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Japan and its standardized test-based education system

By Kevin Burns

For some positives in Japanese education, one need look no further than the local kindergarten or the local elementary school. For everything other than English education, they are doing a good to great job of educating the children of Japan. Classes are creative, teachers are caring, on the whole, and students are happy and learning.

Were the whole education system to be like this from kindergarten to the end of university, the Japanese people would be happier, healthier and more productive, both in GDP and creative terms.

Unfortunately, this all ends at age 12. Those are the years that exam hell starts and from which students never really recover. The standardized test-based education system of Japan that starts in the junior high school years kills any kind of initiative, creativity and especially thinking outside of the box. Unfortunately, these last three are what Japan especially needs in the 21st century; perhaps Japan`s most challenging 100 years yet.

For many years now, Japan has employed this test-based education system and passing the all important tests is what educators and students―not to mention parents, are focused on. The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.

Don't believe me? When you next meet a Japanese, just for fun, ask them their opinion on something. If they are able to give an opinion, then do this: Ask them why? Why do they feel that way? In many cases, they will be stumped.

In spite of this standardized test hell that most Japanese find themselves in during their school years, a few would-be Michelangelos manage to slip through. Most, however, have their creative thoughts stripped from them or numbed into oblivion.

Recently, one of my bright Japanese students returned from North America to once again study at his old university in Japan. He was shocked at the passivity of the students. He hadn't realized how passive, non-responsive and void of opinions Japanese university students were.

He said that in America, he studied with students from all over the world and he enjoyed hearing and expressing his opinion with others. He couldn't understand how the students of Japan were so passive and quiet. He expressed the desire to go back to America as soon as possible to study there. Many Japanese who have lived abroad have said the same thing.

In the news, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been dubbed "loopy" by the American press, especially due to his lack of decision-making on the Okinawa base issue. Once he made a decision, he then turned around and reneged on it, and apologized to Okinawans for his backslide. But this lack of decision-making ability is not restricted to the general populace; it occurs in all ranks of Japanese society. Hatoyama, of course, is a product of this education system.

It is not only the students who are having a difficult time; the teachers are too. Many have to take time off work due to stress, while others create a life of drudgery for their pupils. Many Japanese seem to have lost their love for education and learning once they enroll in junior high school. Indeed, too much test-taking may result in shallow learning and a negative feeling toward school.

For the future, Japan needs to ask itself: Are we creating the people we need to solve the problems of the future? If the answer is no, then this is a recipe for disaster.

Japan needs creative thinkers, people who can think outside of the box to solve the problems of immigration, an aging population, unemployment, off-shore employment, trade, and, of course, the environment. However, perhaps the most pressing problem is the psychological health of the citizens.

For this latter, and the other problems mentioned above, I think there are valuable lessons to be learned in kindergarten.

Kevin Burns, formerly from Vancouver, has lived in Japan for over 20 years and owns a small chain of English schools in Japan, and teaches English at a Japanese university.

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Working in Japan I see three huge gaps in education. 1. Critical Thinking and 2. Problem Solving. 3. Independent Thought.

My work spans technical and business worlds and I far too often see Japanese colleagues lacking the capacity for critial thinking. The ability to re-engineer something seems to be a very strong trait here, yet the ability to work though an abstract problem using critical thought processes seems to be lacking in far too many people I meet in business.

Second. Problem solving. I have to wonder how students are trained to address problems. Perhaps it is a collective approach which stunts individual capacity to resolve problems quickly. Trial and error approaches seem equally lacking. Often my western colleagues will arrive at several quick potential solutions to a problem, while our Japanese peers are still working the details, often collectively.

Independent thought. Getting someone to take the risk to posit an opinion or go out on a limb with a solution is like making rain in the desert here. I know these young workers are smart people, but without someone directing them, they stop moving. If they hit a problem they stop and wait for instructions rather than exercising critical thinking, problem resolution skills and independent thought to move past it.

Japan is doing a diservice to the people here by teaching them to answer test questions rather than teaching them to use accumulated knowledge to develop these three critical life, technical and business skill sets.

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Were the whole education system to be like this from kindergarten to the end of university, the Japanese people would be happier, healthier and more productive, both in GDP and creative terms.

And you know this how?

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I would have to agree. I mean, I don't want to sound like the big bad Westerner who's always like WHY CAN'T JAPANESE PEOPLE BE OUTSPOKEN AND ASSERTIVE LIKE THE REST OF US (terrible generalization, but even Japanese people think that way about Westerners-- I've been asked several times why I am not more assertive, because 'that's what you Americans do, right?' when I was just trying to be polite), but I feel bad for my students. It is the most difficult thing in the world trying to do an activity in which they think for themselves. They either have to be in a group or they won't do it. If it's an activity that requires them to explain something, they can't do it. If I ask about why they like some movie/anime/tv show, they act like I'm asking them to tell me the meaning of life. Even my adult eikaiwa students have a lot of trouble, though I'm always encouraging them to speak their minds.

