Higher Education

Japan Table of Contents

College Entrance

College entrance is based largely on the scores that students achieved in entrance examinations. Private institutions accounted for nearly 80 percent of all university enrollments in 1991, but with a few exceptions, the public national universities are the most highly regarded. This distinction had its origins in historical factors--the long years of dominance of the select imperial universities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto universities, which trained Japan's leaders before the war--and also in differences in quality, particularly in facilities and faculty ratios. In addition, certain prestigious employers, notably the government and select large corporations, continue to restrict their hiring of new employees to graduates of the most esteemed universities. There is a close link between university background and employment opportunity. Because Japanese society places such store in academic credentials, the competition to enter the prestigious universities is keen. In addition, the eighteen-year-old population is still growing, increasing the number of applicants.

Students applying to national universities take two entrance examinations, first a nationally administered uniform achievement test and then an examination administered by the university that the student hope to enter. Applicants to private universities need to take only the university's examination. Some national schools have so many applicants that they use the first test, the Joint First Stage Achievement Test, as a screening device for qualification to their own admissions test.

Such intense competition means that many students can not compete successfully for admission to the college of their choice. An unsuccessful student can either accept an admission elsewhere, forego a college education, or wait until the following spring to take the national examinations again. A large number of students choose the last option. These students, called ronin, spend an entire year, and sometimes longer, studying for another attempt at the entrance examinations.

Yobiko are private schools that, like many juku, help students prepare for entrance examinations. While yobiko have many programs for upper-secondary school students, they are best known for their specially designed full-time, year-long classes for ronin. The number of applicants to four-year universities totaled almost 560,000 in 1988. Ronin accounted for about 40 percent of new entrants to four-year colleges in 1988. Most ronin were men, but about 14 percent were women. The ronin experience is so common in Japan that the Japanese education structure is often said to have an extra ronin year built into it.

Yobiko sponsor a variety of programs, both full-time and part-time, and employ an extremely sophisticated battery of tests, student counseling sessions, and examination analysis to supplement their classroom instruction. The cost of yobiko education is high, comparable to first-year university expenses, and some specialized courses at yobiko are even more expensive. Some yobiko publish modified commercial versions of the proprietary texts they use in their classrooms through publishing affiliates or by other means, and these are popular among the general population preparing for college entrance exams. Yobiko also administer practice examinations throughout the year, which they open to all students for a fee.

In the late 1980s, the examination and entrance process were the subjects of renewed debate. In 1987 the schedule of the Joint First Stage Achievement Test was changed, and the content of the examination itself was revised for 1990. The schedule changes for the first time provided some flexibility for students wishing to apply to more than one national university. The new Joint First Stage Achievement Test was prepared and administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examination and was designed to accomplish better assessment of academic achievement.

The Ministry of Education hoped many private schools would adopt or adapt the new national test to their own admissions requirements and thereby reduce or eliminate the university tests. But, by the time the new test was administered in 1990, few schools had displayed any inclination to do so. The ministry urged universities to increase the number of students admitted through alternate selection methods, including admission of students returning to Japan from long overseas stays, admission by recommendation, and admission of students who had graduated from upper-secondary schools more than a few years before. Although a number of schools had programs in place or reserved spaces for returning students, only 5 percent of university students were admitted under these alternate arrangements in the late 1980s.

Other college entrance issues include proper guidance for college placement at the upper-secondary level and better dissemination of information about university programs. The ministry provides information through the National Center for University Entrance Examination's on-line information access system and encourages universities, faculties, and departments to prepare brochures and video presentations about their programs.


In 1991 more than 2.1 million students were enrolled in Japan's 507 universities. At the top of the higher education structure, these institutions provide four-year training leading to a bachelor's degree, and some offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree. There are two types of public four-year colleges: the ninety-six national universities (including the University of the Air) and the thirty-nine local public universities, founded by prefectures and municipalities. The 372 remaining four-year colleges in 1991 were private.

The overwhelming majority of college students attend full-time day programs. In 1990 the most popular courses, enrolling almost 40 percent of all undergraduate students, were in the social sciences, including business, law, and accounting. Other popular subjects were engineering (19 percent), the humanities (15 percent), and education (7 percent).

