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An Empire of Schools: Japan’s Universities and the Molding of a National Power Elite

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XV + 268 PAGES.

Reviewed by Barbara Mori

Education is the highest priority in all societies. It may be necessary to maintain a cutting edge in technology or to acquire the skills necessary to move out of the “third world.” Students, educators, and parents are all concerned about the quality of the education provided and the opportunities that access to education brings. The American school system is regularly studied and numerous authors debate its strengths and weaknesses, citing ways to improve the level of learning and seeking models for building new programs. In this search for better education, the Japanese educational system has been touted as one of the most successful systems in the world, and it is even suggested as a model for other systems. In order to learn from the Japanese, it is necessary to understand how and why this system works, who benefits from it, and what its goals are.

Robert Cutts’s book is an in-depth look at the development and function of the modern Japanese system from its source in the policies of the Meiji period to its role in modern Japanese society. He focuses on the apex of that system: Todai-Tokyo University. What does it mean to be a graduate of Tokyo University? What does it take to enter the university, and how does that impact the meritocracy of Japanese education? The answers to these questions tell a lot about the role and function of education in Japan and the impact of politics upon education and society.