Japanese University is a Joke

Know the biggest challenge you’ll face in Japan during the COVID crisis? Turns out it’s trying to determine what hotties with hard bodies look like under those masks. Nobody wants to get all the way to the bedroom only to have an episode of, Oh jeez, put it back on, put it back on. Ken Seeroi’s all about mitigating risk. That’s why I keep a selection of cute wigs on hand, just in case. Then if anybody’s disappointed, at least I can throw one on. You’d be surprised how good I look with bangs. Trust me, “surprised” is an understatement.

So I’m in the university office last Tuesday, and this is Ms. Eguchi, from behind her mask— “Ken Sensei, please don’t make the final assignment too hard.”

She’s concerned I’ll fail my entire class of undergraduates again this semester. I’m concerned too, considering the problem at hand, which is that I’ve never seen her face despite having a body that reminds me of warm hills and ample valleys.

“Perhaps I should provide each student with a cushy down pillow,” I countered, “to keep their thick skulls from bouncing off the desks when they fall asleep.”

“I’m sorry, what?” replied Ms. Eguchi, tilting her head. “Dick skulls?”

“Umm, uh, never mind. I’ll give the easiest conceivable assignment.”

“I’m sure their dick skulls will appreciate it,” she chirped cheerfully.

“We probably shouldn’t mention this conversation to anyone,” I said.

Homework at a Japanese University

With that in mind, I crafted this most challenging assignment:

Create a PowerPoint presentation about any city in the world. Your presentation must be ten slides or more. Include demographics about ages, ethnicities, religions, etc. You have two weeks to complete it.

I couldn’t imagine an easier assignment that didn’t involve crayons and paste. Then three weeks later, this is what I got from a sophomore named Takemoto-san. This is verbatim what he wrote, and it’s a pretty representative sample:

  • Slide 1: There are many interesting cultures in Malaysia
  • Slide 2: They eat spicy foods with right hand
  • Slide 3: They care for water
  • Slide 4: They wake up with a chicken voice

Well, too many spicy foods will do that. You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. I was like, Okay, Malaysia…country, not a city…four slides not ten…week late…Eh, give ya a “B” for chicken voice.

Is Japanese University a Joke?

Now, i don’t want to say Japanese university’s a joke. I just can’t think of any other way to finish that sentence that doesn’t include an expletive. Although the reality is, there’s nothing wrong with Japanese university. It’s great, as long as you leave the mask on.

Japanese universities do exactly what they’re designed to do, in the same way a 49-cent hamburger fulfills its purpose in the universe. It’s not pretending to be a sirloin steak. You want a lunch on the cheap and Ronald McDonald’s like, Here’s your Happy Meal. You get a smiley red box and now you’re happy. It’s good to have incredibly low expectations.

Grading Scales in Japan

Or, you could just lower the bar. By which i mean the grading scale. Because in some fantasy, not-Japan world, it’s slightly hard for students to get A’s. Well, that makes Ronald a sad clown. Frowny box. So to remedy this unfortunate reality, Japanese universities have invented the “S.”

I was like “S? What the F’s that?”

“Oh,” answered Ms. Eguchi, “S is for students who get 90% and above.”

“isn’t that an A?”

“No,” she said patiently, in the same way you’d explain a can opener to a cat, “80’s an A, 70’s a B…”

“So B’s the new A? Is it even possible for students to fail?”

“Sure,” she said. “if they miss more than ten classes.”

“Ten classes? That’s a third of the freaking semester. Are you out of your—Ah, never mind.”

I say that a lot. I don’t know why.

Teaching at a Japanese University

I figured I’d just buy her a cute wig and be done with it. I’ve learned to, let’s just say, “adjust” my expectations, downward. So now, welcome to Seeroi Sensei’s class, where this was the midterm assignment:

Write a one-page paper about how technology is changing our lives. It must be typed, double-spaced, and written in English. You have two weeks to complete it.

Guess what sixty percent of the students turned in? If you said “An existential essay on nothingness worthy of Camus himself,” congratulations, you just graduated Japanese university with a Ph.D. The few submissions I received resembled the scrawled ramblings of death row prisoners and desert island castaways. Here was the winning entry:

Internets will make us happy?

Technology makes something new that people want all the times. Then, what do people of today want? They want convenience, and it is more than now. 

“Internets” surely give people a lot of information. They can’t live their own life without “internets”. 

Convenient things are made for people’s happiness.”Internets” are surely convenient. But convenience doesn’t always work for it.    

Thoughtful stuff. Actually, that wasn’t half bad. Clearly, Google Translate has come a long way, although convenience doesn’t always work for it.

Technology in Japan

Honestly, I was thrilled to receive any typed assignments at all. What I came to learn was although my students had iPhones, many didn’t own a PC or have internet service at home. So when I asked for assignments to be emailed, several hand-wrote papers, then sent me photos of their scribblings. Japan’s a technological backwater.

