James Kim
English Argument
76100G

Japanese Education vs. Amerecan Edukashun


- Comparative Account of Literary Education Between Two Cultures -

There can be no doubt that American schools compare poorly with Japanese schools (Lynn 40). The effectiveness of America's education system in providing the necessary education needed to compete in today's world has been in question for some time now. Every aspect of this debate, American schools vs. Japanese schools, has been evlauated upon in the past; except that which presents a solution. The fear of America lagging behind continually forces us to re-examine our educational system, but yet once again, a solution is not implemented. It could be the ignorance of Americans who continually think that "we are the best," or it could be that Americans are happy with the system currently in place. The American literacy rate is not up to par with competing industrialized nations, such as Japan and Germany, and it's up to our schools to teach America's youth. In educational tests conducted on economically developed countries, the outcome of performace on math and reading levels have always been constant. Japanese scoring the highest, America scoring the lowest, and the Europeans scoring somewhere in between (Lynn 40). Advantages exist in both America's current educational system and Japan's. But this essay isn't intended to serve the bias of one side of this issue, yet through the thorough analysis that has taken place up to this day, but to provide a solution in order to better America's literacy education. Maybe that's why in America, schools are expected to enforce racial integration, foster social progress, and keep kids off the streets till they're 18 years old. In Japan, they're expected to teach (Lynn 40).

By the graduating age of the average American high school student, a substantial number of these students have little knowledge of geography or relative historical events (Hirsch 8). Of the 2.4 million Americans who graduate from high school, 25% cannot read or write at the eighth-grade or "functionally literate" level. Most 17 year olds in school cannot summarize a newspaper article, write a job request letter, solve real life math problems, or even follow a bus schedule (Ehrlich 129). About 33% of American high school students drop out every year and after 12 weeks of summer vacation, the average American student forgets 33% of what he had learned the previous year (Trudeau 1).

A typical Japanese student spends 6 hours every night doing homework during a school year that is 60 days longer than America's (Trudeau 1). Following a regular school day 18.6% of elementary school children and 52.2% of middle school children attend Juku cramming schools bringing them home at midnight from an 18 hour work day (Weisman A8). At the age of 18, 98% voluntarily seek higher education in a university. In early adolescence, Japanese students are 2 to 3 years ahead of their American counterparts and by the age of 18, 98% of Japanese students far surpass that of Americans of the same age. It's no surprise then that a 10th grade Japanese student is envious of the leisure time enjoyed by American college sophomores, his academic counterpart (Trudeau 1).

What is wrong with American education today? The staggering statistics we all want to deny should prompt our current high official social decision makers that a major change must be implemented. Yet all we seem to do is stare at the numbers and just marvel at the study and work ethics of Japanese students and don't do anything about it. Educational reform has been a governmental issue for years now, new regulations, new local bureaucracies have all come and gone to no avail. More and more American school children are not graduating as literate as they should be (Ehrlich 129). But what is being literate? What is being educated? Education is the physical learning of new materials that was previously unknown. Literacy is a little more complicated. It breaks down into two subcategorizes: functionally literate and culturally literate. While literacy is includes the basics of being able to read and write, it goes a little deeper. A culturally literate person has the ability to relate different situations and experiences with other people and find correlation's among such subjects as history, the arts, math, and current events. A functionally literate person lacks this social skill and is unable to make such judgments. However, a functionally literate person is able to read books and words, but there is very little that a functionally literate person can do with that knowledge, that is why culture is needed in today's American schools. So should American schools be more cultural? Yes. Is that why the Japanese are so far ahead? No. The Japanese education system isn't effective, the Juku is.

95% of Japanese students in public schools do not understand what the teacher is saying or what is being taught out of textbooks. Most of them don't even pay attention in class, and most teachers don't pay attention to students. A passing score in a prerequisite is 35% and the majority of Japanese students go on to higher level classes without passing the prerequisite course. Third year English students are studying Third year English because they are third year students, not because they passed the first or second year English classes. Public high school entrance exams are given based on elimination. If there are 304 applicants and 300 slots available, the tests will be administered in order to get rid of 4 applicants. Passing scores have gone as low as 5%. Japanese students may spend overall more time in school, but all that time isn't devoted to studying. In a typical school year, 65 to 70 days worth of afternoons are spent in free time. Three or four school days per year are devoted to cleaning the school. And in the end, virtually 100% of all Japanese students would fail the university entrance exam solely relying upon the public school (Goya 126).

