Growing indifference to educational inequality in Japan


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

Inequality of outcomes and opportunities

We have come to a consensus that Japanese society has become distinctly stratified. Income inequality is increasing and people seem to accept that society is divided between the rich and an impoverished upper class.

We need to understand that inequality manifests itself more than income disparity, or what we call inequality of outcomes, but also inequality of opportunity. Thus, when addressing inequalities in general, we should not ignore the distribution of opportunities, such as the availability of education or the disparities in hiring or promotion within companies. Below, however, I focus on the issue of education disparity.

To fully understand the problem, it is best to start from the consensus belief that children’s access to educational opportunities should not differ depending on the income of the parents. Most people would agree that when a child who shows academic ability and motivation is unable to go to college due to lack of financial means, this is an example of inequality of opportunity. It is also commonly accepted that unequal educational opportunities are unacceptable.

Affordable public education preserves equality

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

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

However, the current trend in tuition fees seems to oppose this acceptance. Fifty years ago, tuition fees for national public universities were around 12,000 a year, but that figure rose to 200,000 25 years ago, from now at 530,000, putting university beyond the reach of 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 opportunities

The graph below shows the views 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 ‘only natural’ for rich children to have access to a better quality education, while 52.6% said that this was “inevitable” meaning that a total of 62.3% seem to feel the inequality in education is acceptable to some extent.

In 2004, this total was 46.4%. In just 14 years, that figure has increased by 15.9 percentage points, reflecting a significant change in the number of people who accept educational inequality. The graph does not show which demographic accepts this inequality, but in general it appears that many are from high-income families living in large cities and have university degrees themselves. Those who answered “this is a problem”, on the other hand, include many residents of small towns or rural areas who have no university education and lower incomes.

Higher education becomes hereditary

Most people in Japan once believed that educational opportunities should be open to everyone, as higher education could lead to better employment after graduation. This would then lead to a higher income potential and therefore to a benefit for 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 better national productivity, and therefore a stronger national economy, seems to be greeted with indifference.

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

Third, more and more people believe that providing educational opportunities for children with lower abilities or motivation, regardless of the quality of 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 reservations to think about their children’s education. And without the money to send their children to secondary schools, their children struggle to perform well in school.

These four reasons taken together have contributed to a majority of parents in Japan believing that inequality of educational opportunity, or educational disparity itself, is inevitable. The tangible result of this phenomenon is that we are now in a time when children from high income families are simply getting a better education than those from low income families. More symbolically, this is reflected in the tendency for children attending the University of Tokyo, a public university, to come from very high-income families. It was not so long ago that it was widely accepted that children from poor families had a place in the country’s public universities, but those days are over.

Towards the end of Cram schools

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

The Japanese style of high school does not exist in the West, and indeed the very concept is often viewed by Western observers as an effort to address the shortcomings of Japanese public educational institutions. The most effective way to improve the quality of education in Japan without relying on bac schools would be to reduce the class size of public schools and improve the quality of teachers. This will require massive investment in public education, of course, but the point is that Japan’s education investment-to-GDP ratio is currently much 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. Banner photo: The Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo. © Pixta.)


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