A very favorite and indispensable term of the Japanese people is ichi-ryu. Ichi-ryu means ‘first rate’ or ‘pre-eminent’ or ‘ideal’. Top ranking institutions are classed as and called ichi-ryu (first rate). The Japanese term ichi-ryu and top rankings carry far greater import and significance for Japanese people and society than probably anywhere else in the world, governing core relationships and structure of society.

ichi-ryu ko refers to top ranking schools (ichi-ryu gaisha means top ranking company) while ichi-ryu daigaku refers to top ranking universities.
ni-ryu (second rate) and san-ryu (third rate) do not represent independent categories but are just those not included within the ichi-ryu group.

The importance of ranking in Japan

Nakane Chie wrote in the book “Japanese society“:

“The Japanese are not so much concerned with social background as with institutional affiliation. Since the hierarchy of each field is so clearly perceived and widely known, and since the hierarchy within individual institutions also extends beyond the institution, these credentials taken together offer a fairly distinct picture into which an individual can be fitted. … A professor in a minior university would be equated with a lecturer or assistant professor of a higher-ranked university and so on. In this respect the order of rank underlying the structure of Japanese society serves a function similar to a classification by caste or class, by which the individual is located. This I think, is the reason why the Japanese care so little about class differences. They are more interested in their relative rank, and so attnetion is focused upon the self and those in the immediate surroundings, The Japanese in general are virtually incapable of seeing society in terms of strata within which one may locate oneself yet they will employ delicately graded criteria to distinguish the most minor relative differences between themselves and others.”

The universities established since the war (there are over 800 universities and colleges) follow the pattern of the old-established institutions. (Quoting Nakane Chie again …) They “each cover all fields – the natural sciences, the technologies, the humanities and the social sciences — and most fail to develop a special strength in a particular field. The result is that the top ranking universities, with their greater funds and higher prestige, monopolize every field: the mobility of both teachers and students between institutions is restricted. These circumstances lead to an openly and generally acknowledged ranking of the universities, with those rated at the top able to monopolize every academic field, and with graduates assessed according to the ranking of their university. This, of course, has a direct bearing on a the chances of employment of a graduate, and in fact, top-ranking enterprises tend to recruit only from graduates of the top universities: in some cases graduates of universities of lower standing are not even given the chance to submit an application to such enterpries. Thus the status of enterprises and universities correspond quite closely, and there are many instances of, as it were, a direct route from particular university to particular enterprise.”

Nakane’s book came out in 1970 and since then many universities, particularly the non-ichi-ryu ranked ones, have been trying to carve out a niche for themselves by developing specialities. But for the most part, the rankings are still all-important, probably due to the influence of juku cramschools and university prep schools who follow the admissions scores closely each year and disseminate such information to their students.

With the introduction of a standardized nation-wide entrance examination for public institutions in the late 1970s the importance of selectivity in determining institutional quality was further heightened, and selectivity scores became the undisputed single-most important factor for high school students in choosing a university. Accompanying this obsession with selectivity was the growth of a market for periodicals providing information on university admissions, in essence the emergence of a university ranking system based on a single criteria.

There is today still a strong emphasis and weighting placed on the average university admissions scores of incoming freshmen. While the University of Osaka is generally regarded as among the nation’s best, and as a university that has developed an increasing level of prestige over the last few decades, any ranking that places it above the University of Tokyo or the University of Kyoto would likely be dismissed out of hand because the average score required for entry still remains lower than that for Tokyo and Kyoto.

The rankings prepared by Yoyogi and Kawaijuku college prep schools are examples of rankings that rely exclusively or heavily on admissions scores.

Other rankings maintained by Asahi Shimbun and Recruit Ltd were initiatives aimed at broadening the definition of university quality. They were introduced in an effort to broaden the general public’s understanding of institutional quality. For the purposes of university prep and admissions, Yoyogi and Kawaijuku college prep school rankings are the most relied on ones however.

