from Sapio Magazine (Sept. 28)

“One has to think of education in Japan,” wrote sociologist Ronald Dore in 1982, “as an enormously elaborate, very expensive testing system with some educational spinoffs, rather than as the other way around.”

Criticism in that vein fueled 20 years of off-and-on education reform, a gradual deregulation process culminating, on April 1, 2004, in
government-affiliated national universities becoming “independent agencies.”

So where does Japan stand today, pedagogically speaking?

“Japan’s universities,” declares Sapio, “are on the brink of meltdown.”

Intellectual bankruptcy is already here; financial bankruptcy is around the corner; and the nation’s demography, with its rapidly declining university-age population, hardly promises an academic resurgence any time soon. That is the broad picture emerging from Sapio’s series of reports on the state of “reformed” higher education in Japan.

Two professors, Tsuneharu Okabe of Saitama University and Yo Kawanari of Hosei University, focus in back-to-back articles on intellectual bankruptcy. Okabe expresses astonishment and frustration at how dense, immature and ignorant students are nowadays. And professors, Kawanari maintains, are little better.

Students’ academic ability is in free-fall, writes Okabe. Simple logical
thinking is beyond them. Their vocabulary is childish, their grasp of
mathematics feeble, their curiosity nowhere in evidence. The latter is
doubly surprising, he points out, in view of the young generation’s easy familiarity with the Internet — but the Net apparently appeals to them more as a playground than as a research venue.

Kawanari saves his venom for his professorial colleagues. It is remarkable, he writes, how many authors’ names appear on even brief research papers, some no more than a page long. “All those ‘authors’,” he says, “leave it uncertain as to whose work it really is. If a question arises, who do you address it to? Evasion of responsibility is written into the very system” — which helps explain, he adds, why Japan’s roster of currently active professors includes not a single Nobel Prize winner — as against 48 at the U.K’s Cambridge University alone.

Kawanari marvels at how sloppily written many academic papers are — “but that’s not the worst of it,” he says, citing an Education Ministry survey showing that a quarter of all university teachers have not published anything at all in the past five years.

Maybe that’s not the worst of it either. In June, Hagi International
University in Yamaguchi Prefecture declared bankruptcy. Others will follow, predicts economic journalist Kiyoshi Shimano in his contribution to Sapio’s series. “My estimate,” he writes, “is that by 2010, 50 universities will have gone bankrupt — and 50 others will have downsized.”

The reason, he says, is clear. In 1991 there were 2.01 million 18-year-olds in Japan. In 2004 there were 1.38 million. In 2014 there will probably be 1.21 million.

Accompanying this demographic plunge has been a wave of university foundings which, on the face of it, seems absurd. Between 1996 and 2005, 167 new four-year universities opened, most of them private, raising the total nationwide number to 710. The apparent explanation is the rising proportion — now some 50 percent — of high-school students going on to college. But ultimately, the student numbers weren’t there to justify the expansion. When universities must scramble for entrants — when no paying customer is turned away — standards go out the window.

Why, then, not appeal to foreign students as a prime source of financial relief and intellectual invigoration? The idea goes back at least to 1983, conceived as part of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s efforts to internationalize Japan. His goal of 100,000 foreign students was reached in 2003, a year ahead of schedule.