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Tuesday, March 9, 2004


Perilous drop in readership

One long-standing trend in Japan has been the "shift away from print" -- an aversion to serious reading. For example, in the past four years, book sales have continued to decline. Compared with other countries, the books being read woefully lags in quality and quantity.

Most college students do not read newspapers regularly, and more than half do not read serious books except textbooks. Businesspeople who have the habit of reading tomes other than those related to their professions probably belong in the minority.

Riding a Tokaido Shinkansen train, for example, one can see older passengers reading weeklies and younger ones manga. About half of those weeklies include full-page pictures of girls in the nude. Sports newspapers -- another category of lowbrow reading enjoyment -- devote several pages each to pornographic articles.

How is it that so many Japanese read nothing but porn magazines (loosely defined), sports newspapers and manga? Why don't they read serious books? Some say the Internet is keeping people away from reading such books, as television did in earlier times.

I don't buy that. The spread of television and online culture is a global phenomenon, but this has not caused a "shift away from print" in America and Europe or the rest of Asia. In America, many air travelers can be seen reading paperbacks. In Britain, I saw a subway passenger -- apparently a white-collar worker -- perusing a thick hardcover.

In Japan, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, it was fashionable for college students to read difficult foreign books in translation. That was when Japanese people were beginning to think more about the quality of life. The television diffusion rate had exceeded 90 percent, and networks aired far more worthy programs than now. Yet, people were not running away from books.

In those times, television helped reading, and vice versa. It was not an "either-or" choice. Nowadays young people spend less time watching television, but they are not spending more time reading books. They spend most of their time exchanging e-mail over cell phones and playing video games.

As for the Internet, one theory has it that since college students use computers to write reports and can put together a passable report by unloading necessary information, they don't need to read books. Students don't read books because they don't have to.

This is true as far as it goes, but the big picture is missing. Books are not just for writing reports; they represent perhaps the only reliable source of systematic knowledge. The Internet can provide only fragmentary information. Such information may help in quiz shows, but it does not necessarily make you a man or woman of knowledge.

The late 1960s in Japan, a time when student movements spread like wildfire, was a period of intellectual exaltation. After that, though, a wave of anti-intellectualism set in, and by the late 1990s intellectualism and scholarship became something of a spent force.

Moreover, college entrance exams became a test of rote memory, not intellectual power, because of highly technical learning methods used by cram schools. As a result, high school and college students lost interest in building their intellectual ability. The economic bubble (1987-1990) eroded traditional Japanese values like diligence, honesty and sincerity, giving further impetus to "print aversion."

Recently, much has been said and written about the declining scholastic ability of college students. The reason for this is neither "leisurely education," a reaction to cramming, nor easier entrance exams that reflect falling birthrates. In my view, the reason is that most high school students study only to enter college. In other words, they do not read world literature, Japanese novels, philosophy books or science classics.

High schoolers, if they want to enter a prestigious university, must prepare really hard, spending as much time as they can. That was not the case in my day. Entrance exams were relatively easy because there were not as many applicants as now. For instance, in 1961 when I was admitted, only 9.7 percent of high school graduates went on to college. Students had more time to study other things. As a result, I reckon, they were intellectually more mature than today's students. For them, reading came naturally; studying was reading.

Nowadays college students study only for "big exams" that lie ahead, such as those for lawyers and doctors. It seems they just can't kick the habit of studying for exams. This heavy emphasis on exam-oriented learning helps explain why law and medical departments are so popular -- and why liberal arts departments have been all but scrapped. Such liberal education is no longer considered essential. Reading classics is considered a waste of time. For most, study that counts is study for qualifying exams.

The reorganization of national universities as "independent agencies," effective from April, is likely to strengthen the tendency to emphasize practical education and de-emphasize liberal education. This tendency will accelerate the "shift away from print," making it more difficult to achieve the government's goals in areas such as industrial promotion, science and technology development, and international negotiation.

To achieve these goals it is essential that people respect liberal arts and acquire the habit of reading good books.

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

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