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Japan Book Reviews

Japanese Higher Education As Myth

Author : Brian J. McVeigh
Publisher: M.E. Sharpe
ISBN: 0-7656-0925-8
pp. 301

Reviewed by :

Kevin Ryan
Showa Women's University

This book is an indictment of the Japanese education system. McVeigh is disclaiming the emperor's new suit worn by the Ministry of Education (MEXT, formerly Monbusho) as well as colluding parties of large corporations as they bend tertiary education to their outdated needs. In the tradition al Chalmers Johnson (MITI and the Japanese Miracle), Karel van Wolferen (The Enigma of Japanese Power) and most closely Ivan Hall (Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop), McVeigh brings his experience teaching at universities in Japan to bear on what looks like a living lie of post-secondary education here in Japan.

By creating workers with interchangeable basic skills, Japan is left without self-motivated, critical thinking, creative talent.

The basic premise of the book is that Japanese "institutions of higher education do not accomplish their aims." He cites Refsing's four-function approach of evaluating education in post-industrialized society. While Japan excels at three of these (socialization, selection and depository), it fails miserably in its primary function, education. The problems are political because the government and large corporations want universities to create interchangeable workers for economic success. But by creating workers with interchangeable basic skills, Japan is left without self-motivated, critical thinking, creative talent.

He decimates the typical arguments defending the status quo at universities. He calls them "daigaku," a term which gradually gains negative connotation throughout the book. These excuses include; 1) Japanese students learn all they need in secondary school, 2) Japanese companies want malleable graduates that they can train themselves, 3) all the universities are the same anyway, 4) Japanese universities should be evaluated using Japanese standards, 5) Japanese culture is different.

McVeigh explores the collusion between government, large corporations and universities in creating a simulacrum, a chimera of what universities should be. Central to all this is the Mombu-gakusho (MEXT). He uses the term educatio-examination regime to show how students, the victims of the system, are observed closely throughout school, but taught little. He shows how student apathy is developed because of cultural and management decisions. He explains in detail how daigaku in Japan only simulate education, just going through the motions.

Most interesting to me is the chapter (7) on how the teaching of English, so prevalent in Japan, is actually a way to define a statist, national identity among the Japanese, reinforcing differences in culture. He quotes a lot of people I know; J.D. Brown, Bill Gatton, Greta Gorsuch, Stewart Hartley, Bern Mulvey, and Stephen Ryan, among others. He shows how Japan's TOEFL scores are so lacking and have not improved even though other Asian nations with fewer resources have. He dissects the JET program and the reactions of the ALTs. He looks at student reactions to English at different levels of education, and how they see entrance examinations. He tells war stories about inter-faculty battles over how to inculcate students with English. He talks about student reticence to speaking as differences between, reticence, reluctance, recalcitrance and resistance. He shows that "Fresh Foreign Faces" are needed not for "Genuine English", but for "Japan-Appropriated English" or even for "Fantasy English".

The great majority of McVeigh's evidence is either gleaned from popular press or academic articles (like the TLT). He fleshes out the basic ideas with anecdotes of experiences of his own or people he knows. There is also an occasional qualitative study to bolster his opinions. This is called an ethnographic approach, which may be seen as weak evidence in some circles, but here, with so many experiences explained by so many sources so close to the situation, it gains in credibility.

I am saddened to say that I have seen many of the same situations he has, in almost as many places, in my 19 years here. He has given those situations a framework with which to look at how education at the daigaku level works here in Japan. If you teach at a university here in Japan, you should definitely read this. You may not agree with everything he says, but my bet is that you will agree with most of it.

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