Tokyo Damage Report

Japan book review 11: THE STATE BEARING GIFTS by Brian McVeigh

 buy it here.

This is amazing book about how Japanese daigaku (colleges) are "simulated learning" – teachers pretending to teach, to students who pretend to learn. That sounds like a pretty severe thing to say about a whole country's higher education system, but McVeigh lays down some serious evidence for it.




 First, all the sentences like this:

“Highlighting theoretical linkages between exchange theory and social dramatics has implications for comparative studies of political systems besides Japan’s, particularly in regards to modernity, social stability,and the ideological manufacture of legitimacy.”


Compare that to this Scientology training manual;


Once you've had the location cog, it is generally enough to just touch one and he realizes that he's not located, nor was he ever located in the first place and he frees up.   One thing that messes this up is to run NOTS processes "locating" BTs.   You can still spot where one happens to think he is, but if you push it, or search for one somewhere, you frequently find yourself forcing a BT to occupy that location.

Honestly someday somebody should systematically compare “out-there” academic jargon to rantings of Scientologists or schizophrenics just for fun. What rules of syntax make the two styles so eerily similar, and what social forces prevent us from stating that obvious fact out loud?


STATE BEARING GIFTS is interesting because out of all the “Japan” books I’ve read so far, this one is the only one that’s BOTH "liberate the people from capitalism! Speak truth to power and all that PC stuff!" but also totally:  “Japanese are all lying liars! Yeah, yeah, it’s their culture and yadda yadda, but so what: lies are lies. Call a spade a spade. I’m totally not interested in whatever ‘tradition’ you people use to justify this.”

The book’s main weakness is he didn’t interview anyone. He spends the first half of the book discussing abstract buzzwords like “performative circuitry” and “exchange dynamism in the ethno-educato-policracy”, and the second half of the book listing a huge number of too-short, out-of-context anecdotes that he pulled out of newspapers and other academics’ papers.


His method seems to be to skip all the nuances, context, or interesting details.   Reduce the whole anecdote to two sentences, which is enough detail for him to hang one of his buzzwords on it: “This is yet another example of blahblahblah.” And then move on to the next one. “I’m going to take your whole academic paper, steal your conclusions, leave out all your explanations, and then slap my own buzzword on it. My job is done here! Time for snacks!”


Like he complains that gaijin students at Japanese colleges are “segregated” into a “ghetto” – but doesn’t mention if those students speak Japanese or not. Um, dude? Don’t you think that’s kind of important when determining how racist or not that situation is? Man? Sir?


Another problem :  when McVeigh relates stories about daigaku doing shady things – he never distinguishes between the super-elite daigaku that all the kids go to cram school to get into and the barely-functional, seat-of-the-pants daigaku that do whatever just to survive on the streets. This omission is an especially big problem when he deals with the issue of entrance exam tests.


Also, he keeps complaining that Japanese daigaku aren’t serious about teaching useful skills, and that students aren’t serious about learning. True! But! Even the most noob-ish JET teacher knows that in Japan, daigaku is a reward for busting your ass through junior high and high school. It’s play-time. And also it’s a way to make connections with other students, who will help you get jobs. And in Japan, you learn what you need to learn on the job.


We all know this. But McVeigh persists in being shocked/scandalized by it.

The same way, he keeps writing about fakery, but acts like he’s never heard of tatemae and honne before, although I’m sure he has. It’s unclear if he simply thinks that “tatemae/honne” is some bullshit, or if he thinks that the problem of "simulated education"  is totally unrelated.


It’s like, OK, it is fucked up. Of course it’s fucked up. But don’t act like you don’t know the deal, McVeigh. He says 100 times, “Look, it’s phoney!” without even one time saying, “OK, here is the context of higher education in Japan, which explains quite logically the reason why it’s phoney.” 


I’m not saying he should roll over like “Oh, cultural relativism and all that, I’ll just show myself the door.”

But as an anthropolo-linguisto-scholo-teacher-guy, it’s his damn job to learn the culture that he’s trying to explain. He's all like, “The only analytical tools I will use are European anthropology and French intellectual tools. These are pure universal truth, and I don’t need to use anything else.”


It’s like he’s a parody of how Japanese people see westerners and our universal morals.


And then there’s this gem of a paragraph:


“The proclaimed aims of an institution bear little relation to its actual activities, and yet, in a certain sense, the institution still functions. . . . It should be stressed that to merely accuse Japan’s higher education system as suffering from bad quality hides and interesting truth about why institutions to not collapse even though they do not fulfill their stated function. The hundreds of daigaku that make up Japan’s higher education system illustrate well what I have elsewhere called “institutional mendacity.” I have argued that daigaku are beyond the mode of “institutional subversion” (failure) because they still “function” in a manner of speaking (McVeigh, 2002). Daigaku survive because though they may not function as learning sites, they are successful as institutions that employ professors and store students waiting for work.”


Rad things about this:


  • He’s openly pissed that daigaku can continue to function, even though they don't fit his theories.
  • He cites himself as a reference.
  • “institutional subversion” (failure) . . .He has to add “(failure)” in parenthesis, because he knows nobody uses his jargon of “institutional subversion.”


Anyway – I'll now move on to what the book is about, instead of just dumping on it.




McVeigh looks at Japanese education in terms of gift exchange. Why gifts? Because gifts were around before capitalism or communism – they’re the one constant among all cultures.


And all gift-exchanges (according to McVeigh’s theory) have three stages: 1) giving, 2) accepting the gift, and 3) reciprocating.


So McVeigh is looking at modern governments as very sophisticated gift-exchange machines: the State gives us an army, police, fire-fighters, hospitals, and education. And in return, the citizens reciprocate by paying taxes, fighting in wars, being obedient, and (of course) going to cram school 6 hours a day.


But, how to tell if the gifts are equal? If I give you dessert, and you want to give me some gay porn in return, how do we determine how many issues of INCHES equal one 2 pound pecan pie?


By the same token, who decides how much tax/dead soldiers/ hours of study is equal to the government’s services? The government, that’s who. And that’s how they get ya. Like how the odds of the games in a casino always favor the house.