There's too much of "I'll just study enough to pass a test" rather than studying to learn, and to actively use it, and English is an excellent example of this. The kids memorize the vocab and grammer to pass the test, but they never use it. Even young teachers who got such and such high score on some test can't speak a word of English if I approach them. I think studying for scores only is a problem back home, but at least I feel like students are given far more of an opportunity to think about what they're doing, rather than read and recite over and over again. These kids are very intelligent, but people shouldn't make them gauge it based on a bunch of test scores alone.

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Mr Burns, with all due respect the solution is not to remove standardised testing as you imply, but rather to change the testing methods. Frankly the current testing system is, for lack of a better word, lazy. There is almost never more than one correct answer, and where there is an essay or creative section it is inevitably short and a tiny fraction of the total points. Why? Because it's easier to mark tick/cross questions than it is to sit and read a student's essay in full and then come to score based on style, logic, etc. In short the teachers are lazy.

Perhaps that may come across as a little harsh, but now that I have your attention allow me to elaborate. Japanese teachers are busy, but if one examines their duties then you'll note that they're doing a mess of administrative work that they are neither qualified nor suited to do. They're teachers, not administrators, yet a large part of their day is spent managing the finances for clubs, text book purchases, and other financial and administrative duties. As a result when faced with a choice in terms of what kind of a test to set they almost inevitably opt for one that reduces their marking time, regardless of the educational validity of this approach. To be fair they are not alone. Universities and other educational institutions have opted for the same "multiple choice" approach, and while multiple choice has its place it should never be more than 50% of any testing system, and in my opinion should comprise less than 30%, however the reason for favouring it is simple, Lazyness. You could dress it up in prettier words, like "administrative efficiency", or "expediency", or even "making the best use of limited resources", but at the end of the day what is education about if not educating the students. It would be more efficient and expedient to just skip the years of education and classes and just announce the students were ready, but no sane person would do that because we all know that the economy would collapse if people were uneducated and unqualified. ... .. . But wait, the Japanese economy has been in slow collapse for the last few decades. The collapse has been slow because the educational methods being used are becoming slowly and increasingly inappropriate to the global working landscape where there is no one "right" solution, but rather a host of possible solutions to be chosen from where one must consider the alternatives and find the best fit to one's environment.

The only way forward if for MEXT to simply publish regulations requiring that no more than 30% of any examination, in terms of both content and points, at any level (from University down) can be comprised of "closed questions" (binary questions, i.e. those with a single right or wrong answer). There will be an initial period of shock and panic, but soon the Japanese teachers and schooling system will see the benefit in training their students to think rather than just parrot the correct answer.

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Oh Boy, Kevin, you said it. In a word: Sheesh.

"When you next meet a Japanese, just for fun, ask them their opinion on something. If they are able to give an opinion, then do this: Ask them why? Why do they feel that way?"

Yeah, because anyone who CAN'T give an uninformed loud obnoxious opinion about something random suggested by a random stranger is not possibly sophisticated enough to live in the modern world of Miley Cyrus, Twitter, NASCAR, Harry Potter, and Twilight. Badger them some more, and Japanese are STILL unable to spout off about something! This drives me nuts.

"Japan needs creative thinkers" Yeah, because Ghibli and all of the manga etc. of Japan cannot stand up to the creative might of Disney and XBox, who buy their work from Asia. Japan is dead last in every creative endeavor there is! Sheesh!

"solve the problems of immigration, an aging population, unemployment, off-shore employment, trade, and, of course, the environment." Yeah, because Western "developed countries" are all handling these problems so well. Their kids are raring to take over, too!

Come on Japan, time to buck up and get serious and stop playing around with tests. Do something creative and solve some problems.. sheesh.

Now, if I take off my sarcasm glasses and look around, I see that Japan is just fine, thank you. Everyone complains about tests, but the outcomes are good. Japan will continue to discard vestigial junk as it sees fit. It will keep things that serve a purpose.

Pray tell, Kevin Burns, what will happen when everyone at Harvard gets straight-As? Grade inflation is such a scourge worldwide that I would bet my life that people are being accepted and rejected for university based on a hundredth of a grade point these days. What happens when home schoolers demand that recommendations by "mom" and "the pastor" be accepted as equivalent to those from a teacher or principal? Somehow, those scenarios don't sound like Japan. Ah. Standardized tests DO serve a purpose don't they? Their cold nonsense forfends a lot of warm-fuzzy nonsense doesn't it?

I hasten to add that in any field of endeavor, except pro basketball, Japan is represented well. It is admired in many. Japan is just fine.

