Japan's campus nurseries of power

An Empire of Schools
December 18, 1998

Robert L. Cutts tells us that, "On one day for a few hours in April 1995, the gross domestic product of Japan I achieved exactly that of the United States itself when measured in dollars". Although this is dropped into the discussion almost as an aside, one feels that the competition between the US and Japan - one might almost say the confrontation - is central to this account of Japanese education. Cutts is driven by a vision that, in international business, not only is good money forced out by bad, but good labour practice, good marketing policy and good civil society are also forced out by bad. And by "good" Cutts means free-market, liberal democracy on the American model.

The central hypothesis of the book is simple and easily expressed: in order to understand the close-knit relationships that dominate political and business decision-making in Japan, one must first understand the university system that plays such an important part in selecting the decision makers. In particular, this means the workings of the University of Tokyo, the University of Kyoto, Hitotsubashi, or the top two private universities, Keio and Waseda. If one wants to study the influence of the "old school tie", then one had better start from the old schools themselves.

Cutts provides insights into exactly how the networking is effective in the operation of the political and business bureaucracies where graduates find employment. Through interviews, anecdotes and articles he is able to show how contacts forged at school can be turned to advantage throughout one's career. He also develops a telling picture of the place of women in Japanese society, showing how their economic power is linked to their political impotence.

The real difficulty with the book is not the central hypotheses, nor the fascinating details. It is the fact that the subsidiary hypotheses that link the detail to the grand picture are not clearly presented. On occasions Cutts seems to be arguing that it is the smallness of the elite that gives it its extreme power, while on others he seems to be arguing that the elite structures are all pervasive in Japan. A comparison with Oxbridge depicts the key Japanese universities as small and focused on producing an elite, while a comparison with the Ecole Nationale d'Administration in France depicts the Japanese universities as swaying the national elite by sheer weight of numbers of graduates. The way in which the link between the universities and the elite is presented is both confused and confusing.

Cutts goes on to argue that in Japan the elected representatives are dominated by the much greater power of a permanent and apolitical civil service. In short, America is a democracy and Japan is not. Any European is bound to have mixed feelings about the use of a criterion of democratic practice which only the US can pass, and any conclusions that are drawn from that.

Any book on Japan can produce startling insights and informative anecdotes, and this book is no exception. However, it is obviously the work of a journalist rather than an academic. This gives it some strengths, particularly of immediacy. It also prompts some reflection upon the nature of comparative study. One question that certainly needs to be addressed is the extent to which countries are individual and the extent to which they have commonalities. Cutts argues that the Japanese have an unjustified tendency to regard themselves as unique. This may be a correct assessment, but hardly justifies the opposite extreme position - that all countries should be measured by precisely the same standards (of market freedom and democracy), which appears to be Cutts's position. It takes something more than an intimate knowledge of two systems to produce a work of comparison.

David Turner is principal lecturer in education, University of Glamorgan Business School.

An Empire of Schools: Japan's Universities and the Molding of a National Power Elite

Author - Robert L. Cutts
ISBN - 1 56324 843 3
Publisher - Sharpe
Price - £28.50
Pages - 269

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