Also : currencies. How do kids pay back the state? Not gay porn (anymore) . . . like other countries, they repay with good grades or lots of time wasted studying . . . But there’s also another form of currency that is unique to Japan is what McVeigh calls “dramatic presentations of self”: in other words, you don’t just have to do the work, but act (to your teachers, etc.) like you LIKE doing the work, like that is the most important thing in your life. Next thing you know – boom – you’re lying to YOURSELF about what kind of person you are. Alienation!


(Spoiler alert: He’s really against alienation)


McVeigh makes a metaphor:


Fair gift-exchanges are like this: I give you a nickel for a bottle of wine.

Unfair exchanges are like this: I give you a wooden nickel. Or I give you a real nickel but you give me an empty bottle.

“Simulated” exchanges are beyond unfair: I give you a wooden nickel for your empty wine bottle.

And that’s daigaku in a nutshell.


McVeigh says, “What’s the harm of pretending, if both parties are in on it? It is all just an act, a victimless crime of exchange.” But, he warns : this much fakery must harm society. Somehow. Down the line. Although he himself admits he can’t prove how. 

I get the sense he actually hopes it harms Japan, since Japan deserves it.


If he would just have stuck with “Teachers falsifying attendance and grades is bullshit,” then he’d have an open-and-shut case. But then, he wouldn’t need all this confusing and important-sounding “gift dynamic circuitry of the educatio-capitalist establishment” hullabaloo. And his book wouldn't sound properly "academic."


So who’s really putting up fronts, whitey?





One of the better themes of the book is how Japanese authorities are super-paranoid about outsiders giving gifts freely: The Man seems to want a monopoly on gift-giving, so that everyone owes only him.


The state is a jealous god ; thus the tax regulations about gift-giving (to impede the amassing of wealth in families) and laws about who can and cannot receive presents from companies and foreign nations (designed to insulate the regular Japanese gift-giving loop from outsiders bearing gifts).


He points out that the state doesn’t like juku (cram schools, college-prep tutors)  because the juku give gifts to students without official permission : the students start to owe the juku more than the state.

And then two more anecdotes on this theme, from his days as a professor at a daigaku:

When the daigaku president threw a small cheese and wine party for the faculty, and administrator complained. The real issue was how the president had circumvented the daigaku’s patronage network: by financing the party with his own funds, the president ‘s kindness threatened the administrator’s financial and patronage control over teachers.


A similar event occurred when a non-Japanese teacher planned at ea party that he said he’d pay for the tea: he was told that “food was not allowed” in the special events room, even though it was allowed for events which the administration held (meaning, that their permission was needed, and those events were ‘gifts’ from the administration).





A major form of academic corruption is just plain money. Surprise! Since Japan’s population is declining, colleges face declining enrollment. So! How do they deal with it?


“Some daigaku hold parties (not just on campus, but in restaurants, houseboats, etc.) and engage in ‘excesses of wining and dining’ high-school students.”


Also: bribing high-school teachers and guidance counselors to recommend a certain daigaku.


If that doesn’t work, the daigaku will advertise in China, Taiwan, or Korea. Sure, the students generally don’t go to class. They use the “student visa” as a work visa. And the daigaku becomes a "visa mill."


Like anywhere else, high-school students apply to many colleges. But in Japan, you have to pay upwards of $300 to take an “entrance test” for EACH daigaku. And many daigaku court high-school students that they know won’t pass, just to get that money. Not only that, the 'failure rate' of the exams is widely publicized, so the more students fail, the more prestigious your daigaku seems (high standards!), so the next year even more kids will sign up!


Then there’s a related scam: if you pass the exam to, say, 3 different daigaku, then you have to pay around $6,000 as a “deposit” to hold your place. If you decide on daigaku A, then the other two daigaku will keep your deposit. It’s unclear if this is legal, or Japanese people just don’t want to make a big fuss about it.


Another way daigaku get paid, is hospitals! Japanese hospitals need one or two doctors from high-prestige medical schools in order to attract patients. It’s good PR. But they can only get those doctors by giving lots of “research grants” to the medical schools.




Once students are in,   it’s bad form to let them drop out.


Failing students are allowed to re-take tests, students who can’t even come to the minimum 2/3 of classes get their attendance records fudged, and even students who are accused of harassment or rape find their alleged crimes covered up.


“Also, many daigaku maintain two types of transcripts, one for the institutional face (a doctored version submitted to prospective employers that does not record too many failures and poor attendance), and the other for its interior (a record of a student’s actual performance).”


Furthermore, many students ‘double school’, that is, while they are formally going to daigaku, they simultaneously attend vocational schools to acquire ‘real’ credentials.”


Professors are typically told to give 20 percent A7s, 50 percent B’s, and 20 percent C’s. and some, I noticed, just skip evaluation altogether and give everyone the same grade.

 Other professors routinely give the whole class ‘A’s. McVeigh includes a copy of an adorable memo  where the administration encourages professors to give other grades sometimes.This is one of my favorite parts of the book.


A Japanese professor told McVeigh, “If I attempted to teach difficult material, the students would ignore me and others would suddenly ask to go to the bathroom and never return. . . . Just keep them busy and entertain them.”


McVeigh explains this ‘A-mania’ by saying Japanese professors don’t want responsibility for giving bad grades, since it creates conflict. Parents will raise hell:

There have been cases of teachers having failed students only to face repeated pressure in the form of phone calls, letter, and fax messages from school personnel – who often face pressure from parents in turn.


When students fail, they are asked to write a report, and still get to pass the class. This demoralizes the students who bothered to study.


At one daigaku, students who didn’t turn in their senior theses on time were allowed to graduate but were penalized by not being allowed to attend the graduation party.


The rule of thumb is, if you miss a third of classes, you fail. But not only do students routinely miss more and NOT fail (they write a busy-work paper instead), but faculty spend lots of time debating whether it would be rude to even TELL the students “You’re coming close to the 33% limit.”


