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Consider Japan

Chapter XIV*

Technicians and Troublemakers

* This chapter, and the final Chapter XV, were written by a different hand from the rest of the survey: they were contributed by The Economist’s resident correspondent in the Far East.

Of all the changes which the American occupation imposed or sought to impose on Japan, none dismayed and affronted conservative Japanese more than the reform of the education system. The reaction to these foreign changes provoked a bitter struggle between traditional and “progressive” elements as soon as Japan regained independence in 1952. This conflict has persisted through the ensuing decade, with violent political repercussions, scenes of disorder in universities and high schools and public demonstrations and riots. But generally a steady reversion to Japanese methods and ideas has, logically and successfully, prevailed. Many teachers and radical students, as well as the Japanese Communist party and the extreme left of the muddled and impotent Socialist party, led and lead the still stubborn opposition to the post-occupation trend. The lively paradox is that the conservative political forces and educational authorities which seek to revise the work of the occupation are largely regarded – and always denounced – as “pro-American”, while the elements which uphold the old MacArthur education directives include the communist-backed demonstrators who storm the Diet, insult the Emperor, ill-use elderly professors and shout, “Yankees, go home!”

The paradox derives from the pious occupation conviction that Japan’s prewar educational methods, and especially the so-called “course in ethics,” had somehow twisted and malformed the Japanese mind. It was assumed that the best teachers for the new Japan would be those who had been opposed to prewar Japanese policy. The result was that a majority of Japanese teachers reverted to the minority Marxist illusions and delusions of the nineteen-thirties. The Japanese teachers’ union, 500,000 strong, became a confused stronghold of militant radicalism and political aspiration, which encouraged some strange excesses among a restless generation of Japanese students.

The campaign for Japanese-style education in Japan began with the transfer of local education from the control of local authorities to the central government, continued with a revision of textbooks and curriculum, introduced a “merit-rating system” to weed out “undesirable” teachers, restored the controversial “ethics course” in the watered-down guise of a “morals course, placed major importance on scientific and technical training, and prepared the way for vocational schools as well as high schools.

All these revisions, it was said, were aimed at discarding “the American method of education by experience and experiment.” They were concentrated on the six years of primary school, the three years of middle school (which constitute the nine years of Japanese compulsory schooling) and the subsequent three years of high school. But naturally they are exerting a profound influence on the four years of university education also. (Formal education in Japan consists of what is known as the 6-3-3-4 system.)

The tragic confusion of politics with education has not, however, prevented a massively ambitious expansion of educational facilities and a corresponding development of technical and high school training in Japan. Emphasis has been placed on education of the 15-17 age group. The rate of enrolment in high schools has increased to 60 per cent of those completing the nine-year period of compulsory education. There is growing pressure to make three years in high school (i.e., education for all children up to the age of 18) compulsory – with concentration on vocational and technical training.

Several bold and far-seeing education ministers have combined Japanese energy with the Japanese talent for skilful adaptation. In a recent survey of Japanese education over the past five years, the claim was made that recommendations contained in the Crowther report in Britain and Dr James Conant’s report on American high schools had been incorporated, along with Russian and French practices, in Japanese educational policy. As part of the overhaul of the educational system, a cabinet economic council is drafting long-range training plans for engineers and technicians. The government’s plan for again doubling the national income within 10 years will demand constant technological progress and a mounting supply of technicians. Increased enrolments will be encouraged in science and technological faculties at universities. More scholarships will be offered. A new type of high school will be introduced to specialise in industrial techniques. The pace of these developments will, of course, be governed by the availability of instructors, already in short supply, and the continuing replenishment of ordinary technicians who move ahead as they specialise.

Training centres have already been established for technological instruction in nine famous universities. Here high school graduates receive concentrated training for three years, compared with the four-year course of training required for ordinary undergraduates at normal schools. This short-cut is under fire by critics who fear that it may lower teaching standards – and who also argue that it may result in an eventual diversion of young specialists from teaching posts to better-paid positions in Japan’s thriving modern factories.

Further recognition of the new industrial age is to be found in the ministry of education’s programme for establishing technical high schools, which will offer a five-year term for ordinary technicians, combining the three-year period of normal high school tuition with two years of advanced technical training. This programme has been criticised by traditionalists because it departs from the 6-3-3-4 system and also from accepted long-term educational goals; but the new technological trends in industry are too strong to be ignored.

There are admittedly substantial regional gaps in the rates of enrolment in high schools: a gap between rural areas and urban ones, and a widening rate of migration from country to city after graduation. Part-time schools, night schools and correspondence courses are still needed for remote rural areas in the crowded islands. There are serious accommodation problems, some schools struggling to cope with from 50 to 70 students in a single class. Moreover, despite a steady improvement, the ministry concedes that Japanese teaching standards fall behind western standards.

Since the war, the number of students at Japanese colleges and universities has increased 3.6 times; the number of girl students has increased more than seven times. Japan is ranked second only to west Germany in the number of active classroom hours in universities, but the results of examinations on “academic” subjects are said to be disappointing; only in mathematics did the Japanese hold their own – at about the same level as students’ performances in British and Australian universities, and ahead of the level in the United States.

All of this change, improvement and conflict in Japanese education is now approaching a climax in the great universities, already reflecting the influence of new types of students, new ideas and new standards. Violence and irresponsibility in student life and manners will always command the headlines, but there can be no doubt that many of the old qualities of the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto have suffered grievously in postwar years. Not only do the mass of students tend to follow sheeplike, violent minorities, but too few professors have the courage to denounce the excesses of hoodlum students. Japanese traditionalists attribute this deterioration to the occupation reforms, which, they say, diminished the stature of the Emperor, the power of the police and old concepts of patriotism and discipline.

Unless the bellicose temper of the university student bodies mellows, and their political agitation is tempered by some forced interest in learning, the pending revisions in Japan’s university system will provoke stormier incidents than the prolonged conflict over evolution in other fields of Japanese education. These revisions, “designed to make universities fit the requirements of the modern technical age and to adapt education to the development of human abilities,” are in the hands of the Central Education Council, whose past rulings have so outraged the teachers’ union and leftist politicians. The council’s investigations are concerned with all aspects of university organisation and life, including such touchy problems as “the control and guidance of undergraduates.”

The frustrated, but still strong and active, union of teachers from the primary, middle and high schools will certainly not miss the possibilities for trouble-making on this front in retaliation for their retreats and reverses on their own front. The anarchistic Zengakuren students’ movement has already declared that it will resist to the last “any interference with the freedom of students’ action, which in practice means freedom to detain professors forcibly in classrooms on matters of university discipline, and freedom to storm the Diet building, assault the police and stone the prime minister’s residence on matters of political disputation.

It may well be, of course, that the new type of practical, technical-minded student, who will now be entering university from reoriented high schools, will help to remould campus thinking as the authorities seek to remould university methods. The Japanese, it has been well said, are better knowers than they are thinkers. As a rule, and as a race, they pragmatically set more store on knowledge and know-how than on speculation and argument. In the long run, the clearly-seen opportunities for early and rewarding advancement in scientific and technical careers, combined with the government’s realistic investment in technological education, may conceivably result in a larger measure of self-imposed discipline by a more responsible student body. Meanwhile, the giddy expansion of that student body still looks hugely impressive, however appalling some of its antics may seem.