Inequality and the “Disparity Society”

Significant disparities in motivation and achievement have been a feature of Japanese high schools for decades, but since the 1990s, such disparities have widened and have spread downward to the junior high and even elementary level, causing serious concern. According to one survey, the proportion of second-year junior high students who do not study at all outside school increased significantly between 1989 and 2001, with the greatest increase (43 percent to 59 percent) among students with poor basic life habits (such as not eating breakfast, brushing teeth, or sleeping at a set time); test scores in mathematics and Japanese also dropped (Kariya 2008, 37–49). Another survey of second-year students at eleven high schools found that the proportion of students who reported not studying at all outside school rose from 22 percent in 1979 to 35 percent in 1997 (Kariya 2008, 74–84). Recent surveys indicate a strong relationship among cultural capital, learning competencies, and performance in mathematics and Japanese (Kariya 2010), and repeat surveys at tokyo high schools in 1979 and 1997 show a strengthening relationship between the socioeconomic status of a student's family and the high school attended (Kariya and Dore 2006, 145). Though this relationship between social class And academic attainment was clear even in the 1970s (Kariya 2010, 109–111; Kariya and Dore 2006, 145; rohlen 1983), Kariya (2010, 110) argues that it has strengthened from the 1990s onward. Whereas there was relatively little public focus on inequality during the 1970s and 1980s, a period dominated by a sense that affluence was spreading and life chances were becoming more equal, inequality and the “disparity society” (kakusa shakai) have become major issues in the 2000s, as poorly paid, dead-end jobs become a permanent reality for many young people and socioeconomic polarization becomes more evident (Kariya 2010, 87–92).

The exact reasons for widening disparities in motivation and achievement at school need further research. What is clear, however, is that significant numbers of Japanese students no longer feel that it is worth putting in the hard work of studying. In part, this is likely to be due to a paradoxical combination of increasing affluence for many along with a sense of narrowing opportunities and increasing deprivation for some. The sense of narrowing opportunities results from the increasing difficulty that academic lowachievers face in securing a permanent job with good prospects and benefits, caused in turn by the stagnation in the Japanese economy since 1990 that has led firms to cut back on secure jobs in favor of contract and temporary positions, often with poor pay, conditions, and career prospects (Kariya 2010, 90–91). The increased deprivation comes not only from the direct pressures on youth employment, but also the squeeze on the pay and conditions of many older workers and the increased family pressures faced by many, especially as a result of rising divorce rates, which often leave the remaining parent (usually a working mother) in poverty or near poverty (abe 2008). However, increased deprivation for some has gone along with increasing affluence in Japanese society as a whole, as a result of which Japan has become gradually more consumerist over the last quarter century; in Japan's cities and suburbs, there are more and more shops, cafés, restaurants, and places of entertainment, filled with an ever-increasing range and variety of enticing goods and offering services undreamed of by the more diligent students of the 1970s, ranging from DvDs and internet to video games and smart phone apps. In short, never have there been more temptations to forego deferred gratification in favor of having fun right here, right now, and even the considerable social and moral forces brought to bear by families and schools in Japan are insufficient to ward off such temptations completely.

Low motivation and academic achievement do not necessarily rule out education beyond high school, however. The proliferation of universities in Japan, the majority private, combined with plummeting numbers of children, has left lower-level universities in a parlous situation in which some are willing to take even low achievers in order to come closer to filling their programs (Goodman 2010). Since Japanese universities tend to be very reluctant to fail students once they are admitted, even low achievers can often achieve a university degree. How much such a degree will ultimately benefit them is another matter, however, as employers are well aware of universities' relative standing, and they recruit accordingly. Entering a prestigious university, in contrast, is achievable only through ability and effort; high-level universities recruit almost all their students via demanding entrance examinations, rather than using the softer methods, such as school recommendations or interviews, which are widely employed by lower-level institutions (“iyoku aru gakusei erabu niwa” 2011). This difference does not mean that prestigious universities' examination procedures are unproblematic. On the contrary, they remain largely dominated by multiple-choice and short-answer questions that test knowledge and understanding more than the ability to articulate ideas or analyze arguments, just as in the 1980s (rohlen 1983, 94–95), and this examination method in turn has a deep effect on teaching at the high school level. For high-achieving students, therefore, little has changed in the educational landscape over the last twenty years, though the post-2008 global economic crisis has made the job market even more competitive, with no guarantees of a stable path to success. For low achievers, however, pressure has relaxed in the sense that mediocre or even poor school performance is no longer much of a barrier to higher education, even if the cachet the resulting degree brings is largely illusory.

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