Funny story:  conservative bureaucrats point to this poor attendance as the inevitable result of “Western individualist values” that are wrecking Japan, so the solution is: less of those. In other words, even more 'hollowing out' of the meaning of education.


Also: daigaku seniors routinely used to miss lots of classes as they look for jobs. There was an unspoken understanding that “job-hunting absences” are not “real” absences, and the students should not be punished for them, since the daigaku exists not to teach, but to keep Japan strong by getting everyone a good job. But since 1997, the corporations have fucked up the deal, starting to interview juniors as well. SO now both junior-year and senior-year absenteeism is at an all-time high.


To McVeigh, this shows that even Japanese businesses think daigaku is just "simulated learning": they know they are causing kids to miss class, but they think the classes are a joke, so who cares? Fuck your classes, professor!




McVeigh says this “never fail anyone” phenomenon “seems to be” more common at daigaku with “falling enrollments.” But there’s no data. How many of these shady practices are on the rise compared to 40 years ago? How many of them go on at big-name universities?


And how was it different around 1900 -1920, when Japan needed to teach real substantial stuff in order to industrialize and catch up to the West?


It would be nice if McVeigh had investigated how much of this type of corruption was all about the tuition cash, how much was the “If we admit there are problems at our shit, then we lose face, so cover it up” mentality, and how much was simply that “unspoken understanding” thing that the Japanese are so fond of (In this case, an unspoken understanding between daigaku and parents).


Seriously, though, what about the parents? Do they think, “Oh that happens at other schools, not my kid’s school!” or do they think, “OK maybe that happens at my kid’s school, but since MY kid would never fail an exam, or skip class, who cares?” Or do they honestly not know?


Are parents like, “Well, my son/daughter worked so hard in high school, he/she deserves some play time before entering the corporations”? Do parents understand that daigaku is all about connections? 


They pressured their kid to go to cram school 60 hours a week to get in a good daigaku . .. Do they apply the same pressure their kids to network with their classmates from more powerful families?




The whole “never hold students accountable” thing is attributed to a Japanese concept: amae, which means mutual dependence (like between a child and mother). It's traditional,  but some Japanese say  that too much amae (especially amae between a grown-up and institutions) stunts emotional growth, rendering everyone a perpetual child in some ways.


The students are  allowed to misbehave on campus (not just poor attendance but violence and bullying) without any consequences, because they’re just big kids. The kids get the message and act childish. It becomes a chicken-and-egg question. In fact the whole daigaku system as described by McVeigh seems to be a classic case of Japan’s “leaderless society.” : nobody (not the teachers, the ministry of education, the administration, or the parents) takes responsibility for students who get out of line.


The concept that college is supposed to make you an adult (taking responsibility for yourself, learning how to deal with different types of people, how not to get taken advantage of in the real world, and so on) never caught on in Japan. Let’s keep them kids, so that they depend on us and are not able to develop into individuals.  


In keeping with the concept of amae, the students are openly referred to as children. In instructor at a graduate school noted that among thirteen students aged 22 to 26, only one said “I am an adult.” Eleven said “I am a child” and one said “I don’t know.”


But here's the thing: amae is ALSO a concept that is important when you join a Japanese company. Workers who are independent, even if they get things done, stand out and make everyone else look bad.


So it’s a question of, is the university’s priority supposed to be helping kids get good jobs, or making them not be ignorant?

Which leads to the other big question: do kids have to choose between being educated and being ‘Japanese?’

 These questions sort of hover over the entire book.





But, McVeigh cautions, it’s not just that the students are lazy. Many are overburdened with studying – except that it’s pretend studying:


Enduring monotonous lectures, studying for boring materials and preparing for poorly designed tests. Moreover, students take between 12 and 20 different subjects per week.

And yet, the papers they write don’t have to be good:

Students are encouraged not to worry about such irrelevancies as clarity, organization , or logic. Papers may consist entirely of quotations.


Best quote of the whole book is an unnamed Japanese professor, which McVeigh cribs from another academic, and I in turn crib from McVeigh:


Rather quickly I began to get an image of students crowded like lobsters or crabs sloshing somewhat lethargically about in a large aquarium tank. Young yuppies in training for the boiling pot of company life. Undergraduate university here seems to be a yuppie holding tank, a place to put all these exhausted young people , while they wait for jobs. It’s a place of clubs of every type and description, numerous holidays (about 4 months of the year) and a policy of ‘attend and you’ll pass’. Little in our department at least suggests academic rigor, simulations of ideas, scholarship. Or much in the way of learning. These are the years the students get to “relax” after the tremendous effort to get to university and before the overwhelming dedication required in their future company careers. Mind you, if relax means over twenty classes five days a week, I’d hate to see what hard work is. It’s a strange combination of long hours of work with the atmosphere of a summer camp holiday. It combines the two overriding principles that I sense in Japanese society: appearance and endurance.


In other words, here's the priority: Attitude and scores at the top, actually being smart or curious or learning things you can use in everyday life at the bottom.


Which is, to be fair, what most corporations want to hire. In Japan, attitude, getting along with groups, and following proper procedures are important, while results, choosing your own groups, and being logical are not.


It was reported that students spend 26.5 hours per week studying. Since this includes time in class, which averages 24 to 26 hours a week, this number is not very impressive.


And as for the kids . . . All this cutting class and failing tests – is that a symptom of kids enjoying themselves too much, or a symptom of kids resenting the meaningless emptiness of it all?


In other words, do the kids have a consensus on the 'college is playtime for us, our learning is all simulated' issue? Do they think it’s good or bad?


Frustratingly, McVeigh doesn't go into this at all. It’s not clear to what extent the kids know that college is supposed to be a holding pen / playtime / place to make connections for future work.


 Towards the end of the book, McVeigh briefly examines why some students feel let down by the colleges they worked so hard to get in: Class sizes are huge, the professors drone on, heedless if the students are paying attention or not. Other students talk so loud that one can’t hear the teacher.  Asking questions is discouraged.

Reports which students work very hard on are seldom handed back. So the students don’t know what the teacher thought of their shit, or even if the teacher read it at all.


