Home | Other Papers and Essays | Return to Beginning

Lifelong Learning in Japan

Section 5. Problems

Japan has strong governmental support for lifelong learning, and adults have many opportunities to participate in various educational activities. However, some significant problems still exist in Japan's lifelong learning system for adults. This section analyzes three of the most critical issues: lack of adult participation in higher education, Japanese society's undue emphasis on a person's prior formal academic career, and Monbushô's centralized bureaucratic direction and control of lifelong learning.
Higher Education
Very few Japanese adults attend university courses at either the undergraduate or graduate level, and universities in general provide few opportunities for adults to participate in higher education. The university student population is highly stratified by age, and it is rare for students outside ages 18 to 22 to attend university classes (Smith 1995, 107). Monbushô statistics show that in 1995 only 4,189 adult students were admitted to undergraduate degree programs and 4,889 to graduate degree programs (1996a, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.7). These numbers are quite small when compared to a total population in Japan of about 125 million.

Japanese universities have been very inaccessible to adults, both for degree programs and even for taking individual classes apart from a degree program. Universities in Japan generally provide very limited transfer of previous credits earned at other universities or even in other departments at the same university, as the following example shows:

Japanese students are not accepted into a university and then allowed to choose a major. Rather, they are accepted for a certain major in a certain university. Students may not change majors or transfer to another university without taking another entrance examination. My husband was a sophomore studying math when his university started a medical school. In order to change his major to medicine, he had to quit school and take a new entrance exam. After passing the exam, he started school as a freshman again, and none of the credits from his previous two years were transferable. (Goya 1993, 127)
This type of inflexibility has greatly hindered the pursuit of higher education by adults. The number of universities permitting students to take single courses without entering a degree program has recently grown quite rapidly, from 116 in 1992 to 358 in 1994, which represents over half the universities in Japan. However, the number of students involved had reached only 10 thousand in 1994 (excluding University of the Air students), but this represented a five-fold increase from two years before (Monbushô 1996a, Chart I-2-19).

Businesses provide almost no support to employees to continue their education in institutions of higher learning. Japanese companies do not underwrite university tuition, and employees tend to enter universities on a individual basis for evening or weekend classes (Kawanobe 1994, 491; Smith 1995, 108). This lack of support compares quite unfavorably to large American companies such as United Technologies, which provides 100% paid tuition to any employee taking an undergraduate or graduate degree, allows time off from work to study up to three hours a week, and gives shares of common stock upon graduation. Such generous educational assistance has resulted in 11 thousand out of its 72 thousand total U.S. employees (about 15%) currently studying for degrees (United Technologies 1998; 1997, 3, 21).

The establishment of the University of the Air in 1985 increased accessibility of higher education to adults, and Monbushô is taking some other limited steps to encourage greater participation of adults in university education. For example, in 1991 universities were allowed to offer credit for study at educational institutions other than universities if equivalent to university-level study. Now some students can get credits for courses at professional training colleges or for passing Monbushô-approved proficiency tests such as the Practical English Proficiency Test (Monbushô 1995, Ch. 2, Sec. 1.5). Some graduate schools are introducing more flexibility to encourage adult participation, such as special selection procedures, special register systems to grant credits for part-time study, evening graduate schools, and courses open to the general public (Monbushô 1995, Ch. 2, Sec. 2.2; 1997b, 5).

Notwithstanding the limited changes described above, much more needs to be done to provide opportunities for university study to adults by allowing more flexibility to earn and transfer credits for degrees. However, Monbushô does not appear to be vigorously taking leadership to quickly make significant changes to the existing system. Their 1997 Program for Educational Reform, which provides detailed recommendations on a wide range of educational issues, and their 1995 Report on Remaking Universities contain only limited ideas on how to substantially increase the numbers of adults participating in higher education.

Academic Career Society
Japan's society places great emphasis on a person's prior academic career (called gakureki shakai in Japanese or "academic career society"). Japanese tend to overemphasize the importance of formal primary and secondary schooling, and the prestige of the university a person attends usually receives excessive weight in hiring decisions for good jobs within business and government. This leads to intense competition for students to do well on entrance examinations to get into the best universities. Despite promotion of lifelong learning by the government, the majority of Japanese society continues to distinguish between two distinct stages in life: the learning stage prior to early adulthood and the working stage after university or high school graduation (Ogisu-Kamiya 1997, 11).

The Japanese school system does not sufficiently prepare children for learning throughout life. The schools tend to teach reactive learning skills, which are required to succeed on the competitive university and high school entrance examinations (Ogisu-Kamiya 1997, 10). Primary and secondary schools require improvements to create more of an environment that will cultivate in children the ability and desire for independent learning, critical thinking, and creativity. The excessive value placed by society on entrance examinations leads to undue stress on young people and causes students to focus their academic efforts exclusively on subjects and material covered by examinations. A 1994 Monbushô survey showed a majority of parents believe the excessive competition of entrance examinations has a negative influence on the development of children, and the many children attending private cram schools (juku) miss other important experiences related to play, community activities, and general living (Sawano 1997, 13). Many students relax once they reach the university level and do not learn as much as they could, because the ranking of the university attended has much more influence on job prospects than how much and what they learn there.

The Japanese government's promotion of a lifelong learning society should over time counteract today's academic career society with its focus on a person's previous formal school career. Although significant changes have been very slow since the mid 1980s, when lifelong learning started to be actively promoted, improvements should result as adults are provided complete access to flexible educational opportunities and as they receive appropriate recognition for their skills and knowledge regardless of where they were acquired.

Centralized Bureaucratic Control
Monbushô's centralized bureaucratic direction and control of lifelong learning causes problems and inefficiencies. This can be observed in several areas. Local governments are typically eager to get whatever funding available with little regard as to feasibility and effectiveness of lifelong learning projects. Most prefectures have trained instructors and established databases that list available volunteer teachers, but many complain that no one asks them to lead programs or classes. Monbushô says it supports communication from citizens for whom the lifelong learning system provides benefits, but they do not mention how citizens will have direct input. (Makino 1997, 13; Sawano 1997, 7-8)

The 1990 Law for Promotion of Lifelong Learning shifted several responsibilities related to adult education from the local boards of education to the prefectural level. This shift of responsibilities leads to less self-government and local autonomy. As part of the establishment of a lifelong learning system, Monbushô now considers educational activities to include such things as hobbies, sports, volunteer activities, recreational activities, and cultural activities. This results in the national government trying to intervene and control the entire scope of learning, including many areas usually considered personal and private (Makino 1997, 12, 17).

Several factors work against and weaken the negative effects of centralized bureaucratic control of lifelong education. If people truly desire to learn something, they usually will find the way to participate in activities to acquire the desired knowledge or skills. Generally, a sufficient level of demand from learners will lead to some organization providing the demanded training or activity. Private enterprises and entrepreneurial-type individuals employed in local government or kôminkan will develop new classes and activities to meet the learning requirements of local residents. The success of local lifelong learning programs many times depends on the involvement of individuals and on the initiative, creativity, and flexibility of managers and administrators of organizations that provide educational opportunities to adults.

Next Section

Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3
Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 and Bibliography
Home | Top | Other Papers and Essays | About the Author