- Japanese Higher Education as Myth
Brian McVeigh is one of the most prolific writers on Japan at the moment, and much of his work since the late 1990s has focused on the interface between education, ideology, and the state in Japan and particularly the problems of higher education. His earlier books include a full-scale account of a women's college and an account of the education ministry in his book on the state.1 Now he has returned to this theme with a hard-hitting indictment of the entire Japanese university system. This is well-trodden territory, adding to earlier critiques by the likes of Robert Cutts and Ivan Hall in English,2 plus a large number of equally vitriolic works in Japanese. What distinguishes McVeigh's work from much of the rest, however, is the scale and intensity of the critique and the volume of supporting documentation cited.
Given that personal experience is such an important part of this book, and therefore of any review of it, I should perhaps start by laying my own cards on the table. Like McVeigh, I have also taught in Japan for many years, [End Page 270] though in a different range of institutions.3 Even though I have experiences similar to almost everything McVeigh describes, my view is less static and more optimistic than his. I would also argue that in the last couple of years (i.e., since this book was completed), the rate of change in Japanese higher education has been accelerating rapidly.
A summary of the book can be brief as McVeigh has done an excellent job (pp. 37-43). Following Refsing,4 he argues that schooling in (post)industrial societies has four functions: education, socialization, selection, and as a depository regulating the supply of labor. In relation to the last three of these, he argues, the Japanese system performs well. It is in relation to education that it fails to deliver. State structures and corporate forces combine through a system of state guidance (shidō) to deliver model pupils, workers, family members, and citizens, and examinations are a crucial part of the system. Knowledge is thus packaged in a form to make jumping the examination hurdles possible, and in the process becomes detached from the real world and rendered meaningless. The result is student apathy and an unwillingness to express opinions or answer questions in class. Schooling is "simulated" and rituals such as taking attendance substitute for measures of achievement. Tremendous emphasis is put on learning English, but this too is divorced from reality and used mainly as a means of ranking students in examinations. Students thus fail to confront critically major social and political issues during their education, ultimately affecting the country's ability to change and reinforcing its insularity. Finally, McVeigh argues that attempts at educational reform are themselves simulated, so that they are unable to achieve meaningful change. What is needed, therefore, is "reform of reform," but with the usual suspects such as the education ministry in control, this is inherently unlikely.
But is this really a fair picture of the system? I myself have faced groups of apathetic and sullen students similar to those he describes in a variety of institutions, but would add that there are also many more positive encounters. First, I myself found that the quality of communication and student work improved considerably as I was able to work increasingly in Japanese. (In McVeigh's account, it is not really clear which language was being used in the classes he described, or whether language was a significant variable. It would be interesting to know.) Second, McVeigh tends to treat all classes as being similar. My own experience has been that third- and fourth-year seminars are very different from other teaching, and this is where staff-student relations become much closer and where students typically produce [End Page 271] their best work-the best of which is as good as anything I found in the United Kingdom. Third, from my own experience, the 1990s...