighten social mobility, but if we flip perspectives we may find that a relative decline in the status of prestigious universities could open opportunities for people to climb the social ladder from other universities and alleviate the ill effects of social fluidity becoming rigid. What would you say to that?


Realistically, most people who met a graduate from the University of Tokyo would feel that this person had studied hard and put in a great deal of effort. In that sense, while people have many dimensions of competency, everyone would think that a graduate from the University of Tokyo has some attributes that surpass those of other people. I think that is why people who graduate from the University of Tokyo do well in society and gain public respect, and that is why everyone wants to go there.

Some people say that the United States offers equal opportunities and does not practice "diploma-ism," but diploma-ism is actually more prevalent in the United States than it is in Japan. A person's first salary differs depending on which business or law school he came from. I personally feel that the Japanese system is more desirable since the starting salary for all new university graduates is the same regardless of their school, and the difference comes later depending on how much effort each person makes.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.