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Klein2, really? Manga is original? You must not read much manga. Kamen Rider, Ultraman, so-and-so Rangers, they all rely on a working formula that has worked for decades. You have Evangelion and series like that that will not die despite needing to, and then you have every other series that aspires to be an Evangelion clone. Pre-Cure? Just a rehash of Sailor Moon for a new generation, and it's even produced by the same company!

Even Japanese entertainment is lazy, lazy, lazy. Don't make anything NEW. We don't want anything NEW. We just want the same thing that made us a lot of money before, changed slightly. Ghibli is basically the only exception.

And don't get me started on dramas. Or music. This lazy thinking spreads into every facet of society. I'm surprised when I meet a truly creative person here, or a person with opinions different from the "because I am Japanese" norm.

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I would agree on the whole, but there's a bit too much generalization and "why don't they do it like America does it" in my opinion. And I do not think the USA's educational system is without flaws, is it?

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Good read and many valid points. Thumbs up!

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And I do not think the USA's educational system is without flaws, is it?

When you talk about the USA's educational system I'm a little confused. The USA doesn't really have a standardised approach at all, apart from the accursed SAT, which falls foul of exactly the same problem as the Japanese testing system. 70% of the "writing" section of the SAT is actually multiple choice. I think the U.S. testing system would be an awful one to imitate.

In fact the world-over the "modern" move in testing tends to be towards a simplified world view that there is a single best right answer to any question, and that's just not the case. And the reason is mostly not "It's an educationally sound principle", but rather "It's easier than reading and marking 10 pages of adolescent drivel about the meaning of Shakespeare".

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The USA educational system is definitely not without flaws. Everywhere in the world has flaws. For Japan, I would say it is the focus on passing rather than everything else that comes with education. I want to encourage my students to use English and think of it more than just another number on a score sheet. But a lot of teachers don't feel that way. And I have students who can speak english just fine, but they fail the tests because of technicalities that aren't allowed for because of the rigid scoring system.

And no I'm not asking my kids to be obnoxious, how is learning to express yourself obnoxious? I don't want to turn my students into "little Americans". I want them to be well rounded human beings. Japan has a great amount of creativity, this country is not as stagnant as a lot of people would think, but on the average level, namely in my personal experience in junior high schools, my kids need help learning to talk about things in non-textbook manner. There is no right answer for everything.

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It isn't a question of why don't they do it like America. It is a question of how should they be doing it for the future of Japan. If this country is to remain competitive, which is looking more and more doubtful, it has to stop leaning on tradition and start making smart decisions about how to remain in the game. This is inescapable for every country on the planet that expects to have an active economy.

Education is key to this objective. Rote learning does not help. Critical and creative thinking, problem resolution skills and assertive confidence are what made Japan great in the post war era. If they do not recover this ability, Japan will continue to slip.

Your choice. A new approach to making your kids viable for the modern global economy, or tradition and continued decline. Up to Japan.

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@ Foggia: No education system is perfect. But I think that an education system that teaches skills that can be employed in the real world for the rest of your life (creative thinking, problem solving, etc.) as opposed to skills that will only be useful once (passing that high school math exam). I'm certainly not implying that math is useless, but compare the times per week you have to use algebra to the times where you have to employ critical thinking.

Monkeyz is right: rarely is anything new. Producers of music and TV shows and animations look at what's out there and can't come up with a fresh idea (they don't know how) so they take an existing formula and rearrange it, which apparently is good enough for them. It's also why I can't read most comic books - they're all essentially the SAME (especially the romantic ones aimed at girls). Maybe if these producers and writers had been challenged to use their creativity further in school, they wouldn't be so strapped for fresh ideas.

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I completely agree with the lack of creativity, independent thinking and problem-solving skills. But it is not only due to the standardized tests-based system, although that most definitely is a factor.

No, another big factor is hierarchy. People HAVE opinions, people ARE able to work out solutions on their own, but they are extremely reluctant to make themselves heard. Not stepping on the toes of a superior, and not standing out / drawing attention to yourself in general, are of such overwhelming importance that frankly business efficiency becomes secondary. "Conformity" is Prime Directive A1 in Japan.

I have had many discussions with Japanese businessmen in their 30s and 40s who know that the Japanese must become more assertive, outgoing, independent-minded, creative etc to compete successfully on the global stage, particularly when it comes to China and North Korea. But the powers that be—ie the older generation—cannot adapt to this reality and demand, and get, conformity simply because of seniority.

Another problem is the obsession with details, the idea that "perfection" (whatever that is) lies in making every single detail of something, no matter how trifle, perfect. In my field, publishing, that means focusing obsessively on making sure terminology is absolutely consistent, not a single comma is missing anywhere—while at the same time completely losing sight of the overall message of a publication, how it reads, if it is interesting/inviting/engaging and whether it is actually communicative or not. This approach, while admirable up to a certain extent, wastes huge amounts of time and resources.

