Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Tokyo Medical University Scandal and a Broken Social Contract

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Even if you don’t usually follow Japanese news, you’ll have no doubt read about the Tokyo Medical University scandal by now. In summary, women were outperforming men on the entrance examination, so the university began docking the scores of all female applicants in order to maintain a male majority in both the program and in the profession. The sexism of all this has quite rightly attracted indignation from around the world. However, I haven’t yet seen anything insightful written about the further ramifications of entrance exam tampering. Not only were all women’s scores reduced, but the scores of some male candidates were inflated in exchange for (or the anticipation of) monetary donations from their parents. Men who had failed the test and returned to try again the following year had their scores decreased.

Sexism is par for the course in Japan, sadly. I think if the case only involved women facing higher hurdles to enter medicine the outrage would blow over fairly quickly. What will not blow over is the knowledge that entrance examinations are not the objective measure the social contract requires them to be. That is earth shattering.

In order to pass entrance examinations, children and young people attend cram schools (juku) or other forms of tutoring. It’s a sector worth tens of billions of US dollars. Families make enormous sacrifices to pay for it. A teacher I worked with estimated that it cost her about US$400,000 to get her son through the exams for a mid-level university (starting from elementary school). When I went to register my pregnancy at city hall I was given an information booklet about creating a savings plan for the foetus’s juku. Family life (and size) is organised around juku. Most middle-class Japanese kids don’t do chores. Their job is to study, and the family does what it has to do in order to support that. It’s kind of the foundation of the later stages of childhood.

Because if you pass the exam to get into a good school and then a good university, you’re set for life.
That’s the deal. That’s the social contract.

Now we know that has been broken.

In some ways, it was the last really strong contract that was left. It used to be, you got a job with a company and you’d be employed for life. You spent all your time working, and moved all over the country away from you family at a week’s notice, but you endured that because you were safe for life. That deal is gone. The top end of the contract was broken and we’ve had decades of upheaval and national soul searching about it.

The bottom end of the same ladder was still strong though, we thought. You might not be employed for life, but if you study hard you can pass the exam. Pass the exam and your status as a graduate from a good school means you will get the best of the jobs that are out there.

The whole ladder is gone now.
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