But McVeigh doesn’t say if these complaints are common (which would hint that the average Japanese high schooler actually wants  a western-style university) or uncommon (which would mean that Japanese high schoolers are savvy about the ‘real’ meaning of daigaku).


Again, the problem with STATE BEARING GIFTS is: no actual new research, no talking to real people.




I’ll give you the gift of “automatically passing the classes no matter what you do,” if you give me the gift of “continuing to pay tuition despite being overwhelmed with meaningless work and alienated from all the other students who just plain don’t give a shit.”





As for the professors, with all the kids texting, talking, and eating in class. . .they don’t seem to give a shit, as long as they have a captive audience, and they can talk about any old thing without getting in trouble or getting asked questions.


Bombshell: Very few daigaku professors hold doctorates.


The problems of Japanese professors could fill an entire book. Professors are hired and promoted the same way as salarimen: connections and seniority, not talent or published papers / research. So you wind up with  “elite” universities where around 80% of the faculty is made up of former students, who all got their jobs because they were students of  the department chair (the most senior professor of the department).


Pleasing the chair and waiting your turn for promotion is the most important. If you actually published papers and discovered new theories, you’d make the chair look bad by comparison.


Foreign teachers, on the other hand, are treated like all foreign employees: temporary, outside the patronage network, not told the reasons for decisions, and easy to fire. In contrast to foreign salarimen (who might be viewed as necessary in selling the company’s product to foreigners), foreign professors are basically decoration.

Since "University" is a Western invention, the thinking goes, we need some Westerners around to make it look authentic. The fact that university values re: education have been “hollowed out” and made Japanese doesn’t matter. Of course the gaijin – being prestige-enhancing decorations – have to have good credentials, published papers, and hopefully be bilingual.


Which is not expected of Japanese professors, because Japanese professors came by their jobs the right way: patronage networks.


Whereas , in the USA, we have so many foreign students and teach them so many legitimate skills, there’s a huge problem of all the good jobs going overseas, as foreigners leave America and go home to start their own high-tech companies, while American kids are so fat and lazy they couldn’t even get into the universities in the first place and wind up working at Foot Locker.





The role of juku in all of this is one of the best parts of the book:

Juku are cram schools that you go to after regular high school – why you see some junior high kids just getting "out of class"  at 7PM.  Certain juku specialize in training you to pass certain high-status universities' entrance examinations.


For years, the Education Ministry has been unhappy with juku, presumably because better-heeled families could use juku to give their children an unfair advantage. In the late 1990s, however, the Ministry changed its policy from ignoring juku to integrating them into the formal schooling experience. It recommended that juku start doing science experiments and field trips, and that PTAs work more closely with them. The state, apparently fearing that juku could short-circuit its own gift-exchange, felt compelled to incorporate them.


But then the juku flipped the script: around eleven high-status juku are now actually HELPING UNIVERSITIES WRITE THE TESTS. Which is like hiring a wolf to guard your hen-house. But then again, juku actually have test specialists on their staff, whereas university tests are written by professors with no test-writing or test-taking experience. It’s almost exactly like how the Japanese parliament is run by pols with no experience making laws so they let the bureaucracy write all the laws.


Needless to say, there are a lot of scandals with test questions being leaked.






McVeigh drops the bomb:


The truth is that around 40 to 50 percent of students who are accepted into a daigaku do not take the exams at all; instead they are recommended by their high school teachers, or sit through highly perfunctory “interviews”.


Entrance exams are sold to the public as very egalitarian, scientific, and fair: anyone can apply! Even poor kids have a shot at the middle-class life! You don’t even have to be smart – as long as you make the effort you can get in! Tests are numbers, and numbers don’t lie!


However, despite the scientific and super-ritualized way the exams are conducted (armored cars to take the tests to the place they’re graded! The entire teaching staff monitoring the students for cheating! The entire teaching staff walks the students to and from the exam room! You have exactly 24.43455 minutes to finish this section! Place your pencils at an exact 94 degree angle on your desk (which must be 102.5 centimeters wide – the exact width scientifically calculated for optimum test results!) to signal that you have finished!), the actual way the daigaku are run behind the scenes is very seat-of-the-pants and do-do-doop-dee-doop-de-durr-durr.

Daigaku are expected to evaluate their own quality: how students are selected, credits awarded,and grades assigned.They could be spinning a wheel of fortune. Who knows? That's not disclosed to anyone.

Daigaku lack any sort of third-party evaluations to keep them honest. Although – speaking of honesty – I don’t even have a fraction of a clue if America’s universities have “third-party” evaluation, and how successful that evaluation is. You’d think that since this whole book is based on a comparison of “Japan=bad, America=good,” McVeigh would bother to explain how America does it. Does anyone reading this know?

He keeps saying that daigaku provide only “simulations of” learning, and that there is no system of measuring how effective the teaching is . . .but doesn’t compare them to senmongakkou (technical or vocational schools), which to me would be the natural thing to do. I mean, senmongakkou have to teach real skills: you can’t “simulate” knowing how to use a belt-sander, or you’ll lose your fingers.


And I’m sure senmongakkou also have a big bureaucracy. So how do THEY deal with it?


ANYWAY, returning to the "exam hell" :

Almost no entrance examinations are written by people who specialize in writing tests. The daigaku professors, who have not taken a test in decades, have no idea what makes a test fair or unfair, have never cracked a book about test-writing. . . .they just meet in a back room somewhere and throw out the most random questions possible.


For example in 1998, Meiji daigaku’s school of political science asked from which parts of the bible certain quotations came. Some multiple choice questions ask respondents to select from lists of options that often contain more than one potentially correct answer. Some questions expect examinees to have deep knowledge of subjects that were never taught in high schools, while other questions are too easy to be of any use in assessing a person’s abilities. In short, test makers seem to be giving little thought to their questions or to the realities of examinees.


(Again, though, this kind of arbitrary guessing-game  prepares students for the salaryman life where, “the boss says one, and the worker hears ten.”)