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I think a lot of the reason Japanese dont express themselves isnt so much that they cant(in Japanese at least) its because of the fear that is instilled in everyone that standing out, being different, etc etc isnt good.

Folks its mostly that old and true the nail that sticks out get hammered thingy, every Japanese is well aware of it & this creates a pervasive fear in the entire population to a very large extent and so most just clam up out of fear that is hammered home to ALL on a daily basis here.

I have said it lots of times if Jpn doesnt re-invent itself in a lot of areas it will(rather already is) wither big time on the global stage

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Monkeyz: You say this as though it didn't apply at least as much to the western entertainment industry.

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Grind those little 12 year old Jkids into gaman paste and make sure they can regurgitate on paper like a Pavlovian zombie! When they cant vomit out facts and figures on cue, hammer them again and again! If they are failing, send them to a punitive cram school until they develop a fatal case of hikikomori syndrome.

JParents, make sure your kids understand that your own narcissistic ego and sagging social identity hang in the balance based on your child‘s performance at school. Make damn sure your kid's self worth is directly related to grades, and not anything nebulous like intrinsic human value, or God forbid, something like love or unconditional respect.

Children are generally curios about the world. They smile and laugh easily. They don’t need to be told to be creative. They will tell you exactly what they feel and think. When the freedom to feel and think are taken away as prerequisite to “learning” and becoming an “adult”, you get kids who withdraw from life and psychotic adults that prefer fantasy to reality. The average age of the thirty thousand plus suicides a year in Japan is getting younger and younger. Ask the hammered down kids of exam hell as to why. They may not be able to understand Plato, Socrates or Shakespeare, but they can answer that question.

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I am glad the Japanese do not have opinions. Makes life easier for me.

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I think the article is a slight generalisation but it makes many valid points and I have to agree with most of what was said. And as Tkoind says - it has nothing to do with wanting to "westernise" Japan, but everything to do with wanting Japan to stand up and be a major world leader. This cannot happen while people aren`t prepared to stick their necks out and make some tough decisions.

The country and big business in general is run by a bunch of guys who have been very comfortable with and/or made a lot of money out of the status quo - the seniority ladder regardless of how good you are at your job, the amakudari system, etc etc.

The guys coming up from underneath cant wait for it to be their turn. Change and leadership takes effort - and I just feel a collective national apathy here. Its like by the time they leave school and start work they are already exhausted! Just sit on the escalator and your turn will come.

On a personal level - as things stand at the moment I will not be putting my kids through the system from junior high onwards, and quite honestly if the rest of the country want to follow like sheep, fine by us - less competition for the ones who will stand out in the future. My husband has made his career out of being different - he dared to do it and it paid off.

Japlan and Tkoind for prime minister(s) I say!

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Saying the Japanese have no opinions, or can't back them up, is pure bollocks.

Perhaps they don't like expressing them in a foreign language to overly inquisitive, aggressive foreign nationals for fear of being misunderstood. However, if there's one thing they do have, it is an opinion. I get enough hot air from my Japanese co-workers, Japanese spouse, Japanese in-laws and Japanese students to re-float the good ship Yamato on a daily basis.

It would be nice and neat if we could blame all the problems in the world on the testing system in Japan. Alas, my friends, let's put this baby to bed. Things are just a little more complex.

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tkoind2 at 10:34 AM JST - 16th June

Critical and creative thinking, problem resolution skills and assertive confidence are what made Japan great in the post war era.

You've been watching Project 'X', haven't you?! lol

While it may be true that (and I don't know if it really is) that Japan lacks creativity and "thinking outside the box", as Kevin Burns puts it, I don't think that's a necessary trait for an entire country to have.

In fact, can you imagine what type of disorganized place this would be if EVERYBODY was creative and thought outside the box? Everybody would be going in all different directions and nobody would be working as a team!

Countries/companies need leaders and followers. People who lead should be good at leading (obviously), creative, and be able to hear and understand peoples' opinions and needs. People who follow should be able to... well... follow orders and work well as a team. If we have a nation full of nothing but creative thinkers then there would be too many different opinions and no teamwork or unity! It's the elite and creative thinkers that need to be pulled up to the top to lead, and a solid team to support that leadership. It's all balance you guys... yin and yang...

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Hatoyama, of course, is a product of this education system.

Yukio Hatoyama has a PhD from Stanford.

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sourpuss, people will express opinions on certain topics when you ask the right way, or it is a thing for them. But they are far, far less likely to express themselves in an aggressive way or to lock horns with someone for the sake of debate or out of passion. They are much more likely to try to find common ground - and this leads to rusty skills in analysing and criticising information.

I've taught Eikaiwa for five years, and my small-town students trust me and each other enough to express their opinions. They are proud to share opinions when they have them - but I definately would say they have less experience debating and critiquing than western students. And sometimes they just have no opinion at all, particularly on religious and political matters.