Beyond paper rankings, private universities tend to exhibit strengths in certain fields, such as in their business, humanities schools or education or international departments. Depending on the student’s intended specialization, he or she may look at the private school listings with a closer look at the rankings in the specialized department. In which case, even smaller, specialized universities, such as The Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, The University of Electro-Communications, The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and Hitotsubashi University might deserve special scrutiny.

The University Rankings

Below we show several types of the rankings relied upon by students aiming to gain entrance into top universities, and the schools are ranked either in standalone general rankings (Kawaijuku ranking), or according to selectivity and difficulty in getting into the various departments based on the average score that students must earn on the national university admissions examination for entry (see Yoyogi University Prep School rankings – rankings are produced for four different academic departments in both the public and private sector: law and economics; art & literature and education; science and engineering; and medical fields).

Should a student achieve the score associated with a particular university, he/she as an applicant to the university is thought of as having 60 percent chance of being admitted.

Kawaijuku’s Rankings:

In 2001 the Ministry of Education sought to strengthen the “Top 30” universities by changing the funding model. Various “Top 30” lists that were floated at the time, but Kawaijuku prep school’s is probably by the most well known one in terms of the overall general public standing and reputation of universities.

2006 Ranking of National Universities by Subject and Average Admissions Score on National University Examinations (based on four factors: research funding (Kaken only), citations of research publications, entrance exam difficulty, and a reputation survey).
1 Tokyo
2 Kyoto
3  Osaka
4  Tokyo Institute of Technology
5  Tohoku
6  Keio
7  Kyushu
8  Nagoya
9 Hokkaido
10  Tsukuba
11 Kobe
12  Chiba
13 Waseda
14  Hiroshima
15 Kanazawa
16  Okayama
17 Tokyo University of Science
18  Tokyo Metropolitan University
19 Tokyo Medical and Dental University
20  Osaka City University
21 Niigata
22 Kumamoto
23 Tokushima
24 Osaka Prefecture University
25 Gifu
26 Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
27 Yokohama National University
28 Yamaguchi
29 Nagoya City University
30 Kagoshima

Yoyogi University Prep School rankings:

Yoyogi college preparation (or cram) school — possibly the nation’s most famous and relied upon by academics — produces a series of annual rankings of public and private university departments based on the average score that students must earn on the national university admissions examination for entry.

Law & Economics: Tokyo 1/93% Kyoto 2/91% Osaka 3/90% Nagoya 4/89% Hitotsubashi 4/89%  Kobe 5/87% Kyushu 8/86%  Tohoku 8/86 Yokohama National 11/84% Hokkaido 13/83% Nagoya City Osaka City 13/83% 15/80% Kanazawa 15/80%

Art & Literature: Tokyo 1/91-93% Kyoto 1 91-93% Ochanomizu 2/89% Osaka 4/88% Hitotsubashi 5/88% Kanazawa & Nagoya & Kobe 10/86% Osaka City Yokohama National 14 / 85%
Science & Engineering Tokyo 1/92-94% Kyoto 3/91% Osaka 5/89% Kyushu 6/88% Ochanomizu 6/88% Nagoya & Osaka City & Nagoya City 9/86% Tohoku & Kobe & Hokkaido 11/85% Yokohama National & Kanazawa 14/84% Medicine Tokyo 1/95% Nagoya 2/94%  Hokkaido & Kyushu 3/94% Kyoto & Osaka 3/93% Kobe & Osaka City & Nagoya City 8/92%

(Schools are ranked and beside the ranking is the average of each university’s department rank. Only the top 16 universities for each departmental league table were considered.)