It’s hard to know if Japanese universities are comical or tragic. They certainly don’t stack up well against schools, well, pretty much anywhere. But the reality is that Japanese universities are designed to fit the needs of Japanese society, and don’t serve the same purpose as universities elsewhere.

The Purpose of University Education

Which begs the question: What’s the purpose of a university education anyway? On the surface, “to learn stuff” seems like a good answer, particularly if you’ve never gone to university. Ideally though, higher education challenges you to conduct research, learn independently, consolidate information from disparate sources, and question your own assumptions. That’s known as “critical thinking,” where even if you’re dead sure the stupid shit in your brain’s right, you search for situations where it might be at least partially wrong. And that journey of examining your own beliefs leads you to a deeper understanding of the issues. Or to conclude that you are, in fact, a singular genius adrift in a sea of idiots.

And in Japan, you very well may be. Because students here generally don’t learn critical thinking skills. Their entire education is devoted to rote learning, which continues through college, until they graduate with the discussion and problem-solving capacity of middle-schoolers.

But to get a handle on the actual purpose of Japanese university, you’ve got to understand Japanese K-12 education.

Japanese K-12 Education

There’s a line down the middle of every hall in Japanese school. You walk on the right side of the line, not the left. The line goes up the stairs to your classroom, and in the classroom, you align your assigned desk with marks on the floor. At the start of every class, the designated student leader for the day shouts “Come to attention!” and you jump up. Everybody stands stock still, nervously eyeing everyone else.

“Now we start the first period!” shouts the leader. You and everyone else repeats the call, “Now we start the first period!” “Bow!” barks the leader. Everyone bows. “Sit down!” You do, spine straight. If you slump slightly, you risk being yelled at, or possibly hit. This goes on for every period of the day, every day, for the rest of your school life. Students who don’t obey invite discipline from other students and the teacher. Teachers hit students with hands, shoes, baseball bats, or simply shame them into obedience.

Foreign teachers new to Japan often jokingly remark, “Japanese students are so shy.” That’s bananas. It’s not shyness you’re seeing; it’s fear.

Teaching in Japanese Schools

Before teaching Japanese University, I taught at close to twenty elementary, middle, and high schools. Here’s a happy scene from middle school I won’t soon forget:

The muscular karate teacher tackling a learning-disabled student to the ground and pinning him in a headlock. “Will you try harder from now on,” he growled, “and focus on your studies?”

I was like, “Umm, you sure that’s the best way to motivate a twelve year-old?”

The boy was underneath, with the sensei laying his weight on him. “Say you’ll try harder or I’ll keep you down.”

The boy never uttered a word, which was probably the right answer. I wish I could say such situations are unusual, but they’re emblematic of the way Japanese society runs. When tourists come to Japan, they coo, “Oh, Japanese people are so nice and polite,” as if that’s normal. Yeah, ever seen a dog show? Those mutts didn’t just decide to prance and jump tiny hurdles of their own volition. Punishments and rewards are great motivators, and Japanese folks have refined the art of stick-and-more-stick to a high level. Hey, who needs carrot when stick’s so good for whackin’?

Signs in Japan, Everywhere Signs

There are signs on the wall of every school showing the proper sitting posture. Signs above the sinks illustrating how to wash your hands and brush your teeth. Signs in the bathroom describing the proper way to use the urinal. Take one step forward. Do not spit in the urinal, or discard gum or paper. Flush once when done. Thank you for your cooperation.

Out on the exercise field, you march, high-stepping, and chant in unison, “1-2-3-4…” under the summer sun till your skin bakes brown, and in the winter till you’re blue. It’s military academy, all the time, every day. Outside of school, signs in buses, trains, stores, and on the street tell you just the right way to perform every action. And it goes on for years, until you join the collective and enforce society’s rules, move overseas, or end your life. Well hey, it’s good to have options.

It’s not uncommon for Japanese children to attend school from morning till night, then afterward go to cram school, then go home and do homework. There’s not a lot of time for reflection and critical thinking when you’re saddled with a language of over 2,000 finely-detailed characters that must each be precisely handwritten. Japan places an insane importance on proper penmanship.

Getting into Japanese University

But if you study really hard, take notes exactly as proscribed, endlessly repeat the sentences your teachers chant in just the right order, and pass tests by meticulously regurgitating what you’ve been taught—“There are 51 states in U.S.A.”–then you might pass the university admission exam.

At which point, you get to relax. Nah, just kidding. You’ll probably have to work a part-time job at night, sliding chicken hearts onto skewers and grilling them up for salarymen who’ve missed the last train, cleaning up cocktails at a dance club, or if you’re a young lady, rubbing the thighs of skeevy old geezers at your hostess bar, some of whom just might be your professors.

