Forging a Path Forward: Japan’s Universities Face Challenging Future

Exam Hell and the Crisis in History Education

Science Technology Society Culture

Rote memorization has displaced critical thinking and driven young Japanese students away from the study of history, argues the author, who blames the universities’ own fact-driven entrance examinations for the crisis facing the humanities and social sciences in higher education.

An emphasis on high-stakes school entrance examinations as a gauge of human ability and worth is a common feature of education throughout East Asia. Since the results of such exams determine the takers’ future educational, economic, and social opportunities, the school system tailors curriculum and instruction to the tests, and as a result has a tendency (like the tests themselves) to stress memorization rather than the development of thinking skills. (A corollary to this tendency is the widespread assumption that the state should determine what needs to be memorized.)

In this respect, Japan is no exception. What distinguishes the development of Japan’s entrance exams and school curriculum—particularly since World War II—is a uniquely narrow focus on names, dates, facts, and figures rather than the verbal communication of concepts. With the exception of a few elite institutions, both high schools and universities strenuously avoid exam questions that call on students to construct a written response or even to read a passage of any significant length. This neglect of the written word would be unthinkable in societies like China, Korea, and Vietnam, with their long tradition of written civil service examinations centered on the Confucian classics.

The Mass-Production of Educated Citizens

What has caused Japan to move in this direction? One factor was the unprecedented number of young people testing for high school and university admissions in the postwar years. Easily graded short-answer and multiple-choice exams (predecessors to today’s machine-scanned fill-in-the-bubble test sheets) met the needs of a developmental state for mass-education of its citizens at minimum cost.

That said, short-answer and multiple-choice standardized exams have been adopted in other parts of the world as well. Yet in China, South Korea, and Vietnam—not to mention the United States and other Western countries—the schools continue to stress such communication skills as expository writing and debate. Why has such instruction all but disappeared from Japanese classrooms?

One important factor underlying this trend was a peculiar emphasis on egalitarianism, fairness, and political neutrality. Many Japanese educators felt that it was impossible to guarantee fair scoring of essay questions. Many also believed that essay questions and interviews conferred an unfair advantage on children from economically and culturally privileged families. Interpretive essays and test questions were considered especially problematic in the area of history, where political bias could influence grading.

From a broader historical perspective, such reliance on short-answer and multiple-choice assessments might be seen as the product of a society run by hard-headed warriors, merchants, and farmers, who had little time to pore over the classics—unlike the gentry-scholar class that sustained the civil-service system in China and other East Asian countries.

Nurturing a Nation of History Haters

From the 1960s on, as the fruits of rapid economic growth spread through Japanese society, high school education became virtually universal, and the percentage of high school graduates going on to college rose dramatically. Thanks to the approach to instruction and testing described above, the schools succeeded in transmitting a relatively fixed, consistent, and dense body of academic knowledge not only to the social elite but to the majority of the populace.

This included fairly demanding courses of study in both Japanese and world history. The truth is that in the area of history, Japanese postwar scholarship ranks high internationally, both in its meticulous archival research and in its geographical scope, and this expertise contributed substantially to the breadth and depth of Japan’s history curriculum.

Owing to the focus on events, names, and dates, however, Japanese students came under mounting pressure to memorize more and more detail as competition for the top high schools and universities heated up near the end of the twentieth century. The basics of history were submerged under a deluge of factoids, and instruction in reading comprehension, writing, and debate was marginalized even further.

The history curriculum suffered from its own special problems. The thematic framework remained basically unchanged: Japanese history was approached more or less in isolation, with much attention to the attributes that distinguish Japan from the rest of the region, almost as if the nation had developed in a vacuum. World history, meanwhile, preserved the overwhelmingly Euro-centric viewpoint of the nineteenth century. Without revamping these underlying frameworks, curriculum designers simply tacked on more and more names, dates, and events, regardless of relevance or coherence. As the volume of information in the high school textbooks ballooned—reflecting the requirements of the university entrance exams—young people became understandably disgusted with the subject.

The problem was particularly pronounced in world history, an optional subject area in many universities' admissions exams. When the need for information about regions of the world other than Europe and the United States became evident, the curriculum incorporated more and more random facts about the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, without ever scaling back its requirements vis-à-vis Western history. These fragmented bits of information about other areas added almost nothing to students’ understanding. Instead, the growing burden of memorization made students less apt to sit for exams with a world history component. Students who have no intention of taking such an exam are less inclined to apply themselves to the subject. This is the irony of Japan’s fact-heavy world history curriculum. The upshot is that Japanese high school students’ grasp of world history has declined even while the curriculum has become increasingly bloated.

Of those undergraduates who do wish to major in history, the vast majority choose Japanese history, having little interest in countries other than their own. Those with a more international bent choose the West for its “progressive” and “elegant” image. Asian history remains profoundly unpopular among Japan’s university students, who persist in regarding other countries in the region as backward, anti-Japanese, and generally unpleasant places to study. Our postwar education system, instead of mitigating Japan’s twin tendencies toward insularity on the one hand and adulation of the West on the other, appears actually to have exacerbated those proclivities.

Sterile Book Learning

Is this the way to go about nurturing young people with a cosmopolitan outlook, who can understand, argue, and act on the complex issues surrounding Japan and the rest of the world and make informed democratic choices after weighing the merits of different political positions and campaign promises? Is this how we would train leaders and citizens capable of reducing friction between Japan and its neighbors on the basis of a deep understanding of the differences and similarities between various peoples and countries of East Asia?

