Mount Fuji

'Inbred' universities dragging Japan down


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of March 4, 2002, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — A former Japanese student of mine, now a member of the economics faculty of one of Tokyo's leading universities, remarked on an occasion when we were having lunch together that, "Larry Summers would not have been appointed professor in a Japanese university." Summers is quite an exceptional fellow by any standard. Now 47 and president of Harvard University, he was made a full tenured professor of economics at Harvard at the age of 28. In the early '90s he was chief economist to the World Bank and then served as secretary of the Treasury in the second Clinton administration.

My former student's comment arose in the context of a discussion we were having on Japanese universities. As with virtually all institutions in Japan, promotion in Japanese universities is based not on merit, i.e., academic output, but on seniority. The Japanese university system is designed to foster consensus, a common denominator and hierarchy. Postgraduate and doctoral students exist to "serve their masters," including in the most menial tasks. Japanese universities do produce innovation, but mainly of the incremental kind that is best developed by well-disciplined teams. Out-of-the-box, radical breakthroughs are pretty much excluded.

Susumu Tonegawa, the 1987 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, obtained his PhD at the University of California, spent 10 years doing research at a medical institute in Basel, Switzerland, then returned to the United States to a chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has remained since. He observed that had he stayed in Japan, it is highly unlikely that he would have won the Nobel Prize.

In the course of the 20th century, Japan succeeded in quite a number of economic, industrial and cultural pursuits. Especially after defeat in World War II, it rose from the ashes to become the world's second-biggest economy. Japanese universities, however, have not been particularly distinguished. Though Tokyo University may be the pinnacle in Japan, by international standards it is fairly common beer.

Michio Morishima, another radical Japanese thinker who has spent most of his career as professor at the London School of Economics, argued that Japan only excelled in those areas that engaged in international competition: motorcycles, automobiles, consumer electronics, photographic equipment, the cinema, etc. Areas that remained unexposed to foreign competition were poor or mediocre; Japanese universities, he claimed, are a prime example.

It is true that there are very few foreign professors in Japanese universities and that this is no doubt an important factor accounting for their poor quality. There are far more professors of Asian nationality in European universities, let alone American or Australian universities, than in Japan. Indians, who have contributed significantly to Western universities, are conspicuous by their absence in Japan. Inbred institutions generate intellectual claustrophobia. In contrast, about 40 percent of the professors of the Zürich-based Federal Institute of Technology, which has the world's highest proportion of Nobel Prize winners per faculty, are foreign.

The absence of foreign professors is undoubtedly a cause of the mediocrity of Japanese universities, but also a consequence of Japanese educational policy. One of the apparent paradoxes that used to stun foreign observers was that whereas the Japanese had the reputation of having a very strong work ethic, Japanese university students are notorious for their laziness — at least so far as university studies are concerned. This, it was explained, was a result of the arduous time they had spent in the years preceding university entrance — passing through the series of so-called examination hells — and in anticipation of the hard work that awaited them as soon as they embarked on their careers. University was, therefore, a pleasant interlude.

More profoundly, however, the main cause is that the objective of going to university in Japan was not to gain knowledge, but to develop personal networks. This in turn, was closely related to the lifetime employment system and to the hierarchical and meritocratic nature of Japanese society. Primary and secondary schools prepare children for the ultimate test of university entrance. It is a selection process, and indeed quite a Darwinian one, focused on rote learning. (It is in many respects quite admirable. In contrast to the universities, which are poor by international standards, Japanese high-school pupils tend to do exceptionally well in international tests, especially in mathematics and science.)

Getting into the top universities guaranteed (lifetime) employment at top national institutions, e.g., the upper echelons of the civil service or leading firms. The institutions, however, desired that their recruits should so far as possible be "white sheets of paper" upon which their bosses would draw their careers and outlooks. Therefore it was best at university to learn as little as possible! As everyone who has observed Japanese institutions has remarked, one of their outstanding features is hierarchy and discipline. University professors have a fundamental role to play in producing clones.

Another feature of Japanese academia is that professors tend to become absorbed by the establishment. Economists or political scientists, for example, sit on government committees or in the plethora of governmental or quasi-governmental think tanks. They are expected to make policy recommendations, but obviously within established parameters. The notion of the "independent expert" is virtually nonexistent.

The function of the university over recent decades, therefore, has not been to challenge the status quo, but to support the status quo. For universities to play that role, it is important that their professors should also go unchallenged. Having critical students in class, or ambitious and productive young or foreign academics seeking promotion, would obviously upset the apple cart.

Though the Japanese university system undoubtedly was a major cornerstone in creating "Japan, Inc.," it is now a great liability in fashioning a new, post­modern society. Though more than ever there is a desperate need for a true and profound national debate, those who should be leading this debate, the university professors, are incapable of doing so. Japan's socio-economic morass is in considerable part due to the state of intellectual torpor that its universities have created. The system needs urgently to be dismantled, so that the radical Japanese thinkers — the Morishimas and Tonegawas — can come home, express themselves, and generate a genuine debate on the future of Japan. And in so doing the doors should be opened wide to creative and challenging foreign academic talent.

Editor's note: Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1945-2017) was professor of international political economy at the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) and a founding director of the Evian Group, Lausanne, Switzerland. He authored and co-authored several books on Japan.