A Review of Japan’s Higher Education System: Looking at McVeigh’s Book Japanese Higher Education as Myth

A Review of Japan’s Higher Education System: Looking at Brian McVeigh’s book Japanese Higher Education as Myth
by Kimberly Fujioka

Brian J. McVeigh. Japanese Higher Education as Myth. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe,2002. 318pp. Cloth $68.95, paper $25.95.

Brian J. McVeigh’s book Japanese Higher Education as Myth, examines higher learning in Japan’s undergraduate institutions known as daigaku. McVeigh’s thesis asserts that Japanese daigaku possess none of the attributes commonly associated with higher education, such as the capacity to “generate knowledge that previously did not exist” (p. 238). While no system of advanced schooling is perfect, as those of us in the U.S. well know, McVeigh’s observation is that Japan’s higher education falls way short the mark. Reading this text, one cannot help but feel the presence of a cautionary tale, looming as the back story, forewarning educators in other countries about the harm in allowing a higher education system to be too influenced by the corporate world. The author notes in the Introduction that, “None of this is new. Recognition of serious problems in Japan’s higher education system dates to the early postwar period” (p. 4)-a fact realised by his often citations from old works by scholars such as Ronald Dore, Thomas Rohlen, and William Cummings that were published over twenty years ago. If these citations to old research add to McVeigh’s characterization of these problems as longstanding and systemic they also beg the question: Do we need another book that looks at the negative aspects of Japanese education when there exists already a fair amount of scholarship on the topic ?

The answer is yes. Most of the research/publication of literature on Japanese higher education has been done in Japanese. This leaves out the major part of the world that does not read Japanese. Most importantly, it should be looked at again from a new perspective, as a cautionary tale because it shows how an education system tailored to produce workers for the corporate world can go very wrong.

McVeigh’s thesis is radical, in that it goes to the root of the problem, asserting that Japanese daigaku possess none of the attributes commonly associated with higher education, such as the capacity to “generate knowledge that previously did not exist” (p. 238). While no system of advanced schooling is perfect, Japan’s falls way under the mark. McVeigh says,: “What some foreign observers fail to understand is that unlike the problems found in higher education in other places, the poverty of teaching and learning in Japan’s higher educational system is widespread, profound, systematic, and deeply structural. What we have is not mere weaknesses at some sites, but organized hypocrisy. In a word, failure is institutionalized, and institutionalized in such a way that schooling can be called ‘simulated’ ” (p. 26). The critical word here is “simulated.” McVeigh cites the work of Jean Baudrillard and postmodernist discourse that problematizes the relation between representation and reality (pp. 36-37), McVeigh contends that daigaku merely engage in a series of rituals that take the place of-and conceal the absence of-educational substance. He has a term for this phenomenon “the ‘law of ritual compensation’: the more simulated an institution becomes, the more ritualized and elaborate its associated ceremonies and activities become” (p. 144). He considers the campus rituals not only staged events like graduation ceremonies and school festivals, but as a variety of seemingly typical activities, like: faculty meetings that last for hours where no decisions are actually made because the administration has dictated everything beforehand. Another example he gives is of faculty hiring searches that habitually appoint inside candidates (graduates of the same institution) and guarantee them tenure, not even taking into consideration their research or teaching performance; daigaku entrance exams that only test a student’s ability to memorize an encyclopedic amount of arcane, unrelated facts. Even the mundane ritual of taking classroom attendance, is an example of a system that substitutes evidence of a student’s physical presence in class for evidence of intellectual engagement and academic achievement

