Home [ CULTURE ] Japan's education -- following Confucius

Japan's education -- following Confucius

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Confucianism was perhaps one of China's greatest cultural exports.  And most of the East Asian countries, like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, that benefited from this ethical and philosophical system, have followed the creed in terms of placing great importance on education for citizens' moral development.  This is one of the reasons why these countries have enjoyed such economic success, especially compared with Africa and Latin America.


Let's have a closer look at the OECD's assessment of Japan's education performance.  The OECD's work in this area is great.  It allows you to make international comparisons.  Obviously, it is often interpreted as an international beauty contest, or the intellectual olympic games.  But it does provide insights into what works and what doesn't work.  And thereby it helps governments and societies put together the best policies for our children's education. 

Japan has been a real success story, showing that it is possible to achieve strong educational progress.  For example, in the 1960s, Japan was still ranked 14th among OECD countries for the share of its citizens with university-level or vocational tertiary qualifications.  Today, it comes it at 2nd, just after Canada.  However, the share of science graduates is below the OECD, and the level of female science graduates is the lowest of all the OECD coutries. 

The high level of Japanese tertiary enrollment is explained in large part by the high level of "tertiary-type B" education, although the graduation rate for tertiary-type A education increased from 25% to 39% from 1995 to 2006.  In Japan, the percentage of males entering tertiary-type A education is significantly higher than that of females in contrast to the OECD average in which the percentage of females entering type-A education is now significantly higher than that of males. 

Among the OECD countries, only Japan, Germany, Korea and Turkey have more males entering universities, and this gender gap is largest in Japan.  Net entry rates to tertiary-type A education in Japan are 52% for males and 38% for females, while the OECD average is 50% for males and 62% for females.

Japan has become an increasingly attractive destination for international students (especially from China and Korea), with its share of the international education market increasing from 3.4% to 4.4 % between 2000 and 2006 (the US share fell from 25% to 20%, while the UK share declined from 12% to 11%). 

There`s a gag going around Tokyo that the Chinese government won`t send its best students to Japan.  They go to the US.  Why?  The Chinese government is frightened that its best students might end up learning socialism in Japan!  This is no gag, it`s the truth!    

Now let's turn to the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which has developed indicators for levels of performance for science, maths and reading for 15 year old students.  For science competency, Japan comes in at 3rd place out of the 57 countries measured, behind Finland and Hong Kong, and on a par with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Korea, Taiwan, Estonia and Liechtenstein.  4 Confucians all together!

It is reassuring to know that within this overall science score Japan has a comparatively large proportion of top performers, and a small proportion of poor performers.  Also, that overall 15-year-old males and females perform at equal levels.  And that socio-economic disparities have a weak impact on student performance.

The vast majority of Japanese 15 year olds agree that science is important for understanding the natural world, and that advances in science and technology usually improve people's living conditions.  And yet, they report a comparatively low level of motivation to learn science for their future studies or career.  Only a minority report that they do science-related activities on a regular basis -- they have the lowest score of the 57 countries participating in PISA. 

Japanese 15-year-olds report a below-average level of awareness of most environmental issues, but an above average-average awareness of acid rain (hello China!).  They report an above-average level of concern for environmental issues, but only an average level of sense of responsibility for sustainable development.  They also report an above-average level of optimism regarding environmental issues -- but the less they know in science, the more optimistic they are!

Regarding mathematical literacy, Japan comes in as the 6th highest performer, with an above-average proportion of top-performers.  On the maths score, the boys outperform the girls by a wide margin.

For reading performance, Japanese 15-year-olds ranked only 12th highest.  There is only an average level of top-performers.  As with OECD countries in general, the girls outperform the boys for reading, also by a wide margin.       

So it all looks "Hunky Dory" with Japan being a successful knowledge-based economy and society.  One small problem which the OECD does not look is the level competency in foreign languages.  Any visitor to Japan will be shocked by the very low level of competency in English and other foreign languages.  China, a much less developed country than Japan, demonstrates much greater capacities in foreign languages.

With the globalisation of labour markets, foreign investment and R&D, Japan's shortcoming in foreign languages will no doubt hold it back.  Also, for the global system to work, we have to be able to understand each other across the planet.  This also requires language proficiency.  This will also hold back Japan's leadership in the Asian region, something which it aspires to.  


PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow's World.  www.oecd.org   

Education at a Glance 2008.  www.oecd.org