Japanese are only too aware that rote learning is a gutting waste of time and energy for the most part. My students who persist in trying to learn English are emphatic that they don't want to learn grammar - they've been practicing with those tools for many years already - they want to put the tools to work in real communication. Sadly, test-based education has pulverised their ability to be dynamic in conversation and it's like starting from scratch for them.

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A lot of good points here. As others have said, it's not just about the test-based system or not having strong opinions but that standing out in any way is generally seen as a bad thing. My husband can actually recall that in junior high and high school most students were being squeezed into the 'conformity' box and somehow he managed not to fall into it with the rest of them; thank goodness!

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saborichan, exactly my point.

you judge their opinion forming ability purely from their output in English. You sound like my American co-worker who doesn't speak a lot of Japanese, and somehow manages to misunderstand 100% of what is spoken around her. Only after leaving the eikaiwa scene will you understand how warped your limited view of the country can become because of it.

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Sourpuss, I think you and I live in the non-eikaiwa, non-kindergarten part of Japan. Maybe I am just lucky, but I see creative intelligent people all the time. Yes they are opinionated in all ways.

Japanese people have faces they put on for everything, and yes, there are faces for bosses and for teachers. Those faces have "don't make waves, don't take risks" written all over them. But the guy next door plays his clarinet for hours every day (he is pretty good and jumps genres), and on the other side is a guy who roasts his own coffee and varies it quite a bit by season from what I gather. I can go to five restaurants within five minutes of my house with menu items I have not seen anywhere. Japanese software, in my experience, is very good. Their space program is special. They have made some of the best horror movies ever made in any country, and they are often imitated. If you can't find creativity in Japan, you are talking to too many 20 year olds or kindergarteners.

Standardized testing, with all its ugly bits, has enabled Japan to keep some standards more or less intact and provides some rule of "fairness" and some measure of "aptitude." Within this rigid system, perhaps because of it or perhaps in spite of it, Japan produces greatness every day. It is not Japan's failure that it cannot show it to people like Kevin. It is Kevin's failure for not seeing it.

Some people have 20 years' experience, and some people have one year's experience 20 times. If a person truly walks through life with eyes open and views Japan's education system in a circumspect manner, I don't understand how they could reach Kevin's conclusions.

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Gee, a foreigner complaining about Japanese lacking creativity. I don't think I've ever heard that before.

How about becoming friends with a local, and then ask their opinions after a few beers, speaking only the local dialect, and fluently. I'm sure you'll find plenty of them have opinions.

It may just be they don't really care to give their opinion to you, no matter how cool a sensei you think you are.

As far as the education system goes, B.F. Skinner said this about WESTERN education: Everybody is born a genius, but 99.9 percent are de-geniused before they finish school.

Cramming a bunch of people into a room and forcing them to listen to somebody drone on about some uninteresting thing will kill anybody's creativity.

In a place like Japan, standardized testing is a great tool to motivate sharper students to compete against their peers. I've seen it in action. It's also a great tool to let their parents know exactly how they are doing in school, and to motivate them accordingly.

I'd say the difference between Japanese education and Western education is minor compared to the overall inefficiency of the model.

As far as junior high school being the death of creativity, it is also the beginning of a period of sometimes extreme social awkwardness. Doing well in school and impressing the teacher with your creativity is the last thing on most kids minds.

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Many things have been said, so let me just add some few thoughts and observations.

I think there is a lot of creativity in Japan, but compared to other places it seems more unevenly distributed among the population, the average Tanaka Tarou being rather dull and uninspired while there is a fantastic creativity at the small top.

As much as I personally like controversial discussions, that's impossible in Japan. But that doesn't mean Japanese don't have opinions, they will just not articulate them in the same way as "westeners". The Wa is more important. You have to read more in between the lines.

It's better to hold back your opinion - or "have no opinion" as the author writes - than proselytizing uninformed drivel, isn't it?

The problem with the Japanese education system is not so much the tests per se, but the way they are used. Because children have to outperform their peers in order to proceed to the "right" school or university, these tests have become overly important and hence too much effort is wasted on them.

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Mr. Burns is right on the money, Kindergarten and Elementary are very good here. Jr and Highschool is why you see all the suicides. We are moving back to the US before then. I pledged to my wife that I would never allow our children to attend a Japanese High School.

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Good article with several valid points.

A Japanese teacher once told me that the purpose of the Japanese education system is not to educate, but to show children how to be Japanese.

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Jr and Highschool is why you see all the suicides. We are moving back to the US before then. I pledged to my wife that I would never allow our children to attend a Japanese High School.

Back in 1985 I had to teach at a Catholic Junior high school on the Texas-Mexican border. Even though these kids were "religious" and "good" the 7th graders could be described as simply out of control. The parents then told me that in the public schools, they were having sex in the hallways. That was 1985. Imagine now. And from what I have heard from my sister and how her sons are doing in junior high and high school--well there are now just as many tests there as there are here. And her second son failed 7th grade and is repeating as the apathy is now widespread. 1/3 of all students do not even finish high school. And let's talk about the drug use and oral sex. The oral sex as the one thing that caused parents to drop the phone when they heard about their daughter's or son's behavior. So, yeh, good luck with that move. LOL.