Joining a Japanese Company

And then at eight a.m., there you are in my English class, struggling to stay awake. That’s not your fault. Now, I’ve taught at seven universities in Japan, two at the graduate level, and have come to understand the expectation. Japanese university is hard to get into, but easy to graduate from. The first two years are for fucking off and working nights to pay tuition. The last two years are for fucking off, working more nights, and interviewing with companies.

Japanese companies aren’t looking for students trained in independent problem solving. They demand workers who can be molded to their precise specifications, who are capable of applying their rules exactly as delineated. What you learned in university, eh, nobody remembers that anyway. You’ll be given a thickly detailed handbook, drilled in corporate procedures, and quite possibly provided with a dorm room surrounded by your coworkers. You can expect to endure weekends and evenings attending company functions with your bosses, and spend vacations on company outings. Your time is the company’s time; your life, the company’s life. Eventually you’ll get married to the guy or gal who works at the end of your row of desks, and have obedient children who’ll grow up to repeat the cycle.

The Purpose of English Class

Students entering university know this. They’re well aware that those four years may be the only moment of respite in their otherwise highly regimented lives. This goes double for English class. Where a Japanese teacher may snap them back into line, foreign teacher-dude is cool with students. He or she’s friendly, makes jokes, and relates.

That’s what “foreigners” are for. It’s why they’re hired. Hell, if we wanted someone to actually teach English, universities would stick with the legions of Japanese instructors who’ve been drilled in grammar, who’ll stand at attention and recite scripts more perfectly than any native speaker ever could. But foreign instructors, heh, they’re just gym teachers with big bags of basketballs. Nobody’s trying to get you into the NBA. We just want you to run around, make some sloppy layups, and not sprain any ankles. Good hustle. Next time, try dribbling with only one hand.

Although as a general rule, doubling down usually works better than giving up. A teacher’s job is to encourage students to challenge assumptions, approach problems from different angles, and engage with the issues facing our rapidly changing world. That includes providing direction and resources, as well as listening, supporting, and remaining cognizant of the realities students are facing. And then ultimately doing whatever it takes to move each individual forward. Hey, you know it’s a good class when I’m the only one leaving in tears. Truth is, Japanese university isn’t a joke. It may actually be the most important period of their lives. And English class, I like to think, even more so. It could well be the only opportunity for Japanese students to get a glimpse of a world outside their own, maybe lighten up a bit, and perhaps briefly, even try thinking for themselves.

58 Replies to “Japanese University is a Joke”

  1. Isn’t it Donald McDonald? There must be some glimmer of hope Ken? I’ve seen Goodbye Mr Chips, Blackboard Jungle Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, School of Rock; there’s always a student or two that makes the teachers whole sense of purpose and meaning in life validated. Triumph over adversity! Don’t tell me it isn’t true?

      1. 22 year old ex-gang member virgin who starts teaching to take advantage of girls and their mothers? This, I gotta see.

  2. I wonder how well I would do if the tables were turned and had to do the same exercises in Japanese.

    I think I would manage the Powerpoint just fine. Except I’m American so that’s not hard. I can read the instructions.

    I might have more trouble with your essay. Google Translate is definitely going to be used but I would clean it up a little.

    That’s after 7 years of Japanese.

    There’s one more problem with essays – we know all the “filler” phrases in English to pad the essay to two pages – “when we think about this”, “for what it’s worth”, etc.

    I think I know exactly one word that could be used for padding that in Japanese – けど (kedo).

    Maybe もちろん (mochiron) – but is that too arrogant?

    That’s after 7 years of Japanese.

    I’m into cooking and I can read cookbooks in Japanese yet just last night, the significant other was reading a book and asked “What’s ‘satsuma age’?”

    Now I know both words and I quickly reasoned that the Japanese are not mad enough to fry oranges so it must be a metaphor just like ‘tatsuta age’ so I went with my best guess that it must be like the Italian ‘arancini’ (same metaphor!)


    It’s fried fish cake but the metaphor of the shape and the orange color was correct.

    I got a haughty sniff, “I thought you study Japanese and read cookbooks.”

    And that’s what 7 years will get you!

    1. You’d do fine, honestly. It’s not the language; most of my students struggle to produce coherent answers in Japanese.

      But you’re absolutely right that foreign languages are hard, and Japanese especially so. But that’s the point—you don’t get any better sitting on the couch. You gotta challenge yourself. Get up and do those push-ups, eat that satsuma age. Well, okay, with language you actually could challenge yourself from the couch, but I’m still sticking with the metaphor.