Osaka University, where I teach, is exceptional in its focus on writing in the history component of its entrance examinations. Essay questions account for most of the problems in world history and all of those in Japanese history. What strikes one most of all in reading applicants’ essays—apart from their abysmal writing skills—is their inability to apply the knowledge they have accumulated. For example, asked why the so-called red-seal ships of the early Edo period traded mostly with Southeast Asia instead of China, few of them recall that official ties between Japan and China were suspended as a result of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea—something Japanese children are taught in middle school. Confronted with a graph showing a dramatic increase in China’s gross domestic product during the eighteenth century, they assume a jump in productivity, forgetting that rapid population growth can have the same effect.

Trained merely to swallow and regurgitate countless names, dates, and events, the applicants to Japan’s most selective universities have never learned to draw meaningful connections and comparisons or even to contemplate the definition and significance of concepts like GDP, let alone communicate such ideas in written Japanese. It takes enormous effort to develop their skills to the point where they can identify the main points of a discussion and explain them logically. And without the ability to summarize and explain one’s knowledge, how can people formulate coherent opinions and debate them with others?

When it comes time to embark on specialized studies, these students have no idea how to choose a research topic and approach it systematically. It is no simple matter to teach them how to ask a meaningful question and draw up a plan for answering it—as opposed to simply declaring, “I want do research on X because I like X,” or “I’m going to write a thesis on Y because no one has explained it.”

Supposing we just gave up on history as a subject irrelevant to our present-day concerns and left it to other disciplines to foster international understanding and develop international competencies? The error of such thinking is obvious to anyone with even a basic understanding of international relations in East Asia, where history is a far more common source of conflict than religious differences, for example. History also explains key attributes common to the region as a whole, including the tendency to become overly focused on economic growth and the unusual number of successful communist revolutions outside the orbit of Soviet influence. There is new research on these themes that many high school students would find both accessible and intellectually stimulating. Why not scrap some of the outdated topics in our high school curriculum and teach these instead?

Universities and the Failure of Education Reform

The education reforms of the 1990s, collectively known as yutori kyōiku (“education that gives children room to grow”) were designed in large part to lighten the burden of rote memorization on elementary and secondary school students and offer more latitude for creativity and independent thinking. Unfortunately, most of these reforms were abandoned before they could bear fruit in the face of widespread criticism that they were causing a decline in academic achievement. The program’s failure stemmed from a number of closely intertwined factors, but one of the most important ones, I believe, was its failure to enlist the cooperation of the universities. Put another way, it was the failure of the universities to understand and adapt to the reforms.

Asked why they persist in drafting entrance-exam questions that test applicants’ ability to memorize countless names and dates, university faculty members have two excuses at the ready. The first is the need to grade a large number of exams in a short amount of time. The second is the need to satisfy the demands of the high schools and the exam-prep industry for tests that reflect their curriculum and teaching methods. It is certainly possible to sympathize with the first explanation; thanks to Japan’s paltry education budget (the lowest in the advanced industrial world), teachers in Japanese schools and universities are so swamped with work that they barely have time to think. But when it comes to the second excuse, universities must accept responsibility for failing to update their entrance exams, reform their general-education curriculum, or train educators capable of teaching anything but rote memorization.

Of course, university professors themselves are exemplary products of Japan’s entrance-exam system. In this sense, it is small wonder that they have continued to pose questions that gauge the takers’ capacity to memorize huge quantities of trivia, instead of stepping back to look at the big picture and ask, What are the basics that an expert in the field needs to know and understand? Ironically, a growing number of Japanese adults outside the academic community—having found nothing of meaning, interest, or relevance in the study of history or literature or philosophy—are questioning the very raison d’être of university humanities and social science departments. In a sense, it is a crisis higher education has brought on itself.

There are more than a few high school and university educators who recognize the urgent need to change the way we teach history and related fields. In 2011, the Science Council of Japan published proposals for reforming the high school geography and history curriculum. In the summer of 2015, a group of high school and university educators founded a national organization—the High School–University Partnership for the Study of History Education—devoted to the compilation of recommendations for integrated reform of history education, including the content of university entrance exams and the undergraduate general-education curriculum.

At Osaka University, we have been conducting research on history education issues for about a decade now in collaboration with high school and university teachers nationwide and have implemented internal reforms of our own, including the establishment of lecture courses for undergraduates who have never had the benefit of a systematic world history education. One concrete outcome of this work is the college textbook Shimin no tame no sekai shi (A World History for Citizens), published in 2014 by Osaka University Press.

We must now move quickly to link such efforts and translate our findings into concrete practice in the classroom. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology has issued a policy promoting a new focus on autonomous “active learning” at the primary and secondary levels to replace the current emphasis on spoon-fed information and has called for new university entrance exams reflecting this shift. But unless we accelerate the pace of change, with the universities playing a proactive role, such lofty goals—like yutori kyōiku—are destined to remain an unfulfilled promise.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on January 20, 2016. Banner photo: Japan’s best and brightest gather for the grueling University of Tokyo entrance examination on February 25, 2015; ©Jiji)

entrance exams yutori kyōiku History education high school–university partnership exam hell Japan education