The average Japanese student entering university will have just completed ‘examination hell’. University entrance exams are rigorous and demand years, not weeks or months, of hard study. Many students fail their exams the first time and choose to spend a year or more studying at private cramming schools in hope of passing the exams next time.
Once in university, however, pressure is sharply reduced and even students at the best universities are best known for not studying. University undergraduates may spend considerably more time in club activities or with friends than in class or the library. Failure at the university level is rare. Employers recruiting graduates expect to provide specialist training appropriate to their business. This is not to say that students learn nothing; just that entry is much more difficult than exit.
The university system in Japan only dates back to the establishment of the University of Tokyo in 1869 and it grew very slowly. The second university, Kyoto University, was built by the government in 1897 and private institutions were only permitted to call themselves universities from 1918. By 1937, there were 45 universities, but university education was very elitist: a little more than 5% of men and a half percent of women aged 17-22 attended university. After reforms which were encouraged by the Allied Occupation (1945-52), the university system again grew quickly. By 1980, counting students in universities, two-year junior colleges and technical schools, some 43% of people 18 to 21 were receiving higher education and about 85% were in degree-level courses.
The system of university education before 1945 was strongly European, following the German model, but now more closely resembles the American system. Undergraduate degrees take 4 years and a broad liberal arts curriculum is emphasized, particularly in the first and second years. Many four-year universities offer 2-year master’s and 3-year doctor’s courses.
The best and most prestigious universities are the national universities. They receive generous funding from government and enjoy better facilities and lower student-teacher ratios (between 8 and 17 to 1) than most private universities, which were denied any public funding until 1970. Many private universities rely heavily on under-paid part-time teachers and have student-teacher ratios ranging as high as 100 to 1, permitting no interaction between students and teachers.
Universities were convulsed with student unrest in the late 1960s. In common with universities around the world at that time, the reasons were partly due to generation conflict and partly to do with impersonal and distant university systems. Even some of the elite public universities were closed for extended periods of time when they were taken over by students. Government funding was provided in order to improve conditions, especially at private universities, and has led to improved educational standards being imposed. The gap between public and private universities continues, however.
The education provided has always been primarily Western and modern; after all, the first university was founded solely to study the West and import the knowledge and technology of the West. Traditional subjects are seldom taught and even Japanese history and literature are relatively minor areas of interest. Social science, science, engineering, medicine and law are the most popular areas.
Junior colleges are predominantly populated by women and are famous, or infamous, for concentrating on home economics and the humanities which are stereotyped as proper for preparing women to be wives and mothers.
Japanese universities were quite closed to the outside world by policy and by language for decades. In the last two decades or so, they have opened up quickly. Foreign aid programs have provided numerous scholarships to foreigners and Japan has become a major provider of technology to less developed nations. The universities have also begun to cultivate contacts with institutions in other advanced nations partly to avoid criticism of being closed to the outside world. A more important reason in recent years is that many universities strive to make themselves more attractive by establishing exchange programs with foreign universities in order to combat the problem of a falling population in the university age group. Private universities have been most aggressive in this area, sometimes building completely new campuses for inovative programs, but even the more conservative national universities are changing quickly.