  3. I went on academic exchange to a top 10 Japanese university and was pretty happy to get grades in the high 90s until I found out my home university had a policy of re-grading all our work upon return. They lowered our marks by 15-20% to make them a bit more plausible in the Australian context where a score above 80% in a humanities subject is generally quite hard to achieve. Some of the classes were genuinely kindergarten-level (‘choose the colour of paper that best represents your emotions’) and even those that weren’t had about 5% attendance after the first week (if not compulsory) or students sleeping in the front row. I’d highly recommend the experience.

    As much as the Japanese education system seems like it could do with focusing more on critical thinking, I think the Anglophone countries show that it’s possible to go too far down that road and forget to teach students anything concrete. The head of the college exam board in Taiwan resigned earlier this year because the mathematics paper was too easy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icrMEn1iJeM) – I can’t imagine that happening here. Has any country found the sensible middle?

    Incidentally, I briefly saw a girl who attended (against her parents’ wishes, as it happens) the ‘semi-military’ Hengshui High School in Hebei, which recently had to erect anti-suicide barriers. Worth reading about if regular Chinese/Japanese/Korean schools seem boring.

    1. I absolutely agree with you that Anglophone countries should provide more concrete education. That’s the Western equivalent of something that’s considered “too hard.” You make a good point about finding sensible middle, or at least covering both ends of the spectrum.

    1. Just telling it like it is. No sense in sugar-coating the cookie.

      Hmm, well there’s an analogy that doesn’t work. Anyway, yeah, I love GTO—funny stuff. Definitely worth a watch.

  4. I try to lead my students (K-4) to do some critical thinking, but my co-teachers often just say the answers (with an odd bit of pride). My heart aches every time that happens- but at least someone is learning critical thinking skills.

    1. Yeah, I love when that happens. Nothing like having an adult show up children.

      But that’s the standard here. You don’t ask students to consider a problem and generate their own solutions, accepting a range of viewpoints—you simply tell them what the one-and-only correct answer is, they write it down, then later you test to ensure they remember it. Without that, you’d never have adherence to strict standards. Everyone would simply think for themselves, and then where would we be? America, probably.

  5. I’m too busy right now to read the full post but two quick comments:

    1. When I was still “new” in Japan I was surprised to learn (from my “Juku” students) that they actually have to write fewer essays when they get older and not more. In my German school essays were always increasing in both amount, length and quality demands. (thesis, antithesis, synthesis etc.)
    2. I will never forget my … I guess indignation, frustration, surprise and a smidgen of anger? when I first learned how incredibly childish undergraduate students behaved in Japanese university. There was no sense of academic strife or responsibility or really anything. In comparison I felt like an adult among kids. I was 22 (if I remember correctly) at the time.
    I went to Hosei University at that time and that’s supposed to be a “good” University.

    Things were quite different and much better during my graduate program at Tokyo University, so it’s not all bad I think.

  6. I remember while interning at Kyoto University, I got a gig teaching English once a week to third graders. I naively came in having prepared lesson plans and games…but was told thanks, and handed a book to read and just told to “Speak English.” I went off script at one point and asked one kid to stand up and repeat after me…he started shaking uncontrollably, crying…and I think “doing his trousers” (as the Brits would say.) I told some of my American friends that, and they tried to tell me that was him being shy…and I said, that wasn’t shyness…I know fear when I see it…what do the teachers do to these kids?!!

    Thinking about what turns pretty energetic, outgoing, social Japanese kids into dour, boring, rank and file salarymen fills me with existential dread…

  7. Ken, Q _ Can the same be said of both Private and National Universities in Japan? I assume some Japanese University Students want to expand their educational envelope as they study abroad. After a couple of years in Japan in the early 80’s teaching corporate EFL classes I returned to the UK and studied Applied Linguistics at a UK Univ with a view to returning and obtaining a Univ teaching post in Japan. At Univ in the UK I remember the difference in attitude between 2 male Japanese students. One student whose father owned an engineering company in Japan was very keen. After obtaining a degree in Japan in Mechanical Engineering he attended Univ in the UK and obtained a Post Grad Degree in a similar subject . However, another student in the Humanities Dept had different expectations. I remember him being publicly chastised by a woman lecturer in the corridor for his shoddy attitude and performance. To make matters worse he made the mistake of smiling at her as she screamed at him. Talk about a Cultural Misunderstanding! I graduated, but returned to teaching in the UK, and eventually changed jobs altogether. Q – if you naturalize, how will that effect your pay and conditions?

    1. I’ve taught at both, and it’s not so much whether the university is public or private. Even within the same university, there are students who are more serious about studying and perform better academically. The real problem is that Japan as a nation and culture does not emphasize debate and critical thinking. That seems consistent across universities as well as in the society at large.

      Now, that’s not to say a Japanese person, like the fellow you mentioned, can’t acquire critical thinking skills. It’s not like they’re genetically incapable of creative problem solving. It’s just that such ways of thinking don’t often produce a positive outcome in a rules-based society. It’s like the military. When the squad leader tells you to get up at five and run through the mud, you don’t go, How ’bout we all just sleep in and see how that works?