Ranking 2006 for private universities:

Schools are ranked by department in the Yoyogi ranking. The ranking above is an average of each university’s department rank (in three departments).
Law & Economics: Keio & Waseda & 1/69 Jochi (Sophia) 3/65 Doshisha & Chuo 4/64% Ritsumeikan & Rikkyo 7/63% Tsudajuku 9/62% Meiji & Aoyamagakuin 10/61% 12 Gakushuin 12/59%
Art & Literature: Waseda 1/69% Keio 2/69% Int Christian U & Jochi (Sophia) 3/63% Tsudajuku 6/62% Rikkyo 7/61% Doshisha & Chuo & Nanzan 8/60% Meiji & Kansai Gakuin & Aoyamgakuin & Gakushuin 11/59% Science & Engineering Keio 1/64% Waseda 2/63% Doshisha & & Tokyo U of Science ICU 3/60%  Jochi & Meiji 6/59% Ritsumeikan 8/58% Rikkyo & Kansai Gakuin  9/57% Tsudajuku 11/56% Aoyamagakuin & Nanzan 15/55%
Medical, dental, pharmacy, agriculture: Keio 70 – Jikei University 67 – Osaka Medical College  67 – Nippon Medical School  66  – Juntendo 65 – Kansai Medical University 65 – Kurume 65 – Iwate Medical University 64 – Jichi Medical University 64 – Kyorin 64 – Showa 64 – Tokyo Medical University 64 – Tokyo University of Science 64 – Aichi Medical University 64 – Kinki 64

Other rankings maintained by Asahi Shimbun and Recruit Ltd that indicate the quality of institutions are not displayed here. There are also other lists of top Japanese Universities, some broken down by field of study, and which are provided by World Education Services on their Japan page.

Foreign students who want to study in Japan also like to rely on these rankings listed below that compare regional and world rankings of Japanese universities to those around the world.

Webometrics Top Asia Universities are ranked as follows:
1 University of Tokyo  54;  2 National Taiwan University  70; 3 Kyoto University  89; 4 National University of Singapore  111; 5 Beijing University  112
6 Chinese University of Hong Kong  123; 7 University of Hong Kong  148; 8 Hebrew University of Jerusalem  153; 9 Keio University  165; 10 Tel Aviv University  202
11 Weizmann Institute of Science  225; 12 University of Tsukuba  234; 13 Technion Israel Institute of Technology  236;    14 Tsinghua University China  238; 15 National Chiao Tung University  239; 16 National Sun Yat-Sen University  242; 17 Nagoya University  256; 18 Osaka University  266; 19 Tohoku University  284; 20 Shanghai Jiao Tong University

and …

Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s list of the Top 100 Asia Pacific Universities gives the rankings as follows:

Regional Rank Institution* Country World Rank (On the left:regional ranking, Right: world ranking)
1 Tokyo Univ Japan 14
2 Kyoto Univ Japan 21

3 Australian Natl Univ Australia 53
4 Osaka Univ Japan 54
5 Tohoku Univ Japan 69
6 Univ Melbourne Australia 82
7 Hebrew Univ Jerusalem Israel 90
8 Nagoya Univ Japan 97
9-17 Hokkaido Univ Japan 101-152

9-17 Kyushu Univ Japan 101-152
9-17 Natl Univ Singapore Singapore 101-152
9-17 Tel Aviv Univ Israel 101-152
9-17 Tokyo Inst Tech Japan 101-152
9-17 Tsukuba Univ Japan 101-152

9-17 Univ Queensland Australia 101-152
9-17 Univ Sydney Australia 101-152
9-17 Weizmann Inst Sci Israel 101-152
18-21 Natl Taiwan Univ China-tw 153-201
18-21 Seoul Natl Univ South Korea 153-201
18-21 Univ New South Wales Australia 153-201
18-21 Univ Western Australia Australia 153-201
22-37 Chinese Univ Hong Kong China-hk 202-301
22-37 Hiroshima Univ Japan 202-301
22-37 Hong Kong Univ Sci & Tech China-hk 202-301
22-37 Indian Inst Sci India 202-301
22-37 Keio Univ Japan 202-301
22-37 Kobe Univ Japan

Your best reference online on selectivity rankings might be those maintained by WENR World Education News & Reviews but they go only up to 2006.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s list of the Top 100 Asia Pacific Universities
Webometrics Top Asia Universities
For a source of rankings for universities in various countries is the University of Illinois’ College and University Rankings Page