Opinion //

The Summer Vacation for Life

East Asian education is not all that it seems

three cans of Strong Zero, which is a popular Japanese alcoholic drink Artwork by Joe Verity

A Chinese translation of this article appears here

CONTENT WARNING: Article mentions suicide, mental health

“I have no memories from that year,” my Japanese friend tells me as we drink in an izakaya at Takadanobaba — Tokyo’s liveliest student neighbourhood, and the only place in Japan where you can litter and piss in public and no one gives a damn. He’s talking about his year as a ronin. Centuries ago, that word would have evoked images of a wandering samurai, condemned to live a life of shame for choosing to live after his master’s death instead of dying with him. Nowadays, it refers to high school graduates who fail to make it to their desired university, and subsequently spend an extra year of study in the hopes of getting in — a gap year minus the fun.

“Every day was the same. Waking up at 6:30 to study, then going to cram school for 6 hours, then studying by myself at night until 1. What memories were there to make?” he continues, before finishing his beer in one go. His story is a common one. In 2018, one in five Japanese university entrants were ronin. Some had been ronin for over a year.

“It was tough, but it was worth it. I got where I wanted to be, and now it’s the summer vacation for life. Anyways, let’s get some more. Is sake fine by you?”

Judging from the amount he is drinking, I wonder if he will have no memories of tonight either.

* * *

Do you know what they call university in Japan? They call it the summer vacation for life. Sandwiched between high school and work, university functions as a four-year respite where you recharge yourself after working so hard in high school, so that you’re fully energised to work hard after you graduate. Most courses are comprised entirely of lectures where attendance isn’t taken, the standard of work expected is laughably low, and more importantly, university marks have no bearing on future employment. In place of study, university students busy themselves with part-time work, extracurricular activities and drinking. Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, took seven years to graduate from a four-year course because he hardly ever bothered to turn up to class, preferring instead to spend his time at jazz cafes and record stores. China and South Korea, two other countries also infamous for their gruelling high school education system, operate under a similar, unofficial tertiary system of “hard to enter, easy to graduate”.

Of course, this fact is little-known about in the West. Instead, we are fascinated by the East Asian education system as symbolised by the faceless student, buried beneath a stack of textbooks and paper, studying in a harshly lit classroom after the rest of the world has gone to sleep. However, this academic intensity must be contextualised with reference to the tertiary sector’s lack of intensity in order to gain a complete understanding of East Asian education.

For example, bold phrases such as “the damaging path to success” abound when discussion about East Asian education flares up in the West, often in comparison with our own system. But what does “damage” and “success” even mean in this context?

On damage, our instinctual reaction to the idea of adopting elements of East Asian education in Australia is often to go to the extremes, and point out the high rates of youth suicide in those countries as proof that their “hyper-competitive” nature is fundamentally damaging. But using youth suicide rates as a metric to gauge the value of an education system is both perverse and devoid of meaning, but even if it was used as a metric, it would show a very different story from what most of us in the West believe to be true. According to a 2015 study conducted by the OECD, Japan and South Korea actually have lower rates of teenage suicide than Australia. Of course, we in Australia know that there are many complex factors and causes behind youth suicide, and boiling it down to one issue would be grossly oversimplifying the problem. However, we do not afford the same complexity to the East, both in regards to mental health and other oft-said stereotypes such as the idea that East Asian students have no creativity and can only rote-learn. It is because of this that discussions of comparative education devolve into a game of “at least we’re not”, where we can conveniently ignore the alarming realities plaguing our own system, like how the mental health of Australian students has deteriorated dramatically in recent years. According a 2018 study by Headspace, 80% of Australian students in tertiary education experience anxiety. 35% have had thoughts of suicide or self harm.

Whilst the start of university marks the end of academic-related stress for our East Asian counterparts, does it not signal its continuation for us? In East Asia, the “success” of working so hard in high school can be felt immediately upon entering university, where students are gifted with four years to do whatever they want. Regardless of whether they are attending a good university or not, the social ladder has already largely been set in stone and nothing much will change it, barring an exceptional case of effort (or lack of it). We might look at this in Australia and revile in how unfair it is to determine someone’s life by a couple of exams they sat while they were 18, but does not something similar happen in Australia, albeit delayed by a few more years? One look at any university rants page on Facebook will show that extreme anxiety regarding studying is pervasive amongst Australian university students, who often have to battle financial worries on top of academic concerns. Obviously, academic stress is linked to a belief that bad marks will put you at disadvantage in the increasingly competitive job market. Everyone says “high school marks don’t matter”, but how many would extend that to university? In East Asia, “Ps get degrees” is a veritable truth. In Australia, it is a meaningless consolation.

It is inevitable in any capitalist society that a selection must be made at one point in our lives about what labour we are entitled to perform in the future, and by extension, what type of lives we will live. The problem, then, isn’t that high school is too stressful for students, but rather, should the stress of social selection be delayed until later in life?

In East Asia, the selection is made at the cusp of adulthood. Who you are at 18 is viewed as representative of who you will be for the rest of your life. The name of the university you attend speaks much more than the marks you get there, because the abilities and effort you demonstrated by getting in shows others that, if the need ever arises, you can work hard. That is why East Asian students stay up late studying during high school, and drinking during university.

In Australia, however, we love stories of the student who languished in high school but then picked up in university, and is now living a successful life of wealth. These stories are often contrasted with the cautionary tale of the brilliant high school student who never adjusted to university, and lived their whole life in perpetual disappointment. But is not social selection implicit in both of these stories? Why is it then that we detest it when it happens at age 18, but not when it occurs a few years later? Instead of praising the dropout who became a lawyer, and disparaging the dux who became a cleaner, would it not be more useful to question why the two jobs are viewed so differently in the first place? We need to ask these questions before we use East Asian education as an example to aspire to or avoid.

One thing, however, is clear. While East Asian university students are enjoying their summer vacation for life, it seems we in Australia are going through a winter of discontent.