      But critical thinking is certainly a learnable skill, particularly for folks who leave Japan, or are exposed to foreign cultures and ways of reasoning. It’s just that growing up in this society puts kids at a handicap in that regard. If you wanted a population who could assemble cars and TV’s with surprising precision and consistency, Japan’d be your place.

  8. Ken, As a Foreign National Teacher at a Japanese Univ how would obtaining Japanese Nationality effect your pay and conditions? I remember reading about about how when Lafcadio Hearn obtained Japanese Nationality his Univ cut his pay in half, to match that of his fellow Japanese colleagues. That was obviously back in the day, but what would happen today?

    1. I’ve sometimes wondered that. My gut feeling is that not much would change because literally not one person in this country would ever accept that I was Japanese. I’d definitely still be a “foreigner” in the eyes of everyone I met.

      Now, there are many organizations that provide different employment packages depending upon whether you’re moving from overseas or living here locally, which makes sense, as well as places that have different rules for being perceived as “Japanese” or “other,” which makes less. But for the most part it comes down to qualifications and scarcity.

      In Japan you can’t throw a rock without hitting an English teacher. I really wish people would stop doing that, but anyway there’s a ton of Japanese-born English teachers here. So companies don’t have to offer much in the way of pay to attract them. Then compare that to a foreign-born teacher. There are relatively few, and they’re not going to work for the peanuts Japanese people will. That’s partly because they can’t. Japanese English teachers often live with their parents or spouses; they frequently don’t have to support themselves independently. For many, it’s just a part-time job to make some extra yen, and either way they’re not starting from scratch in this country. Moving here from overseas takes a minimum of a plane ticket, apartment move-in fees often totaling thousands of dollars, plus furniture, appliances, vehicles…a whole host of expenses. It can be a massive outlay of cash.

      If I were a so-called “Japanese-American” who then became a Japanese citizen, it might be a harder row to hoe, but I’m pretty sure my innate whiteness would prevent me from ever being treated as a Japanese person, for better or worse. it’s certainly been that way so far.

      1. Ken, Back in the 80’s I read that the Japan Teachers’ Union opposed the recruitment of Foreign Language Teachers from overseas in School in Japan, to protect their own jobs. The JTU didn’t recognize the validity of Qualified Teacher status or degrees gained outside Japan. I guess that is one of the reasons for the unqualified JETs and ALT’s.
        Again, if you obtained Japanese citizenship, would you have the option to join the JTU (or the equivalent in your workplace), as a Nihonjin, and would the JTU (or whatever union is then available to you), recognize your status and qualifications as a teacher? Could you then pay into the same occupational pension system as the Nihonjin?

        1. Interesting questions.

          I don’t know about the JTU, but I’ve known two “foreign” teachers who obtained Japanese teaching certificates by passing the test in Japanese, and went on to teach alongside native Japanese teachers in schools here. In both cases, they left those jobs and went back to teaching as “foreign” staff, because the pay and work conditions were better. I’ve also been offered a position as a teacher in an all-Japanese school, working under the exact contract conditions as native Japanese teachers. I also turned that down, because the terms were unfavorable (unpaid overtime, etc.)

          So I wouldn’t think there’d be any citizenship requirement for joining the teacher’s union. It’s just that a) you’re probably going to have to pass the qualifying exam in Japanese and b) you’re going to have to be okay with a lot of very not-so-okay work conditions.

          As for pension systems, I pay into the same public pension system as all workers here. If I live long enough to retire, I’ll get some small amount of social security benefit.

  9. Hope you’ve watched it. I found it to hold many great life lessons for the kids and lots of “subtle” hints to the Japanese Education Dept. Much along the lines of what Seeroi sensei is trying to impart.

  10. I’ve thought about the topic of education for a long time, and I finally came to the conclusion that you can not be educated if you do not want to be educated. Hence you can go to a good school, but it does not mean you’ll come out of it as someone who can do critical thinking, etc. The school can lead you to water, but it’s still up to you to drink it.

    And speaking about the Japanese education system, would we say that the American one is better, because supposedly quite a few highly educated people back in the States believe in QAnon.

    1. You’re right that it’s not so much about the teacher teaching but rather students learning for themselves. The teacher can guide the way, but the student has to have some reason to go there.

      That said, we place too much emphasis upon individual agency. The fact is, people are massively influenced by the culture around them. Whether in values, politics, religion, QAnon or whatever the opposite to that is, people adopt what others around them are doing. That ensures that we, as humans, survive as a group. We have this weird tendency to band together and support what we believe to be our tribe. Whether it makes logical sense or not is largely irrelevant.

      As an aside, I don’t think anybody would ever use the American education system as a reference point. Except Americans.