But if “education does not appear to be the primary purpose at an astounding number of Japan’s universities” (p. 26), then what is their primary purpose? According to McVeigh, “their mission is firmly rooted in corporate culture; they form the last grading and classifying function of the state-sponsored socializing machinery. They also store future workers” (pp. 26-27) until such time as corporate Japan has need of their labor. This mission, he adds, is as old as the daigaku system itself, which was constructed by the Meiji bureaucratic state, firmly harnessed to state interests, and just as firmly subordinated to state control. In place of genuine education, the state serves up “educational nationalism”: a “confluence of statist, ethnic, and racialist ideological currents” that forges “a powerful ideo-institutional linkage between schooling and national sentiments” (p. 47). English-language instruction and other highly publicized measures to “internationalize” Japanese education only reinforce these nationalistic sentiments. Therefore, according to McVeigh, students learn not only to bypass their personal interests to those of the government; but they also learn to hide their uniquel personalities, creative talents, and intellectual abilities from what McVeigh terms the “official gaze

McVeigh is not a historian, which is a breath of fresh air. His analysis is contemporary in scope. However his pre-WWII historical knowledge is limited and sometimes faulty. He offers simplistic references to the period prior to the Pacific War-and starts, instead, with the formation of a modern bureaucratic state and a state-controlled education system that occurred during the Meiji period (1868-1912)-to more detailed and insightful observations of the development of policies in education and in the decades since the war. Therefore, anyone wanting a long, detailed historical treatment of Japanese higher education will have to read something else. However, those who are already versed in that history, as well as students of anthropology, sociology, comparative education, and “Japanese Studies” will find McVeigh’s thesis radical meaning “to the root”, his analysis of the problems confronting many daigaku , well informed and his description of their effects upon the students in Japan illuminating

What makes McVeigh’s narrative so readable are the personal accounts of daigaku life from his teaching experience in Japan, and through faculty interviews and from listening to the words of students. He writes about disinterested or bored students who sleep or “play dumb” in class, if they attend class at all. He writes about how Japanese professors deal with these students in the classroom and with high handed, profit-minded administrators, whose major concern is to keep the students “happy”, which really means to ensure that they finally graduate with their the diploma – that their parents spent years paying for – and about non-Japanese teachers hired as “talking heads”(my words) used to ensure the native Japanese faculty who teach English can, at least, pronunciate English

Most of McVeigh’s analysis of Japan’s simulated higher education and its mind-numbing effects upon Japanese students and Japanese society agree with my own first hand observations of Japanese daigaku, though I do not agree with all of his conclusions because of his minor problem in methodology. McVeigh’s problem in methodology is that while he acknowledges that a small number of elite daigaku have managed to go beyond mere regurgitation of facts to engage their students in substantive learning experiences, he omits them from his analysis. His decision to leave out this critical information weakens his argument, for two reasons: first, their existence proves that the hegemony of which he speaks is not absolute, nor is its antithesis unattainable. It would round out his analysis, if he considered the reasons for their success, and then offer some practical support.

McVeigh’s book includes a large number of helpful statistical tables and organizational charts. The contents of his book are as follows:

Selected Contents:
List of Tables, Figures, and Abbreviations
1. Introduction: The Potdmkin Factor
2. Myths, Mendacity, and Methodology
3. State, Nation, Capital, and Examinations: The Shattering of Knowledge
4. Gazing and Guiding: Japan’s Educatio-Examination Regime
5. Schooling for Silence: The Sociopsychology of Student Apathy
6. Japanese Higher Education as Simulated Schooling
7. Self-Orientalism Through Occidentalism: How English and Foreigners Nationalize Japanese Students
8. Playing Dumb: Students Who Pretend Not to Know
9. Lessons Learned in Higher Education
10. The Price of Simulated Schooling and Reform
Appendix A: Statistics of Japanese Education
Appendix B: Other Types of Postsecondary Schools in Japan
Appendix C: Modes of Institutional Operation and Simulation

As McVeigh notes, “Japan offers us an illustration of what happens if educational structures are tied too directly and tightly to vocational and employment prospects”
(p. 238), and readers who are involved in higher education in other countries, such as the U.S., are likely to find that many of McVeigh’s observations describe what seems to be occurring in American research institutions where corporate donors and the manufacturing industry are footing the bill for much of the research .

Other English-language books on Japanese higher education. Ivan P. Hall’s Cartels of the Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998); and Robert L. Cutts’s An Empire of Schools: Japan’s Universities and the Molding of a National Power Elite (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).

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