Apartheid Japan-style

Cartels of the Mind

July 17, 1998

Anyone interested in what the Japanese buzzword "internationalisation", (kokusaika) really means should read this short but powerful study, which is the talk of Japan's expatriate communities. From the obstacles facing foreign law firms to press club exclusivity, from universities that mistreat non-Japanese faculty to foreign researchers and students kept at arm's length, Cartels of the Mind highlights discriminatory practices in Japan's intellectual sector. With the concision of a journalist and the authority of a scholar with 30 years' experience in the country, Ivan Hall shows how ministries, professional associations and educational institutions use flattery, threats, obfuscation and regulatory legerdemain to restrict intellectual engagement between Japan and the outside world - much as protectionist policies constrain its full commercial engagement. Intellectual chauvinism is found elsewhere (eg, US protests against the Smithsonian Institution's retrospective on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb), but Hall demonstrates that the regularity, range and callousness of such incidents in Japan put it in a league by itself.

Though critical of Japanese intellectual life, Hall eschews the histrionics and gratuitous sarcasm of, for instance, Roy Andrew Miller in Nihongo: In Defence of Japanese. He faithfully reports the (glacial) progress being made against the forces of xenophobia and acknowledges some Japanese (a few) who have spoken out against it. But the negativism of Hall's otherwise admirable account eventually gets wearing. One wants to learn more about the scattered resisters and how they sustain themselves despite the establishment's efforts to ostracise and intimidate them. For that, one must turn to other recent books, like Patrick Smith's Japan: A Reinterpretation.

Hall concludes "that the Japanese simply do not want non- Japanese physically present among them for any length of time, embedded as individuals in the working institutions of their societyI Permanent intrusions are viewed by the Japanese as intolerable threats to their value system, their social relationships, their way of life". There is much truth in this - as Hall notes in several places, anti-foreign measures often seem intended simply to prevent Japan-born Koreans from demanding equal treatment - but it runs the risk of reducing the complex phenomenon of intellectual insularity to mere racism. The weak point of Hall's argument is that he says relatively little about removable causes of the ills he describes.

Consider the role of school-based employment discrimination in maintaining Hall's "cartels." It is common knowledge in Japan that the record of which schools one attends (one's gakureki) has an inordinate influence on one's employment prospects. Getting into the right university is the challenge; graduating is easy by comparison. If you want a job in the ministry of finance or the Bank of Japan, going to the school whose "old boys" are already there is almost essential; sometimes studying with a specific professor is the key.

The rigid hierarchy of universities that underlies this system is the raison d'etre for cram schools, education-obsessed parents, adolescent alienation, "examination hell" and the re-entry problems of Japanese who have lived abroad.

Foreigners who will not or cannot submerge their individuality have a hard time, but so too do Japanese with the wrong background, as painfully documented in former bureaucrat Masao Miyamoto's Straitjacket Society. The weight put on who, rather than what, one knows makes cronyism seem normal. Among government ministries, the gakureki hierarchy begets another, in which the ministry of education ranks low. Does this not account for at least part of the high-handed behaviour of ministry officials to foreigners that is reported by Hall? It is, after all, the same ministry that oversaw the evisceration of the Japan Teachers Union starting in the 1970s.

Hiring based on gakureki thus seems to contribute much, and on multiple levels, to the malaise Hall so vividly calls "academic apartheid". As each succeeding corruption scandal breaks, more and more Japanese are coming to see gakureki discrimination as a major source of the rot. Grass-roots discontent with the education system is growing; a few Japanese companies have publicly announced that they will no longer take educational background into account in hiring. Legislation could strengthen such voluntary measures.

Therefore, while Hall is right to sound an alarm, he is perhaps a bit too pessimistic about the prospects for change from within. Outside pressure from Europe and the United States may, as he says, be necessary to get things moving, but sooner or later it will have to be those Japanese who want to redefine Japan's identity, to break the links with both prewar nationalism and postwar mercantilism, who will also break the "cartels".

J. Marshall Unger is professor of Japanese, University of Maryland.

Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop

Author - Ivan P. Hall
ISBN - 0 393 04537 4
Publisher - W.W. Norton
Price - £18.95
Pages - 208

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