Examinations themselves have lost their original purpose and are not evaluating knowledge acquisition, but rather assessing one’s endurance determination and loyalty to the authorities that administer (those tests). This all concerns another myth about education an examinations: students may have suffered through rote memorization but having prepared for all those tests they must have learned a great deal. The truth is that examination preparation is not even rote memorization but more like an empty and highly ritualized drill.


Examples of these meaningless questions? Exactly none. God damn it.


Does anyone out there have a copy of English language questions from these tests?


Speaking of those who design English examinations, McVeigh quotes an un-named source as saying that professors ‘ . . .are concerned not so much with what an English text has to say, but rather with the frequency with which particular words or idioms are tested in these exams. Statistics replace meaning. In this process of converting words into numbers, some lecturers find an intellectual excitement peculiar to their occupation, a certain relief in what is held to be the reliability of the calculation. Some even talk with a complacent, almost tantalizing air as they explain their technique for deriving the correct answers for questions without having to bother to read the text the questions are being asked about.’



The contradiction of exam hell and yet not knowing anything;

50 percent of daigaku are taking some measures to bridge the gap between what students learned at high school and what they should have learned before entering universities.” In other words, remedial classes.


But wait , you say. Next to Korea, Japan has the most ruthless “exam hell” in the world. These students have to pass these exams to get into college, so how could they possibly be remedial??


McVeigh doesn’t say. Huh?


Reading between the lines, I am going to guess that the “stuff you are supposed to know by the time you get to college” is stuff that the high schools skipped teaching, in order to devote more time to helping students prep for the college entrance exams.

If that’s not the reason, then WTF?


exams and hensachi:

Japanese tend to rank daigaku by their hensachi. And what’s a hensachi? The ratio of students that failed the entrance exam for that particular daigaku. If 9 out of 10 students pass, that daigaku must be pretty desperate for students, thus low-class. But. If only 1 in 10 students passes, then that daigaku must have really high standards, and not only that, but it must be really popular, so I want to go there too!

Hensachi sounds very scientific, standardized and fair, because it’s a percentage. But. Since each daigaku uses a different exam, the hensachi number doesn’t really measure one school against the others. I mean, I could make up a test tomorrow that 99% of kids would fail, but that wouldn’t mean that my daigaku was the best, or even that I had a daigaku. Since all my questions would be based on Wu-Tang lyrics.


But, the more entrance exams that a daigaku schedules, the more money they make. And the more people fail, the more prestigious the daigaku looks. It’s a win-win!


To grossly simplify matters, in Japan’s schools there are two ways to judge people: nouryoku-shugi (ability-ism), and doryoku shugi (effort-ism).


The problem with doryoku shugi is that it makes kids waste their childhood competing to see who can waste the most hours, while holding back kids who are actually smarter.


The problem with noryoku shugi is that it’s elitist and not egalitarian.


Many daigaku are reportedly afraid of improving entrance examinations because this might scare away students (who have spent 3 years In cram schools dedicated to passing the current tests).


“Motivated by fears that the masses are not receiving a fair deal from officialdom, many Japanese people ask how exams could be made more egalitarian. Such discussions assume that the exam machinery itself works for individuals, and it just needs more oil to make it run smoother. However, the fact is, the exams and the education system work for state and capitalist interests. More than just a testing system, it’s more like an “examocracy.”


In other words, fucked exams are not a bug, they’re a feature. In order to pass the exams, you have to study until 7 PM for all your teenage years, all the while knowing that the information on the test is not useful in real life. In a way, the exams aren’t the point. If they were, they would be full of useful questions. The point of the whole system – test, cram school, and all – is to separate “kids who want to play” from “kids who have no problem giving up the best years of their lives for a reward that will come after retirement.”

The ’public face’ of education is that the system is designed to produce and reward smart kids. The ‘private face’, known only to administrators and bureaucrats, is that the educational system is designed to weed out anyone with a shred of individuality – anyone who wants a childhood, anyone who wants to leave school at 3 PM instead of 7,anyone who doesn’t understand that the unwritten rules are the most important. What the kid “officially” learns on the test is almost beside the point.


 Which brings us to . . .



Why is it important to do all this soul-killing in the first place? Here lies an interesting issue, one which McVeigh totally doesn’t get into because he just blithely blames it on ‘capitalist forces’.


The bureaucrats would say that they’re just ‘preserving Japanese culture’. You or I might say that they’re really trying to make kids ideal obedient workers for big business, and that ‘real’ Japanese values might be a little more tolerant, sensible, flexible, and friendly. But, being a foreigner, I don’t know that much about the nuances of traditional Japanese values. And regular Japanese, I’m afraid, are trained not to even ask the difference between the two. So there’s a good debate to be had re: are pro-business, obedient values REALLY all there is to traditional culture?


And another, more general debate to be had about: should universities teach skills to get you a good job, and socialize students so they will blend in with society, and therefore be successful? Or should universities teach facts and make people smarter, more curious, and more able to explain the world around themselves?


And why do those two things seem to overlap more in some countries than in others?

And here's what I REALLY want to know:

To what extent is there a consensus among Japanese people about the meaning of daigaku? What makes this an interesting question is, YOU CAN’T ASK IT. Even discussing it would mean admitting that, right now, daigaku is not about education at all.


So you can’t even have a debate about, “Should we have daigaku to produce smart people or daigaku for playtime and networking?”


So to me, that would have been a good place to start the book. But what do I know, I’m not a teacher.



DISHING ON HIS FORMER EMPLOYER (nice work if you can get it!)


McVeigh spends not one but two whole chapters dishing dirt on his former Japanese school, Amadera Women’s Academy, which, try as I might, I keep reading as Madeira Women’s Academy, which makes me thirsty.


Apparently this is a thing with McVeigh: he has at least one other book (THE MYTH OF JAPANESE HIGHER EDUCATION) which dishes on a different Japanese university he taught at. And you wonder why they don’t trust gaijin!   According to the book jacket, McVeigh currently teaches at Arizona Univeristy. So maybe in another couple years we can read “WHAT THE FUCK, ARIZONA? YOU ALL CAN’T LEARN FOR SHIT: an Analysis of American Higher Education by Brian McVeigh, Professor at Munich University in Germany.”


