Growing indifference to educational inequality in Japan


In the past, many Japanese believed in the ideal that all children deserved equal access to education. However, a growing number of parents seem to think that it is ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ that a family’s income dictates access to education. The right to a quality higher education also tends towards heredity, as national government offices are filled with Tokyo University graduates whose own children pass from famous preparatory schools to this same university. Exploration of these problems and search for a solution.

Inequality of results and opportunities

We have come to a consensus that Japanese society has become distinctly stratified. Income inequality is growing and people seem to accept that society is divided between the rich and a large poor class.

We need to understand that inequality manifests not only in income disparity, or what we call inequality of outcome, but also in inequality of opportunity. So when we address inequality in general, we should not ignore the distribution of opportunity, such as the availability of education or disparities in hiring or promotion within firms. Below, however, I focus on the issue of education disparity.

To fully understand the issue, it is best to start from the consensus belief that children’s access to educational opportunities should not differ based on parental income. Most people would agree that when a child who shows academic ability and motivation cannot attend college due to a lack of financial means, that is an example of unequal opportunity. It is also commonly accepted that inequality of opportunity in education is unacceptable.

Affordable public education preserves equality

Many countries have established scholarships or other support systems specifically to enable children from low-income families to attend university. For example, even in the United States, which has a major problem with income inequality, there is a strong consensus that people should have access to a good education as a starting point in life, so that their tuition support system is much more comprehensive. than that of Japan. The prevailing idea seems to be that once a person has been educated and entered the working society, any income inequality results from individual work ethic and productivity, in accordance with economic principles.

Japan also has a strong traditional preference for equality in education, but not at the level of the United States. Japan’s approach has moved away from scholarship systems in favor of keeping tuition fees low in public schools so that children from low-income families can more easily attend high school and college. This fact would seem to offer proof that, as a society, Japan accepts equal access to educational opportunities as a valid pursuit.

However, the current tuition trend seems to go against this acceptance. 50 years ago, tuition fees for domestic public universities were around ¥12,000 per year, but 25 years ago this figure rose to ¥200,000, when it is now ¥530,000 , putting college out of reach for low-income families. A better scholarship system would alleviate this problem, but Japan lags behind other developed countries in this area. This increase in tuition fees represents a real obstacle to equal educational opportunities, which seems to be increasingly understood in Japan.

Growing acceptance of unequal educational opportunity

The table below shows the opinions of parents or guardians on inequality in education. It traces the evolution of responses to the question “What do you think of the trend towards better educational opportunities for children from high-income families?” »

In 2018, just two years ago, 9.7% of respondents thought it was “natural” for well-off children to have access to a better quality education, while 52.6% said it was ‘inevitable’, meaning that a total of 62.3% seem to feel educational inequality is acceptable to some degree.

In 2004, this total was 46.4%. In just 14 years, this has increased by 15.9 percentage points, reflecting a significant change in the number of people accepting inequality in education. The graph doesn’t show which demographic accepts this inequality, but in general it seems many come from high-income families living in big cities and are college graduates themselves. Those who answered “it’s a problem,” on the other hand, include many residents of small towns or rural areas who have not had a university education and who have lower incomes.

Higher education becomes hereditary

Most people in Japan once believed that educational opportunities should be open to everyone because higher education could lead to better employment after graduation. This would then lead to a higher earning potential and therefore a benefit to the economy as a whole. Why have people stopped believing in this kind of equal opportunity?

I think there are several possible explanations. First, Japanese parents are less and less interested in raising other people’s children, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they only care about their own children. The fact that more children have access to higher education is correlated with higher national productivity, and therefore a stronger national economy, seems to be met with indifference.

Second, successful parents, who themselves have higher education and higher incomes, want the same for their own children and end up viewing the right to education as hereditary.

Third, there are a growing number of people who believe that providing educational opportunities for less gifted or less motivated children, regardless of the quality of the education, could be a waste of school resources. .

Fourth, it is likely that many parents living in poverty are so focused on work that they have no emotional or mental reserve to think about raising their children. And without the money to send their children to cram schools, their children struggle to do well in school.

These four reasons together have contributed to the fact that a majority of parents in Japan feel that inequality of educational opportunity, or educational disparity itself, is inevitable. The concrete result of this phenomenon is that we are now in an era where children from high-income families simply receive a better education than those from low-income families. More symbolically, this is reflected in the tendency of children attending the University of Tokyo, a public university, to come from very high-income families. Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that children from poor families had a place in the country’s public universities, but those days are over.

Towards the end of the Cram schools

In truth, one of the specific reasons for this inequality in education is the unique school culture of Japan and East Asia. Children who attend cram schools tend to live in large cities and come from middle to high income families. Extra support cram schools offer results in better performance in entrance exams, and therefore access to better higher education. Since poor families cannot afford to send their children to primary school, their academic performance suffers in comparison. I discuss this issue in more detail in my book. Kyōiku kakusa no keizaigaku (The economics of educational inequality).

The Japanese style of cram school does not exist in the West, and in fact the very concept is often seen by Western observers as an effort to compensate for the shortcomings of Japanese public educational institutions. The most effective way to improve the quality of education in Japan without relying on cram schools would be to reduce class sizes in public schools and improve the quality of teachers. This will require massive investment in public education, of course, but the fact is that Japan’s ratio of education investment to GDP is currently far lower than that of most developed countries. Above all, the first step for Japan is to increase public spending on education so that Japanese children can once again have equal access to educational opportunities.

(Originally published in Japanese. Title photo: Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo. © Pixta.)


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