Edev_502 wk9

Following on last week’s discussion on the social nature of learning, the topic moved on to see how social reproduction or transformation is brought about through education. In an affective sense, this subject forces one to consider those negative aspects of Japan more than the positive ones because the types of systems typical in Japanese education are often problematic when viewed through a lens of modern evidence-based scholarship. In other words, what often happens here is so 19th century. My initial essay centred on the hensachi and the university entrance exam. Not a pleasant topic.

In Japan, the term hensachi translates as ‘standard deviation’ but is used as a base to calculate a student’s likelihood of passing an important university entrance exam. Many students who have low hensachi and therefore a low expectation of entering a prestigious university take a gap year to study at a cram school to raise their chances of entering their university of choice (Sugimoto, 2014). Future entry to top companies and the national bureaucracy is usually limited to graduates of these prestigious institutions (Yoshida, 2014), and graduate salaries far exceed non-graduates throughout life (Sugimoto, 2013). With the hensachi being so important, social reproduction can be better understood in Japan by looking at the tests utilised in virtually all of Japan’s 782 universities’ entrance exams, including the one at my own institution.

The idea of comparing a nation to a university entrance exam may at first seem preposterous. In Japan’s case, however, the entrance exam is “notorious” serving to stratify society and “help the population to learn to endure suffering” (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999, p. 772). Notions of self, identity, belonging and so on are tied to this structural normative device. The sensitivity that Heine et al. (1999) observe includes socialising attitudes that account for the vast majority of Japanese regarding themselves as belonging to the middle class (Sugimoto, 2014, p. 39), which has remained around the 90% range of the population since the 1960s. The ‘nail that sticks up gets pounded down’ (Anderson, 1993, p. 103) applies outside as well as inside the classroom. The symbolic meaning of education derives from its ability to position the individual as having become a valued member of society. This intense interactive relationship between the self and the testing object runs throughout compulsory education (Poole & Amano, 2003). The contextualising of possible future selves is less agentive than culturally imposed (Markus & Nurius, 1986), which limits variation in the repertoire of  potential social futures and functions to maintain a high degree of fidelity of social reproduction. Self-efficacy is seen as the degree to which individuals can match themselves to an externally enacted model. Successful “people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed” (Bandura, 1994, p. 3, emphasis added) where it is a future-oriented, mastery-based persona.

Critics bemoan Japan’s lack of creativity (Aoki, 2008) and attribute blame to the education system whose main pedagogic tool is rote learning and memorisation (e.g. Aoki, 2008; Kikuchi, 2009; Poole & Amano, 2003). However, the university exam becomes the focus for the upper secondary school curriculum, which in turn becomes that for the lower secondary school  one (Aspinall, 2015). However, this exam itself is a main vehicle for social reproduction. By limiting the definition of ‘success’ to those who have the ability to memorise many facts and perform well on multiple-choice test papers, this “pretext” of an exam (Sugimoto, 2014, p. 132) minimises individuals’ freedoms of control over their external primary environment, and Flammer’s hypothesis that “a gradual shift from primary to secondary [i.e. internal] control can be expected over the life course” may be reversed in Japan (Flammer, 1997, cited in Evans, 2002, p. 250). Arguably, only through changing the entrance type can the tension between a future, creative and dynamic possible future Japan and the current state be resolved. Such calls are frequent already (Mondejar, Valdivia, Mboutsiadis, & Laurier, 2011; Sakamoto, 2012).


Anderson, F. E. (1993). The enigma of the college classroom: Nails that don’t stick up. In P. Wadden (Ed.), A Handbook for teaching English at Japanese colleges and universities (pp. 101–110). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aoki, K. (2008). Confucius vs. Socrates: The Impact of Educational Traditions of East and West in a Global Age, 14(11).

Aspinall, R. W. (2015). Society. In J. D. Babb (Ed.), The Sage handbook of modern Japanese studies (pp. 213–228). Sage Publications.

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71–81). New York: Academic Press.

Evans, K. (2002). Taking Control of their Lives? Agency in Young Adult Transitions in England and the New Germany. Journal of Youth Studies, 5(3), 245–269. doi:10.1080/136762602200000596

Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106(4), 766–794. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.4.766

Kikuchi, K. (2009). Listening to our learners’ voices: what demotivates Japanese high school students? Language Teaching Research, 13(4), 453–471. doi:10.1177/1362168809341520

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.41.9.954

Mondejar, M., Valdivia, L., Mboutsiadis, B., & Laurier, J. (2011). Effective Implementation of Foreign Language Education Reform in Japan : What More Can Be Done? In A. Stewart & N. Sonda (Eds.), JALT 2011 Conference Proceedings (pp. 179–191). Tokyo: JALT.

Poole, G. S., & Amano, I. (2003). Higher education reform in Japan: Amano Ikuo on “the university in crisis.” International Education Journal, 4(3), 149–176.

Sakamoto, M. (2012). Moving towards effective English language teaching in Japan: issues and challenges. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 33(4), 409–420. doi:10.1080/01434632.2012.661437

Sugimoto, Y. (2014). An introduction to Japanese society (4th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1177/095001709373010

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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