What Is Behind the ‘Miracle’?
IN SCHOOLYARDS and at factory gates in Japan, you will usually find a statue of a small boy with a load of wood on his back and a book in his hand. Ninomiya Sontoku is the 19th-century “Peasant Sage of Japan.” Born into a poor farm family, he taught himself how to read and write. After making a success on his family farm, he taught others how to manage their farms and finances, and how to work with others for mutual benefit. He came to be the symbol of success through hard work and cooperation.
Other countries, of course, have their own versions of the poor-boy-made-good heroes. But perhaps none of them can compare with Ninomiya in the influence he has exerted in shaping the Japanese cultural and social values—their unrelenting work ethic, their ability to endure the severest limitations, and their willingness to make the necessary personal sacrifices for the good of the whole. In the spirit of Ninomiya, perhaps more than in anything else, we can perceive just what is behind the present-day Japanese miracle.
Starting at home, each member of the Japanese family has a well-defined place. The younger ones address their older siblings, not by name, but as “older brother” or “older sister.” In response to the question: “Older brother, what do you think about this?” older brother will talk down to the younger ones, using their names and a familiar, less polite, form of “you.” The husband has a variety of terms to choose from when referring to his wife, none of which sound flattering to the Western ear. The wife, on the other hand, refers to her husband respectfully as “my lord.” Thus, from early childhood, one is made to recognize one’s place in the group and is expected to contribute to the welfare of the whole by playing one’s assigned role.
Education in Conformity
This concept is reinforced when one starts in school. Here again, the emphasis is on conformity and group values. Students wear uniforms in school. To cultivate group consciousness, student duties include keeping their classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards clean and orderly. The Japanese school system is well known for its rigid and demanding standards. There are few electives in the curriculum, and all in the class are expected to do their best to keep up. It has often been pointed out that the basic Japanese view of education involves the teacher imparting knowledge and the students taking it in, mostly by rote. Individuality and original thinking are not encouraged.
Nine years of elementary and junior high school education are required. But it is the general consensus of the Japanese that getting into the right high school and the right university will lead to good jobs, security, and success. “In Japan, a large part of your success in life depends on which university you went to,” said a school vice-president. “It’s a passport you have to have, and the race to get it starts early in life.”
That “race” consists of passing the tough entrance examinations to get into the elite high schools, which will, in turn, prepare one for the even tougher exams for getting into the desired universities. These exams are so competitive that in addition to the already long school year—240 days, compared to only 180 days in the United States—more than half of elementary and junior high school students enroll in after-hours cramming schools. Long, hard hours of study and personal sacrifices are nothing unusual even at this early stage.
The job of seeing that the children do what is expected every step along the way falls mainly on the mother, whose role it is to coerce, persuade, admonish, or even threaten her offspring, so that they will keep their noses to the scholastic grindstone. In Japanese, she is affectionately known as kyoiku mama (education mama). She goes to school for parent observation periods, discusses her children’s progress with the teachers, checks their test results and report cards, and even sits in on classes for them when they are sick. All of this is done to ensure that her children will do well in the competitive examinations.
What if a student does not measure up to what is expected? Self-criticism is called for. It may be in the form of a composition or a speech in front of the class. He must confess his failure, the reason for it, and what he intends to do to remedy the situation. Periodically, parents are required to fill out questionnaires on what their children do out of school, their eating habits, their good and bad points, and other private matters about their family life. Such openness is thought to help combat any tendency toward nonconformity. This, in turn, will make it easier for them to cooperate with others in later life.
Such a rigid system obviously has its strengths and its weaknesses. On the plus side, it turns out young people with a high degree of competence in reading, writing, mathematics, and other basic skills. Japan’s “educational system has raised the quality of knowledge for large numbers of the population to levels not attained elsewhere,” says Far Eastern Economic Review, and this “superior quality of their human resources” is largely responsible for the post-World War II economic success. On the other hand, the urge to conform, to do well, and to keep up has created a pressure-cooker atmosphere for the less gifted students. The pent-up frustration has led to suicides and outbursts of violence in schools. These have made ugly news headlines from time to time.
University and Beyond
Ironically, once a student gets into a university, the pressure is off. The most desirable employers—prestigious government agencies and large corporations—usually evaluate the applicants according to what university they were able to get into, rather than how they did in university, as long as they graduate. Once they are recruited, they are looked upon as raw material to be remolded, retrained, and reeducated according to the objectives of the company.
Reeducation, however, is not limited to just the new recruits. Aware of the rapid changes in the technological fields, the major companies spend large sums to provide their employees with continuing education throughout their career. The employees become more useful to the company, and the company manages to stay at the leading edge of advancing technology.
This partly explains why most Japanese work for the same company for life. If they quit, there is scarcely anywhere else to go. New company members are recruited from universities and high schools, not from other companies. Why employ a quitter when there are plenty of fresh job-hunters yearning for lifetime employment? In Japan, it is very unlikely that a person’s lot would improve by changing jobs, no matter how dissatisfied he may be with his present one. Here, life is bitter for the quitter. The accepted pattern is one high school, one university, one company.
For all the success attributed to the Japanese economic system, just what is it like to work and live under it? The big companies and lifetime employment may sound appealing and secure, but is being a cog in this miracle-producing machinery the ultimate in true happiness and contentment? Let us take a look at what life is like in a big company in Japan.
[Picture on page 4]
The school system is known for its demanding standards
Japanese Information Center
[Picture on page 5]
Schools teach conformity and group values
Japanese Information Center