So what is wrong with the Japanese education system? This may be why Americans still don't learn from Japanese public schooling methods. In fact, the Japanese public school system is doing a worse job than Americans in educating their youth. As Americans look only at the public schools, we miss out on the true secret of Japanese education: the Juku - variously translated as "cram schools." The role that Juku schools play in Japan are ever more important than the public schools all students attend. They are numerous, expensive and crucial to Japanese students. The reason Juku's survive is because of the poor public schooling. Entrance into a top Japanese university guarantees a job for life, given that you are able to be admitted. Slots are few, applicants are plenty, and university entrance exams are no public school joke. Japanese entrance exams require students to know more than do similar American entrance exams. The English component of a university exam often includes items that would stump a native speaker (Goya 128). The sole purpose of a Juku school is to provide the student with the information and knowledge in order to pass the entrance exam and be accepted into a top university. While reports on the Japanese school system has mainly focused around the issues of the Japanese public school system, Americans need to pay closer attention to where the Japanese students acquire their much admired education.

The focus of this essay is to deal with reforms in American education in order to have American students be more successful in their academic endeavors in order to compete in today's market world. By comparing the education system status of both America and Japan, a better system isn't the result. Comparing the two educational systems just presents two extremes in the way literacy is being achieved and neither one is the right answer. The point of becoming culturally literate is for us to advance ourselves and our position in the world in order to achieve individual success. A key difference between American and Japanese schools is that Japanese schools are strictly centralized. Government officials distribute the same syllabi to every public school in Japan ensuring that everyone gets the same education (Lynn 40-41). If that were implemented here in America, what kind of diversity would we be having. There would be lack of culture in this country due to the fact that everyone has the learned the same curriculm. This lack of individuality is very dangerous to a society and culture. Japan turns out some the smartest and brightest individuals in the world, but with the lack of individuality and social culture, they don't develop a mind of their own, they simply regurgitate information (Young 130). In other words, in a society pressed to learn as much as they can in a short period time without the regards for the social well being, the society becomes robots.

Not enough of both educational learning plus culture is being taught in our American schools today. This is limiting America in becoming culturally literate, or even literate at all. Emphasis must be given in the public schools and on teachers. Jay Leno put it best when he said that baseball players and teachers should switch salaries. That way, baseball players get what they deserve and teachers get what they deserve. Teaching should be one of the highest paying occupations in America enhancing societal importance and worth. Only 8% of the 1.6 million college freshman want to become teachers, and of them more than half will change their mind (Ehrlich 132). We all want to become smarter and more culturally literate, but without the fundamental basics, where we have no foundation. It's evident that the American school system is fundamentally unstable. Students are not motivated to work as teachers have no motivation to teach.

Juku's are not the answer either. Implementing the Japanese educational system in America will not work. It's clear that confining a student to a desk for pretty much the entire day in not a healthy way to teach children, especially in ages 2 to 3, ages some Japanese students start to attend Juku schools. What America is doing right and the Japanese are doing wrong is that the first years of your life are to be spent in personal growth and development. Teaching students textbook knowledge from the very fundamental stages of their life will lead them to see life through the confines of books, numbers and statistics. Ikuo Amano, professor of Sociology at the University of Tokyo, Japan's number one university, says that Juku's are harmful to children and the Japanese educational system. "It's not healthy for kids to have so little free time. It is not healthy to become completely caught up in competition at such a young age." So much is expected of Japanese students that some can't "simply take it." Confucian ideals are still strong and prevalent in Japan which tells students to respect their teachers. But with this respect comes an abuse of powers, and the punishment of students by result of teachers are not uncommon (Young 132). Sure Juku's produce numbers, but that's about it. One thing that no test can ever measure is the cultural character of individual people. The reason is you cannot confine culture down to numbers, something the Japanese live by.

Is there a way to keep America's individual ideal yet produce the results enjoyed by the Japanese? That's the question that really should come up in this debate. Too often do we play on the Japanese playing field and look solely on the numbers. We think that Japanese schools are superior to American schools because they produce higher numbers, but the fact remains that forcing information into a person doesn't develop a person, it develops a machine. Juku students are never asked about their own opinions on topics discussed in class (Young 131). Everything is done by the book. By giving the chance for students to think on their own develops the mind in imagination, personal decision making and individual achievement. Incorporating this skill with the use of the basic educational knowledge, a person not only achieves the numbers, but also becomes the culturally literate person that is most effective in society.

