Meritocracy in Japan schools

You ask a fascinating question which has impact on many levels.

Hofstede‘s (2015) cultural dimensions show that the Japanese have both high levels of masculinity and long-term orientation. The masculinity dimension is an indicator of the degree to which the society is motivated by success, ambition and competition. Japan’s score of 95 is amongst the highest in the world.

Hofstede Japanのコピー

The level of competition produces differentiation between those who succeed and those who don’t. Brendan and Naidoo (2008) sum up an mechanism in meritocratic societies that justifies inequality;

“A meritocratic ideology is central to this culture, bringing with it the message that your problems are all your fault. And similarly, your privileges are all your own achievement” (p. 290, original emphasis).

Brendan and Naidoo’s context is the U.K., but the notion fits Japan well. Those who fail in Japan resign themselves to the lower echelons without seemingly ever aware of two critical inequities in Japan education. The first is that education in Japan is expensive (Arimoto, Cummings, Huang, & Shin, 2015). I pay the equivalent of 400 USD each month on private extra tuition (i.e. cram school) for my daughter to prepare for her middle-school entrance exam in January. Over 98% of successful entrants to prestigious middle-schools attended cram schools (Arimoto, et al, 2015). Families that cannot afford the expensive cram school fees are subjugated by a system that offers little support to the lower classes. The falseness of meritocracy is camouflaged by hidden expenses.

The second is the actual method of education. Certain types of learner are prioritised to the detriment of others. I’ve worked in only one secondary school (high school) and have visited only two others. In all three, league tables of student test score achievement are posted and changed monthly. A pupil will get to know their ‘level’ very quickly. They will see if they are a high performer or not within a few months of school life. They adjust their worldview accordingly. Learned helplessness (Diener & Dweck, 1978) overcomes whole segments of middle and high school cohorts, and nothing is done to counter negative conceptions of fixed, or entity, mindsets (Plaks & Chasteen, 2013).

Misplaced competition serves as a principle mechanism to differentiate between structures in society, i.e. populate vertical segments with appropriately trained workers. Because nothing is done to contradict these two inequities, the status quo is maintained. The result is that students learn to accept their position in society almost as a consequence of their failure.

Hofstede’s long-term orientation means that tradition, deference to authority and age permeate Japan. Couple this with the learned helplessness. From here, a apparently contradictory phenomenon arises. Everyone has a right to the benefits of their position. The egalitarian streak shows itself in the defence of these benefits. The irony that the positions themselves are socially constructed inequalities is missed by most.

So what happens in the classrooms? A short answer: the defence of the individual’s rights as appropriate to their station. A long answer would be long.


Arimoto, A., Cummings, W. K., Huang, F., & Shin, J. C. (2015). The Changing Academic Profession in Japan. Cham: Springer.

Brennan, J., & Naidoo, R. (2008). Higher education and the achievement ( and / or prevention ) of equity and social justice. Higher Education, 56, 287–302.

Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An Analysis of Learned Helplessness: Continuous Changes in Performance, Strategy, and Achievement Cognitions Following Failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(5), 451–462.

Hofstede, G. (2015). Japan. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from

Plaks, J. E., & Chasteen, A. L. (2013). Entity versus incremental theories predict older adults’ memory performance. Psychology and Aging, 28(4), 948–57.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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