      1. Not saying that teachers don’t have an important role, because they do. Good teachers can provide the motivation for students to learn and if the students aren’t lacking for motivation then good teachers can certainly turbocharge a student’s learning. Good students flailing on their own might take 10 years to reach the destination, but a good teacher can cut that time down dramatically.

        And yeah, you brought up a good point about agency and that’s what we like to “believe” here in America i.e. we all have agency although the truth is most people don’t have one, but hei as you said “America is the greatest country on earth” 😉 Nowadays I feel we are just number one in deluding ourselves, and I can’t even think of who’s number two.

          1. Is there a “the” American education system? There’s 50 states each with their own legal system, don’t they have 50 education systems? Here in the UK we have three and a half education systems in the four constituent countries.

            1. It’s impossible to answer your question in a comment. It’s not only the states, but there’s also the whole public vs charter vs private schools.

              In short, you are right that each state has their own education standard and policy, but that’s why America also has the SAT for college admissions.

              You can home school your children if you want to here, but you probably can not go to college if you don’t have a good SAT score.

              The other ways of going to college in the US for a very small “minority” include:
              1. Your parents are famous alumnis.
              2. Your parents contributed a sh** ton of money and you get to see your family name in some building inside the college.
              3. Your parents bribed someone to get in. We had a scandal last year and a number of famous people got caught.
              4. You can make your college money through athletics, etc.

  11. Yes, from my 25 years in the system here I can agree that there’s a lot of truth in the (deliberate) exaggerations above but not many educational systems stand up to any scrutiny.
    American colleges regularly top the world rankings but go beyond those elite institutions and what do you find? Barely literate athletes being directed to specific classes so that they pass. Those same athletes having their assaults on women cleaned up by the coaching staff. The same coaching staff who are often paid far more than faculty and even the university president – at a university? Rich white kids and alumni getting priority over ethnically Asian kids with far, far higher SAT scores.
    And then there’s Liberty University. And Trump University…
    Hmmm, Japan looks relatively good in comparison.

    1. The thing is it’s not clear what a top level education should look like IMHO. “American colleges regularly top the world rankings”. Sure, in the sense that they prepare students to go into the world of consulting, banking, bringing the world’s toilet walls to your screen (Facebook and Twitter), etc. Not so much different from Japanese universities in the end I think except Japanese companies prefer their materials raw (like sushi) while American ones prefer that you at least can use a spreadsheet.

      I went to Berkeley for my Computer Science degree, but I’ve met ex bartenders with better coding skills.

      Speaking about college students/athletes, Saturday Night Live actually made a funny skit called “Science Presentation”. I highly recommend that one 😉

  12. The university rankings are *heavily* biased towards not just english speaking environments, but also american style university structure.

    When the rankings first started becoming important 10 years ago, France, despite having a very high level of tertiary education, did apallingly in the ranks because the universities were all specialised in one specific area, contrary to the american style university which has various departments for each discipline. The solution was just to “rename” everything grouping multiple French universities together as one single university. The predictable result was that in one year, France catapulted through the rankings. This year, France had the top ranked mathematics department in the world, despite the quality being the same as 10 years ago, when it was ranked 500th or something ridiculous.

    This also points out how easy it is to rig the system. There was a middle eastern university that at one point was ranked higher than Stanford by going around paying Nobel Laureates a big bag of cash to “officially” become faculty members on paper.

    I’ve been (attached to, not visited; I’ve visited like 50 I guess) at something like 10 universities in 5 different countries in various capacities in the last 10 years and my impression has been that rankings have basically nothing to do with anything.

    I think you really summed it up with “designed to fit the needs of Japanese society, and don’t serve the same purpose as universities elsewhere.”. Japan previously (its starting to change in recent years) didn’t care about competing in the rankings to attract international students, and consequently, it didn’t bend it’s universities structure and statistics to play the game.

    Also: I think the plato-esque independent thought vs. confucian-esque learn everything by wrote dichotomy extends to wider asia, not just japan, doesn’t it?

    Also also: Your description of Japanese K-12 education is suspiciously reminiscent of british boarding schools (apart from the bowing). I wonder if theres a connection to sterotypical miscommunication between american “bold faced honesty” and british “understated politeness”?

    1. An ancient Chinese philosopher criticized Confucian theory on the grounds that it assumed the continual decline of human knowledge and ability, since all ancestors are always superior to their descendants per “the master.”

  13. Welcome to England. Years ago we used to have ‘O’ levels, where the top grade was A. Then it was decided they were “too challenging” and they were merged with the lesser CSE where the top grade ‘1’ was equal to an ‘O’ level grade C, to create the GCSE, which also had the top grade A.
    Then too many people started getting As, how do you differentiate your university/job admissions when 90% of 18-year-olds have As?
    So A* was introduced to indicate, well, dunno, a really good A. But that wasn’t good enough, they had to introduce A**.
    Then two years the whole joke was swept away and new GCSEs are now graded 1 to 9, but ‘9’ is the top grade, equivalent to the old A**. Of course only a cynic would say that ‘9’ is the top grade so there’s space to add 10, 11, 12 and so on.

