As explored more fully in Chapter 5, Japanese companies play a more active role than U.S. companies in imparting an understanding of actual engineering methods and practice through in-house classes and institutes, and apprenticeship-like on-the-job training. “Examination hell,” while often a subject of humor (and much tension) for its own sake, is also responsible, in large degree, for the style with which Japanese engineers pursue their profession. The “best” students in Japan will want to attend the most prestigious university, and work for the “best” companies (or government agencies). In turn, the best companies prefer to hire graduates of the most prestigious university. The quality strata in both universities and companies roughly match up. The class stratification of jobs and universities makes it relatively simple to match the best students and the most prestigious companies.

Several historical and institutional factors have contributed to the development of Japan's university entrance system and its far-reaching impact on future opportunities available to Japanese students. In the late 19th century, Japan built its secondary and higher education systems at the same time, in order to support rapid economic development. At first, the new universities generally accepted any student who could certify completion of secondary school and afford to attend, but soon secondary schools produced more graduates than universities were able to accept. The most prestigious universities, particularly the national universities, established their own exam systems as a result.1

The basic structure of the current Japanese system, in which companies and government agencies hire new graduates based on the selectivity of the universities they attended, predates World War II. With the much wider availability of secondary and higher education in Japan in recent decades, a much higher proportion of the high school population has become subject to the incentives and pressures of the university entrance exam system. Attempted reforms undertaken during the U.S. Occupation aimed to lower the emphasis on entrance exams, but these did not take hold.2

Table 3-1 provides an overview of the higher education systems of Japan and the United States. At the top of the hierarchy of prestige in Japan are the national universities, with several selective private universities also seen as highly desirable by students and employers. 3 Farther down on the hierarchy are less selective private and public universities. With a few exceptions, this informal but very stable prestige and desirability ranking holds across all fields.

TABLE 3-1 Four-Year Institutions



United States

Total institutionsa



Institutions awarding engineering degrees















a Japanese institutions as of 1995; U.S. institutions as of 1992.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; Japan Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture.

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