Schools should be organized to focus on practical cultural uses of the educational knowledge that is being taught. The essence of cultural literacy is to foster one's knowledge of subjects in order to be able to effectively be a part of today's complex modern day society. The educational system must be modified to strengthen a student's ability to analyze, reason and extend ideas of which they are presented with. This builds their capacity to learn, to take in knowledge, to be educated. Not only that, but it enables them to make parallels, incorporate, and make references to other subjects concerning the current focus. This is the very idea of being culturally literate. That way, each individual person is specialized to be able to focus upon details of other subjects without having to know everything there is to know, yet have the fundamental knowledge in order to engage in constructive conversation (Hirsch 15). We need to train America's youth in realizing that learning is not a burden. Learning should not cause stress, this only forces information into the head number by number. Students should be given the time in order to fully understand concepts of what is being taught and what is being presented. Curriculum courses should be designed individually around the student; focusing most of the curriculum around the students strengths and less on weaknesses. This allows the student to grow and perfect what he's good at plus be given some practice in other subjects in order to grasp the fundamental knowledge needed to become culturally literate. Focusing on particular subjects to hone and perfect allows for the student to already know what he or she wants to pursue and given the necessary practice in other fields comes together to form an active culturally literate person in society.

48.9% of America's 17-year-olds could not answer questions of this type.

One part of Japanese education that seems to be working in America is the Kumon math learning system. Students rush through practice math quizzes in order to solve the problems in a short period of time. Isn't this forcing numbers? No, the key to this system is that if a student makes a mistake, he or she is to re-work the problem until he or she gets it perfect (Murr 60). By having the students rush through the exam cuts back on the time needed to teach new material and in the end, they learn the material. When students achieve, this builds self confidence levels and encourages them to learn more. If they make mistakes they know they can go back until it becomes perfect. Too much emphasis in today's American educational system is focused on expecting the student to know too much in a short period of time without time to practice. Enough practice isn't given in order for students to grasp basic knowledge. This leads to failure and the inability to make it right and thus students who fail to make the grade see learning as a burden and wish not to take any part in it. Basic fundamental knowledge must be learned and mastered, and the skills needed to become culturally literate develop as time progresses. This allows for the individual to be parallel in his or her society with the knowledge being learned in his or her environment. Cultural literacy lies above the everyday level of knowledge that everyone possesses, but below the levels of expert knowledge. It includes information and abilities that we have expected our youth to receive in schools, but which they no longer do (Hirsch 19).

America has this tendency to continually compare, and it's that exact tendency that has led to numerous contributions on this essay on subjects of either how American schools are so bad and Japan's are so good, or that Japan has good schooling but causes humanitarian problems. None of the contributions to this ongoing comparison has ever proposed a solution. With so much analysis of both parties being presented a solution should be inevitable. Once again, we have to look deeper than the numbers of things. The straight facts tells us just that: the straight facts. It doesn't give us ideas, proposals, or innovative methods in solving a very serious social and cultural problem in America. In the process of formulating solutions given the facts, one is exercising his ability of using factual data and analytically coming up with ideas practice one's decision making. This taps into the mind as using educated knowledge and applying them to practical applications while analyzing differences with other situations; all this comes together and defines what we know as cultural literacy.

This small step of just sitting and thinking already begins to build and practice ideas that are fundamental to cultural literacy yet are more advanced than the basics of functional literacy. It's this exact thinking that needs to be incorporated in classroom curriculums in order to achieve the educational goals that we aspire for. There is an endless amount to the potential that America's youth can come up with. As the next leaders of the world, it is crucial that they are culturally literate in order to make decisions that best suit the current focus at hand and to be able to express his or her idea to others in order to incorporate other ideas. The building of minds this way each with individual facets, yet focused on one particular subject can reap immense amounts of success in any time era. Changes will have to be made, though, and the change would be very gradual. But it's the shear act of acting upon a decision to better our society that also defines what we know as cultural literacy.

Schools were designed to ready our youths for the upcoming competitive world ahead. Communication in critical and knowledge in inevitable. The fusing of the two leads to cultural literacy which America must try it's hardest to accomplish. Japanese students do produce numbers greater than those of America but their main concern is only to "get ahead." They are expected to achieve high scores and if not, they are punished, physically or mentally. The biggest punishment a Japanese student can realize is the non acceptance into a university. To prevent this, it only drives them more and more to learn as many things as they can. Americans must learn to incorporate the attitude to succeed that the Japanese are famous for but Americanize it so that it benefits every aspect of the student. That the student learns to become functionally literate, yet not forced that he merely becomes a tape recorder. Functional literacy is fundamental for Americans, it's not enough to compete. We must become culturally literate not to compete, but to succeed.


James Kim is a Freshman and can be reached at
jmkim+@andrew.cmu.edu.