Recently I was reading a little bit about how one normally becomes a lawyer or judge in Japan. Apparently this changed in 2004, but prior to that one would major in law as an undergraduate, then take an exam. If you could pass the exam your future was guaranteed, but the pass rate was around 5% and the test was only offered once a year (naturally, most people had to take it several times before passing, waiting and studying for a year between each attempt). Those who passed were sent to a government institute to study law for another two years before officially becoming lawyers. During these two years the most capable students would be given the opportunity to become judges. But even the least capable were more or less guaranteed jobs, the main weeding out had already happened during the test.
As I mentioned, apparently a more US-style system was adopted in 2004, with universities now being allowed to issue J.D.-style degrees and one of those degrees being required to sit for a redone exam. This new exam’s pass rate is supposedly more in the neighborhood of 40%, and those who pass now only attend the institute for a year. So a bit of a change, but elements of the old system still remain.
My impression is that other professions in Japan have similar examination systems. And, of course, before these everyone would have had to have passed high school and college exams as well, the more prestigious schools having more difficult exams.
Apparently a similar system exists in France:
Now what about the US? No examinations to try and go to a better high school, you go to the one where you live. Universities generally don’t have any either, merely taking a general look at your records in high school to decide whether or not to offer you admission. What about prestigious places like Harvard or the other Ivy Leagues?
Even if you’re skeptical about such criticisms, the fact remains that these places are incredibly expensive. Harvard’s website lists it’s annual tuition at $40,866 (including a “Student Services Fee” and “Health Services Fee”). Tokyo University, hands down the most elite in Japan, charges ¥535,800 per year, or $6,495 at the current exchange rate. That’s only about 15% what Harvard charges, or in other words, Harvard is more than six times more expensive than Tokyo University. And just generally, $40k is beyond what any student could hope to earn in a year, let alone the cost of living, whereas $6500, while a sizable amount of money, is at least doable with a part-time job. The reality then, is that the main barrier to entry into universities in the US is money, whereas in Japan (among other developed nations) it’s examinations.
But the other end is worth considering too. Even Harvard doesn’t guarantee that you will be taken care of after you graduate. The reality is that everyone knows you mainly needed money to get in there. Inversely, everyone knows how hard it is to get into Tokyo University, and graduates there are given commensurate respect and their pick of jobs (and even for years afterwards Tokyo University graduates will find themselves fast-tracked up the promotion ladder). Every career advice lecture I ever attended in the US openly shared their statistic that most people got their jobs through “connections” (something in the order of 60%). But rather than organizing a riot, these lecturers then go on to advise everyone to make sure that they “network.” And that is the real thing that Harvard offers: the opportunity to make lucrative connections. If you are unlucky, insufficiently social, or fail to capitalize on that opportunity, you’re not really any better off than if you had gone to your local college.
The said reality is that even if you study hard, ace all your classes in high school, and go to the best university you can afford, without the right connections you’ll probably wind up working at Best Buy or McDonald’s. But hey, if you don’t rock the boat you might make assistant manager one day.
Aside from the waste of talent and ability that is endemic to this system, I don’t see how we can label it as anything other than an oligarchy. The stresses of “Examination Hell” may be an unfortunate consequence of systematically trying to screen out the best and brightest from all walks of life in order to put them in important positions in society, but at least it provides opportunity for those blessed with natural talent or willing to study hard to advance regardless of their backgrounds. Although obviously still weighted towards those with privileged upbringings; rich, well-connected parents are less of a guarantee of success, and a lack of them is less of a guarantee of failure.
To conclude on a more personal note, I have a Japanese friend here who considers himself a “rolling stone.” He has gone through several career changes, but he successfully passed enough examinations in his time that he has never had trouble getting decently paid work. In fact, as he was finishing up at his college (a decent local one, but certainly not incredibly prestigious) he still hadn’t secured a job for himself, not feeling very ambitious about any particular line of work. So prospective employers, through the school’s councilors, came to him. They’d seen his history, seen he was capable, and they naturally wanted the most capable people they could attract to work for them.
I, on the other hand, attended the most prestigious university in my state (and, arguably, in my region; it is every year well within the top 100 universities worldwide). Further, when I was graduating, I received the award for top graduate in my major that year (so out of about 400 people of so). Not one person, from a company or my university, came to me to offer me a job or to try and secure me one. I was certainly not expecting anyone to, but looking back on it, why was it that way? Don’t companies want proven, qualified people to work for them and carry them to greatness? Don’t they want, in fact, the most talented people they can get their hands on? Why don’t they go after them, then? Why do they insist on hiring a minority of their workers from ridiculous career fairs where you have to sing and dance to try and convince them that you’re somehow worthy of working for the awesomeness that is their discount retail store chain? Why do they insist on hiring a majority of their workers from people that managers there just happen to know? I can only come up with the word oligarchy. People in power abuse that power to hire people they know and like (or owe a favor to), and, failing that, people that will sufficiently grovel before them. They have absolutely no interest in seeking out the most qualified people. This system of oligarchy hurts society as a whole, making it far less efficient and prosperous as it could be if talented people were given more power. Not to mention that some of those people (who have the means) will simply up and leave the country for less oligarchical ones. But for me, and obviously I’m biased, the worst toll is the injustice inflicted on the poorly connected individuals of talent and ability who rightly deserve far more in life than the US will ever mete out to them.