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This is to inform you that your message on JapanToday.com has been removed for the following reason: Off Topic my a$$!

"> Jr and Highschool is why you see all the suicides. We are moving back to the US before then. I pledged to my wife that I would never allow our children to attend a Japanese High School.

Back in 1985 I had to teach at a Catholic Junior high school on the Texas-Mexican border. Even though these kids were "religious" and "good" the 7th graders could be described as simply out of control. The parents then told me that in the public schools, they were having sex in the hallways. That was 1985. Imagine now. And from what I have heard from my sister and how her sons are doing in junior high and high school--well there are now just as many tests there as there are here. And her second son failed 7th grade and is repeating as the apathy is now widespread. 1/3 of all students do not even finish high school. And let's talk about the drug use and oral sex. The oral sex as the one thing that caused parents to drop the phone when they heard about their daughter's or son's behavior. So, yeh, good luck with that move. LOL."

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Last night I had a talk with a Japanese friend of mine about this topic. I told him that I didn't want to assume these things about Japanese people, and he, having not even spent a lot of time in the West, said a lot of the same things we're saying in this thread here. He said a major problem is people being afraid to think differently, not wanting to express themselves for fear of being ostracized for having a brain and using it. Granted he is one person, but I have met other Japanese people, older mind you, not young people, and I trust their thoughts on this matter before my own and anyone else not Japanese.

No one is saying (or at least I'M not) that Japan lacks creative people! I'm saying, there aren't enough opportunities to express that on an average level! Certainly you go to Tokyo, which is a major bustling center for all kinds of things. But go into the smaller towns in Japan, and there is still the mindset that you have to do what everyone else is doing, and standardized tests are the only proof that you're on the "right track", so to speak. From day one in middle school these kids are told that you must study, study, study and once you're done with studying, then what?

And also I'm not asking Japanese people to be armchair-experts and throw out their opinions on a whim, because I don't even do that. Sometimes it IS better to keep your thoughts to yourself, and the Japanese have that down to an art. Good for them. The point is, being able to critically think about something is far different from saying "I like blah blah blah because of blah blah blah". I would like more kids to actively consider things rather then letting them pass over their heads or being broke down into A, B, or C. That's all. It's the same thing I would want for kids in the West, though it seems in the west there's a lot more opportunity for that (whether the kids do it or not, remains to be seen, as there are plenty of Westerners who can't think critically either).

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Such statements and observation as made here in the article are dangerous, lacking perspective and objectivity. Every system has its pro and cons. Whether it may be North American countries, European countries or others they all have systems in place that contain some rather positive ideas and others that are not so good. Japan’s system has some very positive aspects to it, however, like all systems it has much room for improvement as well. The so called North American or British eagerness to make decisions on the spot has broth us the Iraq war and caused much damage through out the past two decades at great cost as well. We can learn much from one another as long as we remain objective, open minded, rational and realistic. The West would do well to start learning from the East in the same manner as the East did from the West. Nothing is ever completely black or white… The ideal education system would have smaller classes with no more then 10 students per class and better trained teachers, this is unfortunately not the case no matter the country or its system since we simply do not give education the priority it deserves.

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In my opinion the only wrong doing here are not the tests but the way children getting educated. Once children enter the Elementary school they are not longer considered children but adults. They are not getting educated they get imposed and there childhood gets taken away from them in thinking as an adult, or better as a "Salary Men".

I know this because I can see the impact it has on my own children, one been in the 5th grade and the other in the 3th. My children where born abroad and we moved to Japan about 6 years ago. The kindergarten they attended was very good and I was very impressed but all changed once they started attending elementary school. The lessons are blunt and not implemented. Students are not allowed to express them self or question the why? And we all well know that children live in a world of "why?". Also as

medievaltimes says at 06:59 AM JST - 17th June

A Japanese teacher once told me that the purpose of the Japanese education system is not to educate, but to show children how to be Japanese.

I have to agree with him 100%. After my oldest son started attending elementary school, we got a letter from the school stating that our son had some comprehensibility problems, when we attended the meeting with the school principal, we were told that our son was not fitting in with other students because he was behaving to childish and they wanted him to attend a special class. Anyway I don't want to go of topic here. The same happened to my other son.

Also I noticed that students do not get encouraged to tackle a problem but that they have to solve it in that way only. So I have started educating my kids by showing them different ways to get an answer especially in math, because by the end of the day what is important to get the result regardless of what method you applied. Children should not be narrow minded by teachers by imposing just one option when you can have more.