    Viewers in Scotland have their own programme.

  14. The Japanese seem to have a lot of deep thinking in between each other but most of their thinking goes into thinking about relationships, physical appearance, or tsukomi, and not innovation or ideas…

    1. Agreed, although it begs the question of what constitutes deep thinking. Not sure the short list you mentioned would qualify in my book.

      By the way, what’s “tsukomi”? Do you mean tsukkomi? Not really sure what you’re trying to say there.

  15. What I think is that the schools do the actual opposite of teaching students. What the schools do is try to instill a sense of inferiority in students (what you didn’t understand that yet everyone else did?) so that later on they will do whatever the boss asks them to do. Anyone who questions the teachers is then labeled a “problem maker”, not unlike the slaves in America who questioned the doctrine that good slaves will go to heaven and if the master was really bad he would go to hell and God himself decided who is slave and master as merely a test to enter the afterlife taken straight from the “good book” the Bible. (google Christianity and Slavery). If you actually want to learn look at lectures on youtube from MIT/Stanford/etc… and read books on Library Genesis. Also read Bryan Kaplan’s “The Case Against of Education” also on Library Genesis, or look up his youtube channel.

    1. Very interesting. Certainly, this isn’t just about schools, but also the workplace and society at large. The entire global economy depends on a steady stream of workers to fuel production. Schools prepare students to enter the cycle of produce-consume-discard. At any rate, it’s clear that we need to rethink most of our educational systems.

  16. Not exactly a response to the post, but somewhat related to language teaching materials…

    For a few quick laughs look up クレイジー英語クイズ and either download it from your phone’s app store or just watch someone else go through it on youtube. It’s a nice parody of the typical “Is this a pen?” dialogs.


  17. I kinda get the point.
    Evendoe the school system is not perfect all over the world and it is true that good schools just sells the name there are many teachers that show us good thinking, they encourage to speak English well, they don’t teach us by strong hand to be a napkin of the society, they teach us to think free.

    What I see from the Japanese society and education is worrying. You are telling me my kid will learn fear, hitting, shaming the other, don’t think by yourself because is bad and love with sadness all the time they want to kill themselves?

    I don’t think any school teaches that way. Only, as you say military.

    And besides that… my kid will have to be a “hafu” were he will be the ugly duck? Now there is a problem, that is why you have young suicide rates above the average and people trying to leave Japan desperately.

  18. This is all BRUTALLY true.

    “Japanese university is hard to get into, but easy to graduate from” I soo feel that (I’m doing a master’s program in a Japanese university).

    The content of my lectures is sometimes high school level, sometimes undergraduate level, never the level it should actually be. The program is “100% in English”, but the senseis’ level is not enough to teach a class in English, or to evaluate assignments, etc. Usually I’ll just write anything using one or two “fancy” words/ expressions here and there and get a “S” (haha I was also… “wtf?” with that. “Does that mean I’m….SUPER? wow”).

    Anyway, it’s so good to see that someone shares many of the same ideas as me about Japan and specifically Japanese education. Thanks for sharing.

  19. I am a university professor outside Japan. For a few years, I taught some (science) courses over the summer to Master students of a top private university in Tokyo. Really sweet gig as it was well-paid and I am a big fan of Tokyo. I thought it might also be a good opportunity to attract the best students for a PhD in my home institution. Well, I was wrong.

    Despite my best efforts, it proved completely impossible to have any interaction with the Japanese students. I don’t think any of them ever answered one of my questions. Only 30% bothered to hand back their assignments and it was usually awful. Thankfully, there were years where my course was also attended by one or two foreign students who engaged with the material…

    Overall, it was terrible academically but I do miss my Tokyo summers.

    1. Yep, that’s it. I’ve taught several graduate-level courses here, and the international students consistently contribute energy, asking questions and actively participating in group discussions. Meanwhile most Japanese students—and here I’m projecting, but I believe I’m reading this right—withdraw with an air of “what’s the point?” They don’t see school as a place to learn, but rather as one more hurdle to cross in order to meet some arbitrary requirement. They’re essentially indistinguishable from disengaged high school students.

  20. in england they use A* after decades of grade deflation.
    in germany it is still 1-6 according to percentages. ( under 50 =fail)

  21. Thanks for putting into writing what I’ve been seeing myself in the few years I’ve been in Japan, and for revealing things that I didn’t know and no one in my circle could competently articulate to me, such as B’s being the new A. It’s obviously about trying to stroke one’s ego, if not to simply raise self-esteem, which you so described here. A non-academically related example, but which seems to reflect the expectations of Japanese society is that ladies underwear sizes start from M, not S. This would be equivalent to an XS in the states, so it would not be unreasonable for the smallest size to start from S, right? Maybe you can try this as a conversation starter with Ms. Eguchi and see where it goes 😀

    1. And thank you for keeping us all updated on ladies underwear sizes. Clearly I’ve been neglecting that section of the department store for too long.

