Karel van Wolferen, in his book “The Enigma of Japanese Power” gives the historical explanation for Todai’s position at the apex of Japan’s educational system, as an institutional innovation that was part of the consequence of structural changes to the political system that came at the turn of the 20th century following the battle for executive power between bureaucrats and politicians. In the book extract that follows below, Van Wolferen credits Yamagata Aritomo as the Meiji man and oligarch who was responsible for ingeniously entrenching the position of the bureaucrats:
“The institutional innovation designed by Yamagata virtually closed the door for ever on the possibility of future party cabinets appointing party members as vice-ministers, bureau chiefs or prefectural governors. This had the effect of insulating the bureaucracy from any effects of political decision-making. To make sure that the amended Appointment Ordinance could never be rescinded, he made the Privy Council the guardian over his edicts. And to guarantee that cabinets would always abide by the council’s ruling, he chose a rare and subtle solution, one vid of legal force but massively binding in practice’. He made the emperor issue an ‘imperial message’ listing a number of ordinances henceforth to be referred to the Privy Council and including among them all those relating to examinations, appointments, discipline, dismissals and rankings of the bureaucrats.
A personal communication from the emperor — as distinct from a formal Imperial Edict — could never be overruled, and there was no precedent or procedure for asking an emperor to rescind it. …
Once the decision took shape among the oligarchs that Japan was not to be ruled by popular mandate through elected representatives, they were faced with the task of structuring and augmenting a ruling class. The formula they adopted still determines the allocation of power in present-day Japan. The principle of hereditary selection was giving way at the time to meritocratic principles. For many years following the restoration, an important qualification for membership in the oligarchy and its bureaucratic extensions was participation in the movement that had led to the coup d’etat or membership of the Satsuma or Choshu samurai class. Subsequently, ‘Western knowledge’, preferably absorbed in Europe or the United States became increasingly important. But by the turn of the century the surest, and almost the sole, way to get into the class of ‘those in the know’ that manages the country was to graduate from the department of the University of Tokyo — a tradition that, as we have seen, determines the character of Japanese schooling today.
Todai acquired its pivotal position in conferring legitimacy as a result the treaties providing for extraterritoriality that Japan had signed with the Western powers. As already mentioned, the foreigners were ready to scrap these deeply hated stipulations only if and when legal trails could be conducted by a competent judiciary. It was the desperate need this created that launched the law department of Todai in its function of ordaining the modern samurai. Its graduates did not, initially, need to pass the civil service exams in order to fill the highest posts, and by 1890 their supply was large enough to fill nearly all administrative vacancie and more than half the judicial vacancies.
More than 50 per cent of Todai graduates in the 1880s achieved high status, and one out of every four attained membership in the upper elite, as against one out of twenty-five graduates from Waseda or Keio (the major private universities). Seventy of the 76 vice-ministers in the eight ministries between 1901 and 1926 were Todai graduates.
So far as intellect and skill are concerned, this now firmly entrenched method of ordaining the ruling is fairly arbitrary. What was true then is true today: the special ‘knowledge’ and thus ‘virtue of the bureaucrat, which helps lend their role a semblance of legitimacy, comes down to membership in a class of people that has managed the art of passing the most abstruse entrance examinations. … Its ranks have been selected mainly for stamina and dedication. Todai graduates tend to be ‘bright’, but many Japanese with very capable minds of a different cast are discarded and doomed permanently to operate on the fringes. Much capacity for original thinking is wasted. The Japanese ruling class is far more throroughly schooled than it is educated….” (pps 307-308)
“Path to the pinnacles
The selection begins at a very early stage, but to see why it should do so we must start at the other end, where the universities supply their batches of graduates to the larger corporations and the bureaucracy.
Japanese higher education forms a hierarchy, with Todai (the University of Tokyo) – more specifiically, its law department — at its apex. Todai’s graduates have the best chance of gaining admission to the Ministry of Finance, the best jumping board for a try at the prime ministership or another career in the LDP. It also provides the business conglomerates with many of its future top managers. The University of Kyoto and other former imperial universities, upon almost the same level as Todai, produce a smaller part of the elite. Yet it s not easy to convey just how much the Todai label is venerated. For a century past, its law department has ‘ordained’ almost all Japan’s top administrators; a diploma from this school is practically a ticket into the ruling class.
Students of French government may think they recognise this phenomenon, and point out the role of the grandes ecoles. But the variety among the latter is considerably greater, and it matters very much what subjects a student has studied there, and how hard.
One rung down the hierarchy, but still highly respectable and difficult to get into, come Waseda and Keio, two private universities in Tokyo. Waseda’s reputation rests on graduates who became politicians and journalists, while Keio has always given access to the higher reaches of the business world. Farther down again one finds the medium-ranking universities such as Chuo, Meiji, Sophia (run by Jesuits) and Rikkyo. And beneath these is a plethora of smaller provincial and private universitie and colleges, women’s junior colleges and specialised training institutions for subjects like art and music, the last-named forming a small hierarchy of their own.
The quality of university education has never been the criterion for reaching the heights of Japan’s administrative apparatus. Once it became clear, in the final decades of the last century, that political decision-making would become the privilege of a class selected by examination rather than by heredity or some other non-meritocratic criterion, debate centred not on the quality or even the content of what was being taught but on which examinations, given by what authority, would provide the filter. What students today actually absorb from the law course at Todai which gains them access to the peaks of the adminsitrative hierarchies is unimpressive when compared to what students must know to graduate from many European and the better American universities.
The quality of instruction in the lowerst-ranking schools is not necessarily less than in the elite schools. The universities in the middle reaches and above would not lose their ranking and reputation no matter how much they were to deteriorate. For though the bureacracy and the large firms give entrance exams that are theoretically open to everyone, in fact they hire according to a quota system, taking in a more or less established portion of graduates from each of the various universities. The educational hierarchy corresponds with the economic- bureacratic one. A middle-ranking firm would not dream of trying to take on a Todai graduate; and by the same token a graduate from, say Chuo University rarely climbs to the highest levels of business and never of government.
Japanese are acutely aware of which schools the poeple they deal with have attended. …
What students do during their four years as undergraduates is of little account, unless they do it in the faculties of medicine, engieneering or the physical sciences — which mostly lead to careers outside the business bureaucratic ‘elite course’. Law, economics and commerce–with a nearly exclusive emphasis on what writers on the administrative aspects of these fields have said — are the favoured subjects for gaining entry to the higher levels of the System. …
Graduation is virtually automatic. Students who can demonstrate that they have worked harder than most have better chances of being admitted to the bureaucracy and top business firms. But graduates who have spent four years doing nothing at name schools can always find employment at a higher level than more capable graduates with lower-ranking diplomas. For most students the university means pure relaxation, a brief fling at life before entering the regimented world of business organisations.” (pps. 84-85)