But seriously though, I really like the dishing-on-work genre. I think it’s really under-rated. The whole “zines” fad of the ‘90s was as pathetic as everything from the ‘90s. But there was one zine I will never forgive myself for not copping: some anonymous gay Midwestern gynaecologist, talking shit about his clients’ repulsive lady parts.


So, back to Madeira, I mean Amadera Woman’s Academy. Apparently the school president  wanted to make a very western, feminist, girl-power school. Although you can by this point probably guess how that turned out, McVeigh’s eye for gruesome details is fascinating.


First: the idea that women having more power = less Japanese and more western.


Second : Both the library and computer lab were only open during class hours, and closed after class.


Third : The campus had walls on all four sides, and Students all had to come and to through one gate which had guards. Students didn’t have their own mailboxes “because it might lead to bullying.” Students could not have their pictures taken for PR materials, because other students might get jealous, and this too might lead to bullying. Still another excuse I heard had it that if their pictures appeared on such materials, men might consume the PR brochure as pornography.


Fourth :  there’s a RAD example of how Japanese have their own unique twist on things like “women's studies professor” and “union member”:   At a faculty meeting in which the application procedures of adult students was being discussed, all union members strongly supported the submission of an “employer’s permission form to attend the daigaku” by adult students. The suggestion by non-Japanese professors that having an adult woman ask her male boss permission to attend university during her free time violated the daigaku’s mission of women’s empowerment was completely lost on the union members. After the meeting, a Japanese female professor explained to me why she voted in favor of requesting the permission: due to Japan’s “unique culture”, workers “should give their all to their employers. We should be on call for them at all times.”


Female faculty waiting on male faculty – making tea, serving food, pouring drinks at social events – because it was a “Japanese custom.”  Foreign faculty's attempts to reduce sexist regulations in the student handbook were met with stiff resistance. Interestingly, it was not only the middle-aged males but also the female faculty and staff who were the most adamant in retaining and implementing such regulations.


Seems they were worried – at the feminist empowerment international school – that girls might go off campus and get some dick. Which, date-rape is a serious problem. But rather than deal with the problem by holding self-defense classes and raising awareness, they dealt with it the amae way : keeping the students childlike and naive about sexual predators, so that they could bestow the “gift” of safety on them through 24/7 supervision.


Well I still don’t agree with McVeigh's  method of writing the book, now I can totally see where he got his “Fuck cultural relativism, this is just bullshit” attitude from!



REAL DAIGAKU (hidden from all) AND BIZARRO DAIGAKU (students and teachers)


The main lesson from the downfall of Amadera is this :

The way bureaucrats ruin everything.


The Education Ministry passed all the president’s radical reforms. But within a few years everything was all back to normal. The reason? The president (like the Prime Minister), has very little power. In fact, the whole “teach kids things” part of the daigaku (director, dean, professors, students) is actually kind of a little useless appendix, dangling from the body. The real “body” of the daigaku is the administration, whose board of directors is , let’s assume, mostly Education Ministry amakudari.

And the real purpose of the daigaku is to support and nurture and empower the bureaucracy. Who controls the funding. So rather than fight the director outright, the Ministry allowed his reforms, then made sure the administration voted systematically to defund them. Doh! And in true Japanese style, McVeigh notes that as a mere teacher (and a gaijin at that!) it was like pulling teeth to even find out who in the administration was even making these decisions.

Teachers are outsiders. Power means you don’t have to tell outsiders who is making decisions.


Also: Because enrollments were so low, a fair number of faculty had no classes to teach. However, the Education Ministry has a rule: new daigaku can’t fire anyone for four years. So the classless teachers were given fake work to do: forming groups and having meetings all day. It seems that the teachers’ meetings and groups were bizarro versions of the groups that already existed in the administration, except the bizzarro versions had no power and didn’t do anything. For example, there was a teacher’s committee on admissions standards, but they merely rubber-stamped rules laid down by the administration’s own committee on admissions standards. Of course the administration’s committee was run by bureaucrats, whose only concern was financial, not educational.


Which brings us to .. .




The Ministry does more than install its amakudari in all the top posts of University administrations (both public and private). It also “donates” about 50% of the funding for private daigaku, and can suddenly withhold those subsidies, should those private daigaku manage to tune out the blazhay blazhay of the amakudari.


But that’s not all.


The Ministry seems to be pursuing two contradictory policies at the same time:


ONE: keep on granting applications/creating new daigaku, even though it’s clear that student population is declining, and these new daigaku can’t succeed.


TWO: taking over the failed daigaku, the same way they take over failing banks. (see my report on AMAKUDARI for more of this). Basically they take two or more fucked daigaku and merge them, which is supposed to make them leaner, meaner, and more efficient. However, students now have to routinely commute between two distant campuses for classes, libraries, and student clubs. Also the new “merged” daigaku are run directly by the Ministry. And the Ministry folks, even more than their amakudari, are interested in totally sidelining what remains of education.


Their image of a “perfect daigaku” is one that cares only about the statistics : attendance, test scores, and so on. The actual content of the classes can’t be quantified as a number, so what use is it? Students come in, numbers come out, and as long as the numbers keep going up, we are getting more efficient! For example, since low enrollment is a problem, let’s dumb down entrance exams AND course content. Numbers go up, Problem solved! (the problem being the high numbers of bureaucrats and administrators who might lose their jobs if unpopular daigaku go under)


If the graduates can’t get jobs with their bullshit degrees, who cares? We’re the Education Ministry – our job is to help daigaku administrators. Let the Economy Ministry handle the unemployed graduates. Sheesh! Don’t act like you’ve never seen a bureaucracy before!


McVeigh also relates suspicions from un-named Japanese that the Education Ministry likes building new daigaku for which there is no demand because it helps the construction industry, keeps unemployed youth off the streets, and expands the Ministry’s territory all over Japan.