  22. On a serious note, did you ever care if students addressed you by your first name or last name + san, sensei etc. at universities in Japan?

    Did you notice any major differences in how you were addressed by students and other staff alike between universities and high schools/ junior high schools/ elementary schools?

    I’ve seen other articles and forums on this phenomenon, and of course it is not surprising that some long term foreigners in Japan get peeved about this.

    1. I’ve really come to see this as an education issue, rather than simply discrimination, although that’s inherently part of it. Somewhere along the line, Japanese folks got the idea that “foreigners” are more casual, and everyone is on a first-name basis.

      My take is that American culture is generally more casual than Japanese (I can’t speak for every other country, of course). However, individuals are a different matter. Individuals naturally sync up to the culture in which they live. Moreover, we don’t want to address people differently based upon their perceived race. That’s never a good idea.

      To answer your second question, no, I don’t see any particular age-based difference. Nobody has taught them differently, so they have no way of knowing,

      For the past few years, I’ve simply introduced myself to younger students as Mr. Seeroi. For university students, teachers, and administrators, it’s “Hi, I’m Seeroi Ken, please call me Seeroi.” They’re smart enough to add the -san or -sensei, usually.

      At university, I devote several minutes of the first lessons to this issue, and students are tested on it. It’s actually a bit complicated, based upon relationship and relative age. Westerners seem to think the Japanese language has all these levels of politeness, while English does not. That’s not true. In Japanese the rules are simply more codified. I’d argue the rules in English are more subtle, and harder to apply.

      Then to answer your first question, yes, I do care, not simply for myself, but because I don’t want to send students into the world thinking it’s okay to begin a job interview with “What up, Bob?” Or to go on a date with a girl and spend the evening addressing her as “Ms. Wilson.” It’s important to know how to navigate levels of politeness.

  23. Hello,

    I was wondering if you have had any experience with the old imperial universities (i.e. UTokyo, KyotoU, OsakaU, TohokuU, NagoyaU, HokkaidoU, KyushuU).
    As a Japanese student, I will probably be applying to either UTokyo or KyotoU this year, but I have to say that the learning environment is a concern of mine. I have heard horror stories about the less competitive private universities, stories rather similar to yours, but I am hoping that things are different at ex-imperial STEM departments with generally more academically capable students*, most of whom go on to graduate school and therefore do not have to worry about job hunting while in their undergraduate years. I know that as a non-native speaker, I probably would not be able to get out of English classes even if I’m fluent in English, and I am resigned to that. I don’t expect to learn anything in foreign language classes, but I would rather not be dealing with similar stupidity in the rest of my classes.
    I would appreciate it if you could shed some insight. Thank you.

    *I do realise that being good at test-taking does not necessarily equate to being bright or motivated.

    1. Thanks for writing in. I don’t know how insightful I can be, but I’m happy to offer some encouragement.

      I don’t have any direct experience with the schools you’ve mentioned, but I’ve taught a great number of undergrad and graduate students in STEM fields. I believe your sense is correct, that such students are far more studious and capable than the average student just looking to coast through English class with the least amount of work.

      English is a particularly important subject for students in STEM fields, because in the future you will likely be publishing papers in English. With that in mind, take English class seriously, even if it is below your level. Although you clearly have an exceptional grasp of the language, you may still be able to learn something. Writing is especially difficult, even for native speakers, and is something we can all improve upon.

      It’s a great idea to stay focused on getting into a good graduate school, whether in Japan or abroad.

      All the best,


  24. Dear Ken,

    Thank you for your reply. I am relieved to hear that.

    I barely qualify as a “returnee” as it is, but I do go to an English-medium school—so from a purely vocabulary/general fluency perspective, I would probably be somewhat overqualified in EFL classes. However, I do see that university requires a different skill set than what is taught in high schools, and I realise the importance of learning academic writing (if not the kind of “learning” that you detail in your blog post), if only to be able to publish in English.

    I am thinking of supplementing my education with MOOCs if things end up not working out as planned. And as you said, there is also the option for me to study overseas for graduate school.

    Once again, thank you for your kind words of reassurance. All things considered, it made more sense for me to study at a Japanese 旧帝 institution for undergrad, and I was studying for the entrance exams in addition to my coursework for this purpose—but reading through the countless online posts that suggested that Japanese university was indeed nothing more than a four-year-long moratorium for burnt-out students, I was afraid that I made a huge mistake. I feel better now.

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