Japanese Education: First Class, but not World Class

In response to the question: “What changes/new ideas do you wish to see in 2017 with regards to internationalisation of education in Japan?”

It is 6pm on a Wednesday evening. Another long day of lessons is nearly over, but not quite yet. I am sat in a German grammar class, anxiously chewing my pen, racking my brain as I bury myself in endless conjugation tables – is it du hast ein or einen Wörterbuch?

‘Does anybody have any questions?’ My professor asks.


I raise my hand, feeling the looks of the other students burn through my skin.

‘Sorry for asking another question, but….’, I say.

My professor laughs. ‘You’re learning a new language. I would be worried if you didn’t’.

It is in this torturously silent weekly language lesson, where I am the only international student, that I feel the difference in Japanese education the most. Despite how terrible I am at remembering German grammar rules, I have been learning the language for many years now, and this is the first time I have been with students so silent. My German professor is right: you’re learning a new language – how can you not have questions?

In December 2016, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released it’s latest research findings into the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems by testing 540,000 students aged 15 from 72 countries in their science, reading, maths and collaborative problem-solving skills. Once again, Japan was in the top five countries. It confirmed what we already knew about Japanese students: they are beyond brilliant.

Japanese students topped the tables in all subjects and ranked globally alongside the likes of Singapore, Finland, Canada and Estonia. In science, it came second only to Singapore. Only 10 percent of Japanese students are low-performers in science, compared to the global average of 20 percent. Similarly, in mathematics, 89 percent of students are at a proficient level or above, beating the global average of 75 percent. Japan showed some of the lowest rates of student truancy, and nearly one in two disadvantaged students were ‘resilient’ – meaning that they beat the socio-economic odds against them to be in the top 25 percent of best performing students in the world. Clearly, Japanese teenagers are extremely intelligent, and primary and secondary schools have equipped them a fantastic education to take on university and the working world.

But when you look at Japan’s position in the world’s university rankings, it is hard to believe that you are even looking at the same country. In the annual Times World University Rankings, Japan’s best performing university, the University of Tokyo, enters at 39. The next Japanese university, Kyoto University, is to be found in the 91st position. This is shocking – how can Japan sink from having such an outstanding secondary school education to a relatively unexceptional university education on the global stage?

It is clear that a primary reason for this chasm in the global quality of education between high school and university is the lack of diversity from international students in Japanese universities. The University of Oxford, ranked the best university in the world, has 35 percent of it’s students from overseas. Meanwhile, there is not a single ranked university in Japan that has even over 15 percent of students from overseas.

For many people in Japanese academia, these global rankings are difficult to accept because Japanese universities are so highly regarded within Japan. For this reason, global rankings are seldom taken seriously, driving little impetus for change. The obvious solution is to attract more international students to Japan, which many people have advocated. Slowly but surely this is happening, through the successful G30 programmes and the recovery of Japan’s ‘unsafe’ image after the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Indeed, the number of international students in 2015 numbered 208,379 – an increase of 13.2 percent from the year before. This is encouraging and hopeful, but we should not stop there.

Which brings me back to my German lesson, where the pin-drop silence makes time stop for two hours every week. While I try (and often fail) to get my head around German conjugations and verb endings, I often wonder why the Japanese students around me are not asking questions.

I often ask my Japanese classmates what lessons in high school were like, and the response is unanimous – the system revolved around passing a university entrance exam. Learning meant three things: cycle textbooks, cram schools and exams. Not much else. Despite their unquestionable intellect, there was no diversity in their learning styles. Only in their English lessons at university (the first time they have ever been taught by somebody non-Japanese) have they ever had the chance to discuss and debate freely. This may be why the Japanese students in my German class are not asking questions – they grew up in an educational environment that did not allow room for them to explore their inquisitive, curious minds.

I witness this in my university classes as well – often, professors lecture for every lesson in the semester, expecting students to absorb everything and question nothing. Some of my classmates even told me that they hold their professors in such high regard that they do not think their questions are even worthy of asking. In fact, some of the classrooms in the University of Tokyo actually have rows and rows of chairs and tables that are literally nailed to floor so that you can only face the front. You cannot move around, let alone swivel your chair to talk to the people next to you – it truly is as if group discussions are actively being discouraged. While every international student I know hates it, the Japanese students are somewhat indifferent to it – it has been that way all their lives. This is not to say that lectures are pointless – they are extremely valuable as professors have so much expertise and knowledge to impart on us that a two hour time slot once a week is often never enough. However, it is not in the Japanese students’ best interest to be taught like this all the time. Even when it comes to English studies, it was only last year that the University of Tokyo allowed undergraduate international students to hold English conversational lunchtime tutoring sessions on campus to help build the confidence of the Japanese students in their spoken English. Until then, there was a unquestioned and ungrounded belief that students could not teach other students.

In this way, Japanese universities are not internationalising at the same rate as the rest of the world because they are not diversifying or experimenting in learning styles. After all, there is no point in bringing in international students to Japanese universities if the Japanese students do not become accustomed to learning with them. The mathematician and scientist Seymour Papert once famously said that a teacher from the 19th century could feel at home in a modern day classroom because the style of learning in some places has changed so little. Thus, it is no surprise that many of my discussion-based classes have halved in size since the beginning of the semester: many Japanese students were intimidated by weekly debates and they also thought that they would not learn as much because the professor would not always be the one speaking. The sad reality is that they do not realise how valuable their opinions are, nor have they been shown how they can truly enhance the collective learning experience by sharing their thoughts.

A critical reflection and rethinking of the way that Japanese students are being taught is required not only for the merit of Japan’s universities, but for the students themselves. It will prepare them for work in a globalised world, in companies and organisations that will focus solely on Japan less and less. For Japan’s bright youth, the world is their oyster. But if things do not change in the classroom, their world is limited only to Japan.

Sources used: 

Japan Student Services Organization. (2016). International Students in Japan 2015. [online] Available at: http://www.jasso.go.jp/en/about/statistics/intl_student/data2015.html [Accessed 16 Dec. 2016].

OECD, (2016). PISA: Results in Focus. [online] Available at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf

Times Higher Education. (2016). World University Rankings. [online] Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2017/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats 

Julia Carvell, University of Tokyo

Originally published in the spring special issue of The Sentinel.

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