Universities in Japan

University in Japan 大学

The four years of Japanese college have long been derided (or lauded, depending on your point of view) as a meaningless (or well-deserved) respite between the hell of high school and the soul-crushing conformity of salaryman life. This hiatus is punctuated mainly by club activity, some studying, part-time jobs, perhaps a bit of romance, and in the final year or two job-hunting.

After high school and its tests, nightly cram school lessons, and lack of sleep, college is a time to experiment, to "play" to use the Japanese term, and to study just enough to get the diploma that allows one to move on to the next step of one's life - a company.

This short piece will look at the process of entering a Japanese university, what happens once a student enters said university, and the hierarchy that exists among schools in Japan.

Japanese universities
Meijo University Dome-mae Campus, Nagoya

University Entrance

First, how does one enter a Japanese university? In the good old days - when the population of 18-year-olds was abundant - all high school seniors seeking to enter college had to travel to the desired college itself and on an appointed entrance examination day take that university's once a year exam. (To be more precise, students take a test for a specific department, not the university itself.)

For example, a student from Okinawa hoping to matriculate at Tokyo University's Law Faculty would have had to fly to Tokyo, spend at least one and probably two nights in the capital, and sit for Todai's law exam at its Hongo campus. If the student was sick, tough. If the flight was canceled, tough. If the student overslept, tough. If those travel fees were beyond the student's means, tough.

As the population of young people has declined, universities have begun to hold their exams at regional venues. Still, the exam remains a once a year affair. If you do not pass and are determined to enter that university, you must wait a year to try again.

These pitied young people are known as "ronin" (literally, masterless samurai). They enter cram schools full time, and study - for a year - in the hopes of faring better a second time.

The entrance exams are created by faculty at every college around the country. Those faculty will then grade the tests. Thus, a physicist at university X will be called upon to make questions for the exam to his university for students who wish to enter the physics faculty. These academics have little or no expertise in testing; thus, the tests themselves are often criticized as lacking validity. Unlike the SATs, ACTs, etc. in the US, which are created by the College Board - an independent body staffed by PhDs in testing - the questions in the Japanese exams can be abstruse, obscure, and trivial.

Center Shiken

An alternate to the college-specific tests is the Center Shiken (test), which since its inception in 1990 has become a national phenomenon in Japan.

Formally known as the Daigaku Nyugakusha Senbatsu Daigaku Nyushi Center Shiken (in Japanese, 大学入学者選抜大学入試センター試験), the two-day test is held in the middle of every January, and roughly half a million students sit for the test.

Tests are given at universities around Japan in each of the major subjects - Japanese, Japanese history, world history, math, physics, a foreign language, English listening, biology, etc. - and are prepared by a group of academics chosen from around the country. Some universities will accept the results of this test in lieu of their own tests; other colleges combine the scores of the Center Test with the university test.

University in Japan
Tsukuba University Campus
University in Japan
Tokyo University - the pinnacle of Japanese Tertiary Education

University Classes & Teaching Style

Having passed the exam and matriculated, what can one expect? Compared to American and British university students, Japanese college students take a large number of classes in a semester. Unlike a typical load in the US of 4 or perhaps 5 classes per term - each of which meets 2 or 3 times a week - in Japan a typical schedule is 10 plus classes. These classes usually meet once a week. Grades are heavily weighted towards a final exam. Teaching style tends to be a professor lecturing in front of a large number of students.

In recent years, embracing a more communicative style of learning has become de rigueur - a current buzz word in Japanese higher education is "active learning" - but old habits die hard. The real impetus for much of this is not internal but emanates from the annual World University Rankings, and the perennial Japanese fear of "falling behind" world standards.

Officialdom in Japan is highly sensitive to external evaluation. The Times Higher Education rankings have turned into an annual slap down of Japanese universities and a resulting round of hand-wringing.  In the most recent edition, only two Japanese universities placed in the top 100: Tokyo University at 39 and Kyoto University at 91.

To be fair, the algorithms used heavily favor Anglophone universities. Of the top 25 schools in 2017, just one is in a non-English-speaking country: ETH Zurich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Moreover, in the case of Japan, it has few foreign full-time faculty and a low percentage of foreign students. Both of these categories are weighted heavily in the overall evaluation, and are of course related to language as very few academics and undergraduates possess the Japanese language skills to function in a Japanese university.

Still, the results sting and are resulting in reform, much of it long overdue. And, in a stab at Japanese pride, Chinese and other Asian universities have in recent years placed higher, which is also a factor in speeding reform measures.

University in Japan
Tokyo University's Akamon

Sorting Mechanism

As in all countries, Japan's universities also serve as a sorting mechanism. The great national (public) universities - Tokyo, Kyoto, Hitotsubashi, Osaka, Tohoku - sit at the pinnacle of the system. For those who hope to be a part of the governmental ruling class, a degree from Tokyo's Law Faculty is almost a prerequisite.

Below the national universities sit the high-ranking private schools: Waseda, Keio, Jochi, ICU, Doshisha. These schools produce the elite ranks of banking, finance, journalism, education, and other fields.

School Fees

For those considering Japanese higher education, the advantages are not insignificant. First is cost. Tuition at a national university is approximately 538,000 yen/year (USD $4700).

At private universities, the fees are about 1.5 million yen/year ($13,100). Fees for medical school and some science faculties are higher, but these fees are considerably lower than those in the US and even the UK.

Second, even for students at world famous schools abroad, they will be at a disadvantage when searching for a job within Japan. Much of the job hunting process is lock step, and is contingent upon attending many meetings and explanation sessions - which someone overseas cannot do. Finally, those who attend elite Japanese colleges will be able to build a network that will serve them throughout their career and in life beyond school.

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