Another funny thing about bureaucracy:


There is a paradox that each time the nature of this structural problem manifests itself as a tragedy, tighter is exercised to further strengthen the very system which caused the problem.


In other words, too much centralized, top-down state control over daigaku keeps enrollment down, because students don’t have a choice over different types of curricula or learning styles. And the solution to poor attendance is to exercise even more top-down control, to “give guidance” to the ailing daigaku industry. A vicious circle.




Yeah, most other countries of all races “get” the meaning of universities. And yeah, Japan has a long history of “hollowing out” foreign concepts, removing threatening foreign ideas, and producing a “Japanese version” which is sometimes unrecognizable. (which is also a phenomenon that McVeigh ignores). And yeah, if you remove foreign ideas from university – well, university is nothing BUT ideas, right? So that’s probably not going to work well.


Western university is kind of the super pure raw and uncut version of western Enlightenment values, so it’s gonna have an especially hard time in Japan.


The concept that naturally smart kids should beat dumb kids that try hard threatens the Japanese “kumi system” (where all people, (kids OR adults) that enter an organization advance together as one), the sempai-kohai system, and the all-important ganbarre!


The concept of “facts” being “right and wrong regardless of the situation”   (and the related concept of “flunking tests means flunking tests regardless of the situation) fucks with aimai, honnne-tatemae. . . the whole Japanese relational (or context-based) morality.


Also, the dreaded CRITICAL THINKING.


The idea that universities are supposed to teach individual-over-the-state, universal values like freedom, justice, fight the Man, and so on, is not going to go over very well either.


The idea that “knowledge is not a percent rank on a test to impress an authority, knowledge is power, to make the individual a stronger more independent person and change the world” threatens the Japanese idea of . . . oh, let’s say . . . amae, and also threatens the Education Ministry’s patronage system.


And : the idea that the university is supposed to be based on science, which is to say, inventing new things and concepts. As if that wasn’t bad enough, science can only progress if people disagree with each other constantly, junior faculty call bullshit on nobel winners who declare cold fusion is rad, and etc. This threatens, you guessed it, WA, giri, honne-tatemae, lord knows what else.


The western University is supposed to turn kids into adults, not by hammering them with rules but by making them aware of their responsibility to save the world, and forcing them to deal with all different kinds of cultures/ thoughts, so they can interact respectfully with all the different kinds of people that they will meet in adult life. This also horrendously messes not just with amae, but with group-consciousness (shuudan ishiki), and the Japanese sense of uniqueness. A triple threat.


I’m not saying that all American universities actually stay true to all these ideals, or that American students are all super hard working kids who try to promote academic freedom instead of taking bong hits while looking at facebook. Just  saying that the foundations of universities are not a good fit with Japan.


To return to the central theme: SHOULD UNIVERSITIES BE ABOUT MAKING PEOPLE SMART OR SHOULD THEY BE ABOUT GUARANTEEING THE KIDS GOOD JOBS UPON GRADUATION? . . . here’s another impossible debate: shouldn’t kids (or at least their parents) be allowed to decide for themselves if learning x,y,and z would fuck up their amae or not?

“Do you personally think that learning universal values and fact (rather than context based) reasoning would fuck up your  ability to work in teams?"

 “Do you personally feel that learning critical thinking, independent work habits, and individual responsibility would fuck up your future career and make you less Japanese?”

 It's amazing how many of these debates are impossible to even have!


7 Comments so far

  1. Heskun August 26th, 2011 9:00 pm

    great read, I feel like I don't need to read the book anymore.
    I honestly don't understand anymore how Japan has made it this far. Being in Japan and knowing a lot of people, I never really understood either that most of the time they 'major' in something in college, and then ending up at a company doing something that has nothing to do with their education. It's not like you're hired for 'academic thinking skills' either, like in Great Britain, like a philosophy graduate starts working at a bank because of his analytical way of thinking and problem-solving skills.
    By the way, please make an exam based on Wu-Tang lyrics. I'd come off looking pretty smart!

  2. tt August 27th, 2011 3:57 pm

    "I honestly don't understand anymore how Japan has made it this far. "
    What he said.
    I wonder if perhaps the Japan that "made it" (from Meiji era to the early postwar period) perhaps was a bit less conservative – the bureaucracy is growing, the average living age increases (meaning there are more old people to defend the old ways), perhaps there were bigger pockets of critical thinking somewhere in the system …
    It's not that this way of thinking is unknown in the US, I suppose group/individual, innovation/the old ways and truth/social lying are dichotomies that fight in all societies. Random example: I saw somewhere that the guy who drew the Batman comic book in the fifties started to put less than six panels to a page, to save time. The readers loved the result – the pages became more dynamic, the artist could do so much more – but the editors stopped him; the kids weren't getting their money's worth. Sounds like Japanese logic to me – the bureaucracy shoots down innovation, the old, arbitrary rules are more important than the needs of the workers and the wishes of the consumer. It would make more cultural sense if it was the Japanese comics industry where nameless hacks worked in sweatshops, churning out soulless stories about 50-100 year old characters to next to no readership, but no; Japanese creators come up with their own, new characters, all the time; it's the American comics industry that operates on bureacracy and conservatism and opposes individualism and innovation.