All this said educate your teachers before you educate your children and let teachers do their job as a teacher and not as a janitor, coffee girl, secretary and god knows what else.

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Children should not be narrow minded by teachers by imposing just one option when you can have more.


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Working as an engineer in the shipyards, I have noticed that the men who did not go to high school outperform the trade school and university grads all the time, in the critical thinking area, hands on, and problem solving. It seems more often than not, having an education does not mean you are more intelligent!

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All the students in the elementary schools I work at take four standardized tests a year: One test is taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year to gauge academic progress and a different test is also taken at the end of the school year for State and Federal evaluation of acceptible yearly progress. The one complaint I repeatedly hear from the teachers is that all this testing locks the teachers into a strait-jacketed lesson plan. There is no time to allow for deviation from the plan because too much course material must be covered before the end-of-year State test.

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I mis-spoke. Testing starts at Grade 3. So the Kindergarteners through 2nd graders don't test.

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I've been teaching English full-time in Japan for 20 years, and I the author of this article is spot on. (I've also taught music most of my life.) Japanese have a terrible time expressing themselves, in Japanese or English; it doesn't matter. And I agree; things start to deteriorate from junior high school when testing becomes the focus of education.

I recently asked some third year high school students whether or not, given the opportunity, they would like to live abroad, and why or why not. Most who said yes gave simple reasons like, "because the people are kind in that country", or "because I like the food there".

I think most of us move to other countries for the challenge, for new work opportunities, or for a better future. When asked their opinion, most Japanese have difficulty expressing themselves at a deeper level--answers tend to be very obvious or superficial--without substance or support to back it up.

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Just a thought, and this is not intended for any posters here, although it may very well apply. Suppose you have just a crappy personality, and poor social skills. You come to Japan, and your lack of social skills and personality is lost in the cultural shuffle.

But slowly, people around you pick up on your geekyness and it reflects in their interactions with you.

You conclude, after a few years, that Japanese people lack communication skills and the ability to express themselves.

But in reality, it is you that is lacking in skills needed for an open, two way conversation, filled with spontaneity and creativity.

Of course, the only people you hang out with are like minded gaijin, so you reinforce this mistaken interpretation of Japanese supposed lack of creativity.

And the vicious cycle continues.

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Oh, I should have mentioned; my wife is Japanese. We have a daughter who went through the entire Japanese education system from nursery school to high school. She is now studying at university abroad. I have very few gaijin friends in Japan, in fact, most of my best friends are Japanese. And I have excellent rapport with my students.

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At the end of the day regardless of country, parents should play a HUGE role in positively supporting their child's education. Without that, parents simply are giving their kids to the "system". Clearly, that is a crap shoot recipe.

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Despite the complaints in this forum about Kevin Burns' opinions, I think he is absolutely correct in identifying one of the great tragedies of 'modern' Japan, which, despite its considerable trappings of wealth and modernism, remains an essentially feudal society masquerading as a democracy.

How some of the respondents to Mr Burns' main point can fail to see the passivity, heterogeneity and mental blankness of Japanese learners as a defining characteristic of Japan is quite beyond me.

In fact, after living and working in Japan for eight years as a university teacher, I'm coming to see this problem more as more as one of mental abuse by the controlling systems of Japan toward learners. You don't have to go the small towns to find it. Believe you me, it exists in the classrooms of every city university.

The whole system, from high school on, is in fact devoted to stamping out learners' individuality, their ability to formulate ideas and think creatively. It actively imposes a submissive mindset in favor of a controlling culture which bans the adventure of ideas so as to preserve the 'wa' of 'correct' relationships.

Why? Because the very mission of higher education is not to open young minds and create a nation of independent, critical thinkers. Quite the contrary. Rather it is dedicated to preparing students for a lifetime of servitude to corporate statism in a vertically ranked society.

It is essential for foreigners to comprehend this concept - it virtually amounts to public policy - if they are to truly grasp the essence of Japan and the reasons why Japanese are for the most part incapable of integrating with the rest of the world.

Anyone who has seen hordes of uncomfortable-looking Japanese tourists warily trotting around foreign cities will understand. Look up 'Paris syndrome' on the web if you don't get the idea.

Orthodoxy, not liberation or integration, is the goal here. That is, orthodoxy as a condition for order, distributing responsibility among the group as a way of exerting pressure on individuals not to speak up, challenge dominant paradigms or, god forbid!, make a mistake.

Even Japanese themselves admit their thought processes are non-rational,anti-logical, situational, emotional, and this they present as a strength rather than a deficiency. One would be well advised to ask non-Japanese trade negotiators, who for decades have been stymied by bloody-minded obfuscation and Japan's victim mentality, how they view the Japanese mindset.

One of the key elements here is the way in which nationality and culture are imposed as ideology. That's why Japanese consistently say their culture is being attacked whenever their policies are challenged.

And it all starts with education.

