Tokyo University is Japan's Harvard. Kyoto University, Princeton. Acceptance into either pretty much guarantees you a spot in the country's elite. Top government, banking, consulting, and scientific posts are filled with To-dai and Kyo-dai graduates. However there is a big difference in Japan. Harvard and Princeton are private universities. Tokyo and Kyoto are public - meaning state subsidized and affordable.
To be sure many excellent private universities exist in Japan such as Waseda and Keio. However, educational prestige in Japan is decidedly connected to public institutions. Many Japanese carry around the notion that private universities can be "bought" into. For children, this means that the quality of education you recieve has little to do with what your parents can afford but how much effort you put into it. The net result is a Japan that is far more egalitarian than the United States. Since World War II, Japan has been dominated by a huge middle class. As we shall discuss, this is changing.
For much of Japan's post-war history the crucial college entrance examination has been the great equilizer in its society. Students from impoverished backgrounds have climbed the socio-economic ladder with a mix of talent and hard work. Conversely there are socio-economic drop-offs. Tales of rich "Ronin" children who fail to meet expectations often spend years in limbo to prepare themselves for next year's examination.
What does this have to do with population decline? One word: 'Jyuku'.
The Japan I have just described is all theory. The reality in Japan today is that despite public university's low tuition, attendance is dominiated by children coming from rich families. Research indicates that over half of Tokyo University Students attended private high school and almost all attended 'jyuku' - special afterschool cram sessions designed specifically to "crack" the test. Think Kaplan on steroids.
Convetional wisdom in Japan says that you have to send your child to expensive 'jyuku' and privates school for him/her to succeed in life. If you are rich Japanese couple and you want your kid to have the advantages you enjoyed, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity. Costs for such services are getting prohibatively expensive in Japan and as a result - affluent parents are having fewer and fewer children.
The same is not true of Japan's less educated, less afluent class. While low by world-wide standards they are having children in larger numbers. What demographers in Japan are seeing is - as a result of this reproductive asysmetry - a shift betwen Japan's "haves" and "have nots". The population of "haves" - defined as upper-middle and upper - in Japanese society is shrinking while "have nots" - lower-middle and lower - is steadily growing. The net result of this shift is that national wealth is more unevenly distributed than at any time post-WWII. Japan's middle-class mountain is transforming into twin peaks.
In an era of absolute population decline competition for Tokyo and Kyoto university is at an all time high. While the story of a poor man becoming rich is uplifting and happy, the story of a rich man becoming poor is depressing and sad. While intelligence, work ethic and memory are randomly assigned by the genetic lottery, how much money your parents have is not. Say you have a stupid son. While it is not possible to "buy" him a path into a top national university in Japan, you can however throw a lot of money at the problem and increasingly that is what a lot of affluent parents are doing.
This has become a vicious cycle in Japan.
- Population decline in Japan is not distributed evenly throughout Japan's social class.
- This shift away from Japan's egalitarian makeup increases the importance of expensive after-school classes and enrollment in private institutions.
- Wealthy parents choose to have less children because of the high costs to maintain social standing
Music by Marco Benevento from the album Invisible Baby