Japanese students dumbed down to Western levels
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 25, 2008
A GENERATION AGO, Japanese educators were desperate to reform the country’s educational system by incorporating the approach and some of the principles used in American schools. Last week’s report on the results of a survey conducted by the Association of Japanese Geographers seems to indicate they have achieved their objective. Japanese students are now just as ill-informed as any in the West.
The association surveyed the geographical knowledge of 6,150 students in 51 high schools in seven prefectures, and 3,747 university students from 31 institutions nationwide. None of them had specifically studied the subject in school. It was the association’s second such survey; the first was conducted in 2005.
The students took a test in which they were presented with a world map on which 30 countries were identified with numbers. They were asked to provide the names of 10 specified countries.
The country that gave the students the most trouble was Iraq, as only 26% knew its location. They fared only slightly better with Switzerland, which was correctly identified by 38%, and Vietnam, which was known by 39%. The highest recognition score was the one for the United States; 86% of the students could find that country.
One could view the results from the opposite direction, of course, and note that as many as 14% of Japanese students were in the dark about America’s place in the world.
In a way, the low score for Iraq might not be all that surprising. One would hope students were familiar enough with current events–indeed, a highly controversial hot war–to identify that country on a map. But for some Japanese to fail to pay close attention to trouble spots overseas is an old phenomenon. This is exemplified by the expression, taigan no kaji, or a fire on the opposite shore. In other words, why worry–nothing’s burning down in our neighborhood.
It is worthwhile to note the inclusion of Switzerland in the survey and the difficulty students had identifying it. The Japanese have had an idealized view of Switzerland and its scenic beauty for several decades. It was a country many Japanese wanted to visit before vacations in Europe became generally affordable, and now that traveling abroad is no longer a financial hardship, Switzerland has become a popular tourist destination—for older people.
The association’s survey, conducted from last December to February, also contained a similar test for Japanese prefectures (which are the equivalent of states or provinces). The test asked them to name 10 prefectures on a map identified by number.
The prefecture with the lowest recognition rate was Miyazaki, down in Kyushu, whose location was familiar to only 43% of the students. Ehime was correctly identified by only 50% of the students, and Shimane by 52%. A total of 93% knew the location of Tokyo.
And of course that means 7% of the students couldn’t find Japan’s capital and largest city.
The people who wrote the newspaper report were somewhat surprised by the low recognition numbers for Miyazaki. While it is a smaller rural prefecture in the southern part of the country, its governor for the past year, Higashikokubaru Hideo, is a former comedian. His election and activities in office have received extensive coverage in all the media.
The association concluded from these results that it was “necessary to improve education in geography for recognizing information on a map.”
That’s an understandable reaction, and one that people in any country would support, but the recognition numbers for Tokyo might suggest there are other factors involved.
Being familiar with Tokyo’s location really should be unrelated to the amount of geographical education students receive in schools, particularly university students. It’s not possible to watch the news on television—heck, it’s not possible to watch television—without seeing a national weather map several times a day on every station. Tokyo is clearly shown on every one of those maps, and the capital’s weather for the day is always a subject, regardless of where the news is being broadcast.
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This calls to mind another public opinion survey conducted in 1968 in the United States during the presidential election campaign that year. The Vietnam War was at its height, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota, ignited national debate by challenging President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries on the country’s participation in the conflict and his conduct of it. Another Democrat, Alabama Governor George Wallace, a segregationist, ran as a third party candidate. If anything, the candidates that year were even more familiar than Clinton, Obama, and McCain are now.
A candidate recognition survey that year found that 5% of Americans confused Eugene McCarthy with Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace with Henry Wallace.
Joseph McCarthy, of course, was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who held highly charged public hearings of Communist infiltration at the highest levels of government, and who was later censured by the Senate for playing fast and loose with the facts. Meanwhile, Henry Wallace was vice-president during Franklin Roosevelt’s third term. He was later to run for president on the leftist Progressive Party ticket, and his political positions are the farthest left of anyone elected to the executive branch of national government in the U.S. Historians are still unsure whether he himself was a communist before he rejected Stalin in 1950, or whether he just had a lot of Red friends.
In either event, both were dead in 1968, and it would be very difficult for anyone not in a coma to confuse their views with those of the people who shared their surnames.
Therefore, what the Japanese geographical survey and the American political survey seem to suggest is that the default figures for the people who go through their lives in a perpetual fog is about 5% to 7%.
While Japan would benefit from undoing some of the educational reforms of the 90s, it should be obvious there is a segment of the population in any country that education will never reach.