The average costs (tuition, fees, and living expenses) for a year of higher education in 1986 were 1.4 million (US$10,000), of which parents paid a little less than 80 percent, or about 20 percent of the average family's income in 1986. To help defray expenses, students frequently work part-time or borrow money through the government-supported Japan Scholarship Association. Assistance also is offered by local governments, nonprofit corporations, and other institutions.

In 1991 women accounted for about 27 percent of all university undergraduates, and their numbers were slowly increasing. Women's choices of majors and programs of study still tend to follow traditional patterns, with more than two-thirds of all women enroll in education, social sciences, or humanities courses. Only 15 percent studied scientific and technical subjects, and women represented less than 3 percent of students in engineering, the most popular subject for men in 1991.

Junior Colleges

Junior colleges--mainly private institutions--are a legacy of the occupation period; many had been prewar institutions upgraded to college status at that time. More than 90 percent of the students in junior colleges are women, and higher education for women is still largely perceived as preparation for marriage or for a short-term career before marriage. Junior colleges provide many women with social credentials as well as education and some career opportunities. These colleges frequently emphasize home economics, nursing, teaching, the humanities, and social sciences in their curricula.

Special Training Schools

Advanced courses in special training schools require uppersecondary -school completion. These schools offer training in specific skills, such as computer science and vocational training, and they enroll a large number of men. Some students attend these schools in addition to attending a university; others gp to qualify for technical licenses or certification. The prestige of special training schools is lower than that of universities, but graduates, particularly in technical areas, are readily absorbed by the job market.

Miscellaneous Schools

In 1991 there were about 3,400 predominantly private "miscellaneous schools," whose attendance did not require uppersecondary school graduation. Miscellaneous schools offer a variety of courses in such programs as medical treatment, education, social welfare, and hygiene, diversifying practical postsecondary training and responding to social and economic demands for certain skills.

Technical Colleges

Most technical colleges are national institutions established to train highly skilled technicians in five-year programs in a number of fields, including the merchant marine. Sixty-two technical colleges have been operating since the early 1960s. About 10 percent of technical college graduates transfer to universities as third-year students, and some universities, notably the University of Tokyo and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, earmarked entrance places for these transfer students in the 1980s.

Graduate Education and Research

Graduate schools became a part of the formal higher education system only after World War II and are still not stressed in the 1990s. Even though 60 percent of all universities have graduate schools, only 7 percent of university graduates advance to master's programs, and total graduate school enrollment is about 4 percent of the entire university student population.

The pattern of graduate enrollment is almost the opposite of that of undergraduates: the majority (63 percent) of all graduate students are enrolled in the national universities, and it appears that the disparity between public and private graduate enrollments is widening. Graduate education is largely a male preserve, and women, particularly at the master's level, are most heavily represented in the humanities, social sciences, and education. Men are frequently found in engineering programs where, at the master's level, women comprise only 2 percent of the students. At the doctoral level, the two highest levels of female enrollment are found in medical programs and the humanities, where in both fields 30 percent of doctoral students are women. Women account for about 13 percent of all doctoral enrollments.

The generally small numbers of graduate students and the graduate enrollment profile results from a number of factors, especially the traditional employment pattern of industry. The private sector frequently prefer to hire and train new university graduates, allowing them to develop their research skills within the corporate structure. Thus, the demand for students with advanced degrees is low.

The Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture

The Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (often shortened to Ministry of Education or Monbusho ) is the primary authority over higher education. It approves the establishment of all new institutions, both public and private, and directly controls the budgets of all national institutions and their affiliated research institutes. In addition, the ministry regulates many aspects of the university environment, including standards for academics and physical plants and facilities. The ministry also provides subsidies to private higher education institutions for both operation and equipment and made long-term loans for physical plant improvement.

Government appropriations are the largest source of funds for national universities (more than 75 percent), and tuition and fees provides most revenues for private schools (about 66 percent), with subsidies accounting for another 10 to 15 percent for the private schools. The 1975 Private School Promotion Law allowed the government to subsidize private education and increased the ministry's authority over private schools, but the ministry's own budgetary limits and general fiscal restraint have tended to limit such subsidies, which remained relatively low. In FY 1988, for example, only 244 billion of the total ministry budget of 4.6 trillion went for this purpose.

The Ministry of Education has two major areas of responsibility related to graduate education and research. In addition to being generally responsible for the national universities and establishing their research institutes, the ministry also promotes the research conducted at universities and funded both institutions and individuals. About a half-dozen research institutes, such as the National Institute for Educational Research and the National Institute for Special Education, are also under direct ministry supervision. Several types of research organizations are affiliated with universities: the national research institutes attached to national universities, independent research facilities affiliated with national universities but open to researchers from universities throughout Japan, other research centers, and other facilities at national, local, public, and private universities.

