Japanese College: The “Spring Break Of Life”

Japanese College: The “Spring Break Of Life”
by Austin Chin

大学は人生の春休み – College is the spring break of life.

遊ぶのは大学のうち – You can only play while you’re still in university.

These are all various sayings which I have heard Japanese students use to describe their college lives. If you buy into the stereotype of Japanese youth being hardworking you would be very wrong when it comes to college students. If you’re looking for deep probing academic vigor and intellectual stimulation Japanese universities really aren’t for you.   What certainly is true is that barring certain exceptions such as med school, the majority of Japanese students don’t (and often don’t need to) take their college life all that seriously. However, four years is a long time to just be slacking off and enjoying freedom – the question therefore is why go to college at all?

And what do I mean by “Spring Break”?
Not that rare a sight in the typical Japanese college student’s life

Perhaps to illustrate the point better, let’s use the example of an imaginary Japanese youth – let’s say his name is Takashi. Assume that he’s a current student in a mid-to-high tier university.   He doesn’t really study during college. But then he’s really not the only one. The statistics are clear – Japanese students do not study. An earlier Japan Times article quoted some University of Tokyo research which stated that Japanese students study far less than American college students. Takashi skips a few classes a week, and for the lectures that he does attend, most of his classmates are taking a mental vacation, day dreaming while the lecturer drones on.   What do Takashi and his schoolmates do then? Some of his classmates spend their time partying, doing gõkon and playing computer games etc. He occasionally joins his classmates for all-night mahjong games at his friend’s house. Some of his friends work part-time jobs. Heck, being from a relatively high-end university many of his friends who do not go to school spend all their time earning an income teaching high school students on how to work hard studying for their exams. Then there are those, especially sportsmen, who pour all their time into sports clubs or other student activities.   Basically, anything but their books.

Before and after


Congratulations on you getting accepted into a high ranking university – otherwise known as a four year “study break”!

  Takashi was miserable in high school, as many Japanese students are – though this is very true for East Asia as a whole. Starting from the second year of high school Takashi started gearing up for the all important university entrance examinations. So, depending on his subject combination, he may have to slog through calculus and memorize a history curriculum that almost seems at aiming to make students into mini-Wikipedias. Looking at his notes on classical Japanese, he tries to figure out the language of his great ancestors about 20 generations ago but all that comes to his head is a big maji de?! (like really?!).   Say he screws up on an examination. If his family can afford it then he’s most likely off to extra classes at a cram school (juku). Actually, he’d likely end up going to those extra classes anyway even if he didn’t do so bad. If you fail to make it into your target university you become a Ronin, which basically means you have to wait another year, study hard, and then take the entrance examinations again. It’s not something that most high schoolers want to experience once, let alone twice.   So after a possibly delayed year and after puzzling through both classical Japanese as well as English grammar, he finally enrolls in college. He moves from one of the more rural parts of Japan to Tokyo, the big city, for university. The first day he takes the train to school at around 8:30AM and gets squashed by the morning crowd of half-asleep suits and stifling neckties. In the morning Tokyo train, almost no one smiles.


He goes to school and finishes all his classes the first day – dutifully attending all of them. He finishes near 6PM and is just in time to be hit by the evening rush of people who actually don’t have overtime. Some other day within the first week he goes to an introduction session by one of the student clubs – maybe a sports club, maybe a band circle – and tries to board the train around nine. Even at this time the trains are still full, now from those who worked overtime. Another occasion, he stays back for a shinkan(welcome) party and boards the train at 11PM. The crowds have thinned a bit but the number of people still in suits is obvious. Some of them are reeking of alcohol from a company nomikai (drinking party) and are entirely red in the face.   On the train rides home, looking at the drunken salaried men surrounding him, Takashi realizes that he’s looking at a reflection of what he will become four years down the road. But then that’s what he came to college for anyway. To get a degree, a prestigious university’s name on his resume and start his career. Only to work and work and work and work (and work).   The day after the shinkan party he had a class at 9AM. But he misses it because he can’t wake up. After all, since he’s going to work and work and work anyway, what’s the point of working so hard right now? It can wait.   Not getting up becomes a habit because work can wait and sleep can’t. Especially since his parents aren’t around to pester him about his attendance.

There’s other stuff too


Job applicants heading for an interview at Nissan

  The above is the “conventional” explanation for why students like Takashi don’t take their college life seriously, but if you think about it, if not studying actually had an impact on Takashi’s future career, he surely wouldn’t take things so easily.   Fortunately for students like Akashi, the impact of not studying is minimal. Japanese companies – based on anecdotal evidence – do not really look at an applicants’ grades when they apply for jobs. What they do instead is recruit for new positions right in the middle of the school term. They focus on the university name and after screening job applicants through a barrage of interviews, internal tests, and discussions, they choose candidates based on their overall impression of the subject.   Takashi may have joined a sports club which requires him to wake up for morning practices in addition to afternoon practices which coincide with lessons. It is obvious which activity will take priority over the other. If the club is vigorous enough it is likely that he will have to repeat a year in university.   But this to him is indirectly a future investment – in exchange for holding up the reputation and achievements of the club. The alumni are very likely to pull some strings such that  club members will make the connections that they need to help them land employment. One friend of mine in a judo club even says that members have their names highlighted in yellow on a special list during job interviews for companies where alumni are already working. It’s not what you know, but who you know.

And last but not least

lionSo why is it that someone in Takashi’s situation should really be all that concerned with showing up to class?   After all, for some classes he is packed into a lecture hall with 400 other students to listen to a lecture – in such a case, attendance isn’t taken. Even if attendance is mandatory in other classes he can just ask his friends to sign in on his behalf. In any case, he can just study for the exams – someone in the class is attending the lecture and he can just ask that person for his notes at a later time.   And about the exams, well they’re really not all that difficult. After all, 80% of sociology papers involve multiple choice and fill in the blanks questions. Since there are so many lecture halls with a large number of student attendees, – the only form of grading that occurs is from a single end-of-term examination. This makes for a lot less work for instructors and students alike.   Even the workload for small classes isn’t that rigorous. Many exchange students comment on how outside the Japanese courses (which can be intense), the amount of reading they have to do per class is really low compared to their home universities. At Hitotsubashi University, it is also not uncommon for students to take around 16 different courses in their first semester. That’s right, sixteen different courses. This does not mean that they pull all-nighters every day to do their work (they’re more likely to pull all-nighters drinking or at mahjong). It means that the courses themselves aren’t very intensive.

So in conclusion…


The view outside Hitotsubashi University in full spring

  In Japan, college really isn’t all that difficult. But this does depend on the subject (medicine may be the only exception), the university (there is a gradient) and of course the individual student. Takashi is just an example of one of the many Japanese students who really take their college “educations” as if it’s their spring break – there are certainly many students who do not behave this way.   However, that being said, not paying that much attention to school is not in itself a bad thing. After all, instead of trying to focus on a sleep-inducing lecture, some people do take time out to do volunteering, activism or exploring the world outside the confines of their university.   But this is not the majority – so please do not come to Japan expecting that you’ll be adding that much to your formal academic education. To be frank, Takashi isn’t having much success on adding to his knowledge base, so perhaps, neither will you if you follow in his foot steps.   Things are supposedly changing though. Employment prospects in Japan have been getting worse over the past few years and companies are taking a closer look nowadays at what people do during their university time before hiring them. But the situation has remained largely unchanged in the everyday lives of Japanese college students.


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