  3. Mark August 27th, 2011 9:36 pm

    I'm really enjoying this series of book reviews – I took some courses on Japanese history in grad school, but that was years ago, and this has been a great update.
    You asked if American universities have some sort of out side review.  They do – what I say here is based on my experience as a faculty member at a small American engineering and health centered undergraduate institution.  I'm no expert on this subject, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
    Unlike in European counties, where the government sets educational standards, in the USA colleges and universities set standards collectively.  To be a recognized university, you need to be accredited.  There is no national organization – regional organizations do this.  Every ten years, an accreditation team of faculty from other universities comes to your school and looks over your operations.  This is a big deal, especially for a small school like mine – you have to prepare a lot of documents and basically demonstrate that you are doing what you say you are doing in educating students.  The visiting accreditation team checks to see if you really have buildings, classrooms, libraries, and labs, and they check to see what sort of careers your students have after graduation.
    In addition to overall institutional accreditation, there is also program accreditation.  This is very important for engineering and health programs – without graduation from an an accredited program, a graduating student can't be professionaly licensed.  Many degree areas in engineering and health also have licensing exams, and those exams are run by organizations separate from the universities, so there is an outside check on quality.
    The system is not perfect, but the impact is that there is some degree of quality control from outside – much more than in the system described for Japan in the book you reviewed.  I'd also say that the American system varies a lot by degree type – from what i have seen, quality control for technical degrees like engineering and health are held to a higher standard than the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  I'd say the students my university sends out to be engineers or health professionals are pretty impressive in terms of what they can do, based on what I have seen in terms of senior projects and the like.
    That brings me to a question – surely Japanese universities must do a decent job training engineers, doctors, and scientists, given what Japan has accomplished in those areas.  Do those students go to different schools, the way Japanese lawyers do?  Law is the one case I know of for different education in Japan, and law students are normally portrayed as pretty brainy in Japanese popular culture.  Is the same true for engineers and medical students?

  4. admin August 28th, 2011 8:22 am

    @mark: thanks for explaining! about your question: I don’t know how engineers get so good in Japan, or where they learn substantial skills – at a daigaku or a trade school or wherever. About scientists: the book INSIDE THE KAISHA (which i also review), they complain that scientists are NOT well trained here – that is to say, they might be bright but they are not allowed to persue their own projects, they have to waste time on outdated projects approved by the central bureaucracy.

  5. Steve August 28th, 2011 9:11 am

    This books sounds like a killer. Even though it's essentially, "doing no research of my own and further obscuring someone else's work", the conclusions he comes to are all pretty accurate for a lot of asian countries. But still, right off the bat I have three real-life examples for both Chinese and Japanese students (yeah, yeah, 'Japan is all unique', but really those confucian values permeate everything over there) he could have used if he'd taken the time to talk to even one person:
    1. The school where I got my undergrad degree basically functions as a repository for rich Chinese and other misc. asian kids. ie; Somewhere parents send their kids so they can get a prestigious 'western' education, while still providing the environment to make future business connections (guanxi in chinese, kankei in jp). For the most part, this works out OK, but there are a few problems:
    1a) The students think they are still under the "I bust my ass in high school and then get playtime in college" contract. To quote something I heard all the time: "I thought I'd have more free times, but here I actually have to study on weekends!". As with any population, there are smart kids who get the whole western uni thing, and get excited about the stuff they learn. But then there are others who are just dying to get out: "Wow, you're a senior? That means you can get a real job soon and get out of this hellhole!"
    1b)Of course, Western universities are relatively more difficult, especially if you thought you could screw around the whole time. The kids realize that pretty quick, but the parents NEVER understand. When a kid start slacking and their parents see their report cards, the parents will FLY IN FROM CHINA to beat the kid down. It's not pretty. I knew a girl who was slipping in her studies, so her mother brought her this successful Chinese businessman and said, "Hey, you could marry this dude and he'll take care of you since you can't make it through school." So maybe that answers your questions about whether parents care about their kid's grades or how hard they're working to make connections. Parents also encouraged their kids to make friends with white people for 関係 (totally missing the point that we don't operate under the same system, but whatever).
    2. The school I went to had agreements (exchange students, honorary degrees, etc. BS) with several prestigious asian universities, so I had the opportunity to hang out with a dude from Waseda for a semester. He relayed his college (and remember Waseda is supposed to be a really good school) experience to me like this: "I wouldn't go to school if I had the choice, but my mom keeps waking me up at home. So I get up, go to class, and sleep there. Then I go work at a restaurant and play pachinko afterwards." Total loser, right? Naw, he knew how to play the game, and now he's a well-to-do salaryman. He totally knew that the unis were BS, crap like tatemae and amae is alienating and shameful, and also that he can't do anything about it, so why bother trying.
    3. I went to the University of Hong Kong for grad school. They got a lot of Chinese students from the most famous universities (Beijing U, Qinghua), who I was totally thrilled to meet. I asked them how it felt to be geniuses or whatever (because they have like a 1 in 10 million chance of getting into those schools, even with a perfect high school record), and they were totally like, "Oh, people make a big deal about my school, but it's nothing serious. The coursework isn't any harder, and maybe they drill you with more government slogans… but I never felt like I was learning anything."
    4. Going back to the ghetto-ization of foreigners, Hong Kong Univeristy had a pretty clear policy about why they segregated foreigners and 'locals' (and no, it has nothing to do with language): The school goes to great lengths to create social bonds with the people on campus. They set up all sorts of activities and games and meals that you are REQUIRED to attend. Orientation is pretty brutal, it can be 3 weeks of 18-hour days, running from place to place with your dorm-mates, all in an effort to 'break the ice' with them (since everyone is supposedly born introverted there). Needless to say, whitey from UC Irvine doesn't want to do any of that, he just wants to know where the cheap booze is at. So the university figures, "Well, if these foreigners want to be independent, we'll just ban all of them from the dorms." and that's what they did. Sucks for the people who actually want to integrate, but it's totally understandable why they don't take their chances.
    And you joke about Wu-Tang lyrics, but I'm sure 99% of the questions about the daigaku system can be answered: "dolla dolla bill ya'll"

  6. Zen1 August 31st, 2011 2:52 am

    These articles never fail to enlighten and infuriate me. Now I understand why people around me almost panic when approached with a new situation at work, and why university graduates who become new hires where I am don't really seem all that smart. 
    Alright, let's get started on the essay
    Who is now in charge of the war?
    Where are the 36 chambers?
    Who did Meth and Red jack the Cereal Killer beat from and not credit?
    Who is on the cover of Enter the 36 Chambers?
    When / Why did RZA learn to read sheet music?
    Who sings the hook on Cold World?
    What track marks the first on-record appearance of Santogold (and also really sounds like it could be a santogold track)?
    Just who IS Clyde Smith

  7. Daniel May 10th, 2018 8:54 am

    All the daigaku stuff reminds me of the Robin Hanson “School is not about education” stuff. Same shit, really.

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