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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 on education and society.

The core of the debate is the outcome of education and the society that it fosters. What exactly is the purpose of education? Is the fundamental role of education to develop independent, free-minded citizens or produce human resources to serve the state?” (p.2). Mr. Cutts contends that U.S. education has taken the former as its goal, whereas Japan has chosen the latter. This issue permeates the text. If the goal of all education is the creation of independent minds and the preparation of individuals for an ever-changing and challenging world, then the Japanese system misses the mark. If, on the other hand, the purpose of education is to perpetuate a set of nationalistic political and cultural institutions, then the Japanese education system has succeeded splendidly.

This book is not only an analysis of the education system as the route to personal power, wealth, and prestige in Japanese society; it is also a critique of the society that Japan has become since the end of World War II. Cutts’s view is that “Japan is, in reality, far from a democracy, is (sic) a huge, ethnically paranoid, nationalist power proceeding inexorably along a course aimed at global self-aggrandizement” (p. 39). He contends that Japan is not a society made up of individuals but a continuation of the preceding system controlled by the upper class. The Meiji era constitutional form of government, which was modified by the American occupation, did not produce a free society, only one that conformed sufficiently to the institutions of the West to maintain its political independence. “It was not real freedom; it was a survival technique. Democracy was adopted by the Japanese as a means of survival in an international struggle, in much the same way as modernization was adopted by the nation in Meiji days to survive” (p.29). Therefore, the critical scrutiny of Japanese economic and political operations by outsiders has little effect on the way things are done in Japan. “Japan does not really think of itself as part of the world at all; thus is it little concerned with whether it truly is or is not a democracy” (p. 38). But for Cutts, this is a major concern as it determines what is part of the Japanese education system, both in terms of curriculum and methods of teaching and determines who becomes successful.

As educational success is defined in terms of university entrance, then all education is geared toward preparing students for the entrance exams. To be successful in the exams and gain a position in the university, the student must not only know prodigious amounts of information tested on the entrance exams but also be the kind of person who will fit into the existing mold, not only of university life, but of that at the end of the educational highway, the job of his or her future.

According to Robert Cutts, “the Todai system culture which consists of group harmony, self-effacement, the avoidance at all costs of open differences with colleagues, the implicit recognition of the authority of seniority and personal loyalty to group leaders, full-scale internalization of the organization’s ethics and value systems, and the ultimately nationalistic rationale for the total victory of the company, the keiretsu, and the country, no matter what the cost—is the single dominating value system in institutional Japan” (p. 185). It is to produce this that Japanese education prepares its students so that they are what Japanese organizations want: “smart, proven team players rather than complex thinkers or independent individualists” (p. 64). The role of Japanese universities is not to develop intellectuals, as former Education Minister Michio Nagai is quoted as saying, “. . . The intellect is not developed in Japanese universities; it is worn down” (p. 72). Unlike in the United States, the role of the university is not cutting-edge research and theoretical knowledge but preparing individuals for government careers.

Cutts’s narrative details the path to power and the continuity with the past. It is a clear exposition of provocative ideas. The book flows smoothly, and it is enjoyable to read. He has good supporting evidence for his ideas based on talks with those who teach and work within Japanese education and those who have risen high in Japanese society as a result of their success in the education system. He identifies the most important area of concern as accountability. “Body and soul, the Tokyo Imperial University was an institute founded on service to the state: to legitimate it, to perpetuate it, and to strengthen it” (p. 62).

This book is recommended reading for school administrators and teachers in K-12 schools and for undergraduate college classes in Japan. It can also be used in the high school classroom for a comparison of educational systems and an understanding of the lives of students in different school systems and their view of their place in future society.