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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2001


Japan must make the grade

In the last decade of the 20th century, Japan lost many of the tangible and intangible assets it had built up since World War II. In particular, there was a serious deterioration in the quality of human resources. The second half of the 1990s saw a sharp decline in university students' scholastic performance and in the nation's scientific and technological levels. Most pundits blame this poor performance by university students on the Education Ministry's introduction of a more relaxed education policy, or on the fact that the declining birthrate in recent decades has caused a fall in the number of university applicants and therefore made it easier to pass university entrance examinations.

I disagree with these views. When I sat for university entrance examinations in the second half of the 1960s, the proportion of Japanese high school graduates going on to university stood at around 20 percent. The number of applicants for college enrollment was much smaller than today, and entrance examinations were much easier to pass.

Until the late 1970s, it was common for high school students to read masterpieces of Japanese and world literature, as they did not need to spend all their time cramming for entrance examinations. Some read the works of Marx and Engels; others mastered college-level mathematics. The intellectual level of university freshmen was very high. If they had a strong desire for learning, they would need only introductory classroom lessons; they could acquire deeper knowledge through self-education.

However, today's university freshmen, who focus only on cramming for entrance examinations at high school, have an extremely low intellectual level and little desire to learn. I believe students today have lost interest in learning for the following reasons.

First, during the years of the bubble economy, mammonism dominated Japan, and people's interest in science and technology waned. Scientists and engineers were no longer admired by the younger generation.

Second, the student movement declined after the mid-1970s and students lost interest in social sciences. During the years of student revolt from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, students avidly read the works of Marx and French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, although it is doubtful whether they really understood the books. From the 1980s to the 1990s, unprecedented anti-intellectualism prevailed in Japan. University students read and studied much less than their foreign counterparts.

Third, during this period high school students only learned techniques for passing entrance examinations. Private high schools in big cities that focused on cramming for entrance examinations sent many students to elite universities. Public high schools in rural areas were the losers in the "examination war." This phenomenon reduced the chances of rural high school students entering top-class universities. Techniques for passing entrance examinations are of little use in real life. Once examinations are over, students tend to forget much of what they learned for the tests. Knowledge acquired to satisfy a true desire to learn, however, is retained.

Fourth, in the late 1980s, Japan surpassed the United States in per capita gross domestic product, ending its "catch-up-with-the-West" era. Japanese felt a sense of euphoria at having overtaken Americans. For 40 years after the end of the war, the national goal of catching up with the West had been the driving force for group-conscious Japanese. It was in this context that diligence, earnestness and integrity were valued.

In the high-growth years, the nation's unemployment rate averaged 1-2 percent. Even after the oil crisis of the 1970s, the rate remained in the 2-3 percent range. It did not exceed 3 percent until the late 1990s, when the nation was affected by a serious economic slump and changing employment practices. The deterioration in the quality of human resources was another factor that contributed to the rise in the jobless rate.

After World War II, the Japanese government consistently promoted uniform school education, ensuring that all students were given the same lessons. This contributed to a level of scholastic performance that exceeded that of foreign countries until the mid-1980s. After the mid-1980s, however, middle-level school students lost enthusiasm for learning, and high school graduates' scholastic abilities fell sharply. It is hardly surprising that young people lacking in scholastic abilities and diligence have trouble finding employment.

There is no way to revitalize the Japanese economy without halting the deterioration in the quality of human resources. In my view, it is possible to stop this deterioration. The quality of U.S. human resources, which steadily declined from the 1970s to the 1980s, stopped deteriorating in the 1990s. The same is true of Britain. Japan should be able to achieve what the U.S. and Britain have achieved.

Takamitsu Sawa, a professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also the director of the university's Economic Research Institute.

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