It's true there are exceptions, and the essential 'niceness' of the Japanese people tends to blind newcomers and naive Japanophiles to such unpalatable realities. Since one's strength is also one's weakness, the essential passivity of Japanese people not only makes them malleable and the most politically apathetic in Asia, it also explains why the food is always good, why the trains run quite scarily on time and why Japanese are - for better and worse - the most predicable people on the planet.

It's true that certain Japanese engineers and scientists, including Nobel prize winners, demonstrate that some Japanese think logically and creatively, though they are the exceptions which prove the rule, and many of them have chosen to work among the richer academic pastures of western universities.

In conclusion, I don't know one fellow western university teacher in my acquaintance who would disagree with Mr Burns' basic observation. And I can assure you I have many Japanese colleagues who would also concur with his thesis. As the old joke goes, you don't really understand Japan until you see that is it is, at heart, a communist nation. Methods of control and domination, it is abundantly clear, are the key to understanding this bizarre and often wonderful country.

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Peer pressure is an insidious tool and while I've never set foot in a Japanese classroom, from what I've read there is enormous use of peer pressure there. The suppression of the individual for the class would be just one method of nurturing "groupthink". (Damn, I can't believe I just used a psychology term correctly!)


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If you are Japanese, what are your options? None. Is the oneness a product of buddhism? An individual does not exist, whereas in Christianity perception and freedom is intrinsic in God himself. Just different philosophies. Which is correct? I'll take each with their own perception and freedom as truth. And being truth, the average Japanese knows this and has it. We have our myths as well, like there is no natural law even though we all believe in the rights of man. Many times I will take the conservative, loving Japnanese over truthless cynicism or fundamental self-righteousness of others in the world.

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I have been thinking about my post and I do not think I got it right. Certainly Buddhism had some impact on Japanese culture. But I missed the biggy. Confucianism: http://philosophy.lander.edu/oriental/main.html. You should read that short page. Here is a bit "...Few people can attain this ideal; the central virtue is, of course, jen. a. Personal relationships come before anything else (i.e., before thinking, reasoning, studying). b. The five virtues come from within the impersonal ego: (1) kindness, (2) rectitude, (3) decorum, (4) wisdom, and (5) sincerity. "

The critics have some truth in what they say about the Education system in Japan. I will point out that Japanese society does not have the gang banger problem of youth as in the US. Drugs are almost non existant and there is a healthy sense of traditional values. They succeed in doing some great things. I applaud this success. There are some very gentle people here.

BTW : "...the courage to search for the truth and the humility to accept one's ridiculousness, enables man to maintain the right mean between truthless cynicism and self-righteous fanaticism." R. Guardini

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Wonderfully stated. I would of liked to comment but you pretty much summed it up neatly. This style of education,(my personal favorite) "culture as ideology", leads Japan into alot conflict in engaging with the West, in which they play the victim, and the East, in which they play the aggressor. It also lead to nonsense like "Nihonjinron" and the general conception that Japanese are seperate, and (still) shut out from the rest of the world.

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Very good article. I too experienced a great deal of frustration with the lack of well thought out opinions while I was in Japan for 8 yrs. Today however I am in the American South & I encounter many opinions, defended for the most part with misinformation and prejudice.

The cult of Japanese-ness and its promotion by the ed. system is a problem well explained by the ukquyip. Nice post.

I do think that a less rigid, more compassionate education system at the Jr high and HS levels would be a great improvement in Japan.

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If you are Japanese, what are your options? Put up or leave. Many have in the past (to Brazil, the US & Canada) and continue to do so by either marrying a foreigner or having the education and skills to allow them to be free like you and me.

For some, it takes a geographic move of house to get away from the passive aggressive behaviour that is so prevalent in Japan. The only way, Japanese society will change is through immigration of different minded peoples.

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Here's my two cents. The Japanese education system is great to a point. They have a great literacy rate. But given that after university most people go into a company and do work unrelated to their field of study and end up being trained from 0, I think the problem is in high school and uni.

People go to uni for what reason? Adults in Japan seem to get most of their information about the world from TV shows anyway, so what is the point of all the cram schools and senmon gakkous and colleges. Six years of English and more in college and nobody can converse, hardly anyone knows the history that matters the most (20th century esp WW2), and most people need someone to show them how to do just about anything. Lovely sweet people though.

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What a joke! The compulsory education system in Japan is garbage. There's so much misinformation and corporal punishment, it's disgusting. The standardized tests are extremely easy. Their test scores are only high, internationally, because their tests are so simple and dumbed-down.

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About Japanese people not being creative manga is actually very creative and unique so that proves not all Japanese people aren't creative. For example the manga Fairy Tail is made by a very creative author, Hiro Mashima. So before you say: All Japanese people aren't creative because of the test they have to take in Middle and High school read, manga it might change your mind on how you think of Japanese people.

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