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Monday, July 8, 2002

Erosion of respect for sweat


Few doubt that the scholastic abilities of young Japanese, from grade school children to university students, have declined markedly. Some critics blame the problem on the system of "yutori kyoiku" ("relaxed education") introduced in Japanese public schools; others blame the nation's declining birthrate. They are all mistaken.

In my opinion, the problem stems from the fact that in the 1990s, traditional Japanese virtues such as perseverance, diligence and seriousness were ignored. One economics commentator said: "The age of sweating for money is over. In the new age, people will make money by using their brains in financial speculation. Everybody will try their hands at speculation, except hermits."

In a speculation-driven age, diligence, hard work, seriousness and intelligence are rarely rewarded. Some people earn tens of millions of yen by brokering land deals; others make hundreds of millions of yen through de facto insider trading of stocks. Engineering students choose careers in banking, shunning manufacturing jobs. Mammonism is rampant.

Intelligence gets little respect and few students really study, except cramming for college entrance examinations. Perseverance becomes synonymous with the pursuit of idiocy.

Japanese were industrious by nature, and most did not work only for a monetary reward. None of the Japanese engineers who appeared in NHK's popular "Project X" feature program sought a monetary compensation for their hard work in technical development during Japan's high-growth years.

In the early 1960s, only about 20 percent of high school graduates advanced to college. Many male graduates gave up college education for economic reasons, and not many women aspired for college education. Levels of college education were much lower than today, and entrance examinations were much easier to pass.

It was common for high school students to read masterpieces of Japanese and world literature. Not a few read works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Others studied college-level mathematics.

Until the early 1980s, Japanese students and pupils studied hard. When they started working at age 18, they were industrious enough and had enough basic education to handle almost any kind of work. Japan's unemployment rate was extremely low and people joined forces to make quality products at low costs, although the nation invited international criticism for flooding world markets with exports.

Today's students and pupils do not study much, except cramming for entrance examinations. Once they enroll in college, students study only for end-of-term tests. Many law students start studying for the bar examinations as soon as they enroll in college. I hate to think what kind of people they will become without cultural background.

There are three reasons for the decline n scholastic levels of Japanese students.

* College entrance examinations have become difficult and unproductive. High school students study only to prepare for the tests.

* Traditional Japanese virtues of hard work, industriousness and seriousness have all been denied.

* Many Japanese have lost respect for intelligence.

The last decade of the 20th century is known as the "lost decade." The erosion of intellectual resources was particularly severe in this period. If this erosion were to continue, it would be next to impossible to revitalize the Japanese economy. Japan would end up as one of the rare nations whose culture is in serious decline.

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


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