After catching your attention through this tabloid-like title, I'd like to discuss seriously the strength and weakness of the Japanese education system.

I am currently reading the excellent book Japan as anything but number One, by Jon Woronoff. The 6th chapter is dedicated to the Japanese Education system. Having experience as a teacher in Japan myslef, I can confirm what Jon Woronoff says, and even insist on the very primitive knowledge (something he doesn't say, but I do) of the average Japanese students and adults.

Cross-national tests in the 1980's placed Japan as number one for primary school knowledge levels. For secondary school, the ranking already fell to the 6th place (still not bad). But in terms of tertiary education, Japanese colleges and universities are considered among the worst and most useless of all developed countries. Woronoff cites an American university professor teaching in Japan saying that 90% of the students have a strong determination not to study.

Woronoff explains that Graduate Schools (or students working for a Master's or Doctorate) are so scarce in Japan because that is a one-way ticket to unemployment or an academic career, as Japanese companies do not require them (and won't engage an overqualified person at greater expenses).

Even at primary and secondary education levels, all the emphasis is on memory, maths and natural sciences. Japanese perform very poorly in social sciences (history, geography, politics, economy, sociology, philosophy, literature, morals...), as these are usually based on understanding and reasoning, rather than pure memory. Japanese concentrate so much on theory and memory that they can't apply their knowledge to practical situations, which is best reflected by their inability to speak English (or any other foreign languages).

Woronoff explains wonderfully that Japanese study by rote, and are drilled almost with the exclusive aim of absorbing the official curriculum to pass exams (NB : Japanese schools, as opposed to Western ones, have virtually no freedom regarding the curriculum, so that all of them teach exactly the same thing with the same government approved books in all schools nationwide). But tests are almost always multiple-choice answers, where chance can actually help, and reasoning is not much needed.

More worrisome, the Prime minister's office found that only 26% of primary and secondary school students understood their lesson. But why should they care, as understanding is not required to pass. What is more, Japanese schools do not make students repeat a year. So even if they do not understand and do not assimilate the curriculum's knowledge, and even if their tests are not good, they pass anyway to the next grade - "because it is compulsory education, and teachers cannot make students fail !", as I have been told many times by Japanese acquaintances.

Japanese people are well aware of the weakness and urgent need to reform their education system. But is it possible to change such a system and introduce debates, practical learning or exams based on understanding and reasoning while keeping the same teachers that have no experience with such teaching (and learning as students) styles ?