The ministry is not the exclusive agent for funding and promoting research, but it accounted for about half of the entire government budget for research throughout most of the 1980s. In addition to providing funds for research institutes and national universities, the ministry gives smaller amounts for scientific grants and programs in other public and private institutions.

The ministry can devote funds to particular areas of research that it considered important. In FY 1988, the ministry emphasized the following programs in its budget: space science, particularly scientific satellites, rockets, and astronomy; high-energy physics and accelerator experiments; and construction of a national research and development information network.


The quality of undergraduate and graduate education was the subject of widespread criticism in the 1980s, and its improvement was one of the focal points of university reform. One complaint was that students, once admitted, had little incentive to study because graduation was virtually automatic. Attendance requirements were minimal, and, except for examinations, students were free to come and go as they pleased. Some of the teaching was poor, and the students often did little studying. Students and the system were accused of squandering the four years.

In response to the call for university reform in the reports of the National Council on Educational Reform, the ministry founded the University Council in 1987. High on the council's agenda were the diversification and reform of graduate education, improvement in the management and organization of universities, and the development of a policy for lifelong education and diversification in educational activities. The recommendations that had emerged by 1989 include improvements in the provision of private financial support to universities and modified personnel practices for college instructors in the national schools. There are calls for improved education in the fields of information science and automation and the establishment or reorganization of departments and research faculties in those fields. Finally, in the area of lifelong education, changes under discussion are the provision of more public lectures, expansion of university entrance opportunities for the general adult population, improvements in the University of the Air, and better links between the school and the community.

The University of the Air, which has no entrance requirements, was originally designed to give all Japanese access to higher education through radio and television broadcasts. Although it is hampered by limited broadcast radius and frequencies, it has a potentially leading role in promoting lifelong learning.

Internationalization is an issue at every education level, but particularly for higher education. The number of students studying in Japan from foreign countries, especially Asian countries, is increasing, and the higher education structure is not particularly well equipped to deal with them. In 1988 approximately 25,000 foreign students from more than 100 countries were studying in Japanese universities and colleges, and the ministry expected the figure to be 100,000 by the beginning of the twenty-first century. The ministry is also working to regulate and improve the standards for teaching Japanese to foreign students and trying to improve their financial and living arrangements. Beginning in the 1980s, Japanese universities established branches in the United States, and many schools in the United States also set up Japanese branches. At least one Japanese women's university began to require its undergraduates to spend a semester on the campus of an affiliated school in the United States.

As in virtually every other area of education, debate over reform of graduate education and research was widespread at the end of the 1980s. The University Council established a subcommittee on graduate schools consisting of academics, researchers, and corporate executives. The subcommittee identified a number of critical issues: establishing graduate schools that were independent of traditional university structures, founding new and specialized graduate schools, reconsidering entrance and graduation criteria, increasing the international student population and internationalizing graduate education, addressing the qualifications of graduate school faculties, modifying the mission of doctoral courses, arranging for flexibility in admissions to graduate school, standardizing the length of graduate programs and reconciling the variations between degrees awarded by different schools and in different disciplines, establishing an accreditation and evaluation system, and reviewing the financial situation of graduate students. These recommendations were acknowledged in the ministry's FY 1988 budget, which included funds for expanding student aid programs, reforming graduate programs, and establishing a new Graduate School for Advanced Studies. Proposed reform of the research system concentrated on improving cooperation between universities and the private sector, and between universities and other institutions.

Finally, the subcommittee recommended greater Japanese participation and cooperation in international projects and greater efforts to make Japanese scientific and technical literature available in English. Although there were more programs for international scholarly exchange and more foreign researchers and foreign graduate students in Japan than in the past, Japanese society and education institutions were still having some difficulties in accommodating them smoothly.

Some of the urgency behind considering reforms in graduate education and research comes from the recognition that Japan is increasingly involved in advanced research and is no longer assured of having foreign models to study. To remain competitive and to guarantee its future, Japan needs to make serious changes in its education and research structures. Its institutions needs to be more flexible and diverse and needs to encourage the creativity in education that would foster new technology. This change is seen to require a national effort, one not limited to the graduate sector.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress