Japan's emphasis on school test scores makes Yasuhiro a dull boy; Japan's High Schools, by Thomas R. Rohlen. Berkeley: University of California Press. 363 pages. $10.95.
What would it be like to attend a Japanese high school? How would it feel to be a teen-ager in Japan? Rather joyless, writes Thomas R. Rohlen, an anthropologist who studied five high schools in the city of Kobe.
Since university admission in Japan does not reflect teacher recommendations, grades, extracurricular activities, personal characteristics, or specific talents, serious young Japanese scholars have a single goal: scoring high on university entrance exams. Japanese are efficient about high school education, but, Rohlen insists, young Japanese pay a high price for that efficiency in terms of personal development and distinctiveness.
As 95 percent of students in cities go to high school and almost all graduate , the high school diploma no longer has much significance, he writes. The crucial measures of status are the type of high school and rank of university attended, with Tokyo University at the pinnacle, he concludes.
In 1979 the national universities began jointly giving a standard preliminary exam as a first step in the rigorous screening process for places at preferred universities, which can practically ensure desirable future employment. Those candidates who do well can then go on to take the particular university exam, which is not standard, like the American SAT, but independently designed by each university. Prospective students cannot apply to more than two public universities, and they must specify ahead of time the department in which they wish to enroll.
Rohlen's findings are pertinent right now, when Americans are looking critically at their own high schools. Rohlen estimates that the average Japanese high school graduate has the basic knowledge equivalent to that of the average American college graduate. Some critics have wondered out loud whether the United States shouldn't emulate the Japanese, whose schooling appears to give them a competitive lead in high technology and world trade.
''On one occasion, following a lecture on the merits of Japanese education, I was asked abruptly whether I would like my children to be educated in a Japanese high school,'' Rohlen writes. ''I unhesitatingly said no, adding defensively that I would say the same about most American high schools. Reflecting on my answer later, I realized that any response to high schooling in Japan was, in part, a reflection of my own very American sense of independence, which does not abide the constraints and rigors I encountered in Japan. But it also reflected my feeling that Japanese high schools represent but a small part of that country's humanistic tradition, a tradition rich in beauty, sensitivity, and spirit. At present this tradition survives, even thrives in places, without significant support from public education. Here lies my own ultimate squabble with Japan's high schools. The well-intended teachers and well-behaved students put their efforts to purposes that are ultimately shallow and uninspired. The nation benefits economically. Society is well run. But it is a system without much heart.''
The book gains depth from Rohlen's anthropological insights. But it is free of jargon, so its thesis is easily accessible to any interested reader. Explaining why the Japanese high school works well in Japan but could not be imported into the United States as easily as Toyotas or television sets, Rohlen uses education as the entering wedge for a good understanding of Japanese society in general.
That the author was sensitive to and appreciative of Japanese ways is evident throughout. Even the japanned cover design - its lacquerlike gloss finish, typical coloring, and modified calligraphic-type letters - is consistent with the author's integrative approach to his specialized subject. This informative book works extremely well as a totality.