Students who complete high school have these main options available to them: colleges or universities, junior colleges, technical colleges, special training, or employment.
Universities & Colleges: Japan has over 500 four-year colleges and universities. No special distinction is made between institutions called "college" and those called "university." (The term university is used here to indicate both.) There are basically three types of four-year institutions: (1) national universities that are supported by the central government, such as Tokyo University; (2) public universities that are supported by governments at the municipal or prefecture level; and (3) privately funded institutions. Approximately 75 percent of all universities in Japan are private.
The quality of education varies widely among Japan's four-year colleges and universities, which accounts in part for the stiff competition among students who wish to enter the best schools. Generally, universities aim to expose students to a broad range of knowledge while providing a context for research to be conducted by faculty. As of 1999 there were 99 national universities, 66 nonnational public universities, 457 private universities, altogether enrolling about 2,700,000 students, including graduate students. Overall, about 40 percent major in social sciences, 19 percent in engineering, and 17 percent in humanities. When just considering national universities, however, the proportions change to 31 percent in engineering, 18 percent in education, and 17 percent in social science. Most students do not have a "minor" field in their university studies.
Most university programs are completed in four years, with the exception of medical, dental, and veterinary undergraduate preprofessional programs, which take six years. Universities establish graduate programs in areas where they aim to provide opportunities for profound research and scholarship for both their faculty and their students. For admission to a graduate school, an applicant must have completed an undergraduate degree program or its equivalent. Most master's programs require two years of study beyond the undergraduate degree, whereas most doctoral degrees require five years. Exceptions are medical, dental, and veterinary graduate programs, which last four years. About 10 percent of university students went on to graduate school in 1999. The number has continually increased since 1980, when it was about 4 percent. In 1999 about 65,000 students began master's programs, and about 16,000 began doctoral programs.
The academic environment in Japanese universities and colleges has come under criticism in recent decades. It is extremely difficult for students to gain admission to universities, and they often only do so after taking a particular university's admission test two or three times. Having been admitted, however, many students often lapse into what are sometimes called "leisure lands" in Japan—that is, universities where little real academic work is completed. For example, students may dedicate a good portion of their time to extracurricular activities such as sports, music, arts, or even a part-time job. In the 1960s many students were extremely politically active and spent much of their time on leftist causes. Although that is not so much the reason for the leisure lands today, the result in that period is similar to the result today— students often skip class and fail to spend much time on their studies. Some reasons often given for this phenomenon are as follows: first, many students do not get admitted into the school of their first choice and are less motivated to work hard; second, they have not yet grasped the significance of the course of study they have selected and its importance to their future; third, many of the professors have given in to the phenomenon and are less than inspiring teachers, preferring instead to conduct their research and other duties; and fourth, there remains the perception that companies or government agencies traditionally hire their employees from the same universities, with little regard for the degree of academic achievement of graduates. Some aspects of this approach to university life have changed in recent years. The educational and working culture has changed as a result of globalization and as a result of Japan's economic downturns, creating a more competitive atmosphere in universities and in companies. But there is still work to be done to raise academic standards in universities.
Junior Colleges: Established during the Occupation after World War II, junior colleges usually involve two or three years of training and traditionally have enrolled mostly women. In fact, about two-thirds of the women who go on to higher education after high school enroll in junior colleges, though that number is decreasing as women gain access to more professional careers and attend universities in greater numbers. Taken together, about 12 percent of men and women who participate in higher education attend junior colleges. As of 1999 there were a total of 585 junior colleges in Japan, with 503 being private and 82 being public. Some of the most popular majors in junior college are as follows: home economics or domestic science (24 percent of students), humanities (23 percent), education (17 percent), and social science (13 percent).
Technical Colleges: Technical colleges were established in 1962 as five-year institutions for students who had completed their lower secondary (middle) schooling. These colleges emphasize specialized subjects that prepare students for a vocational life. Japan's technical colleges can be grouped into two main categories: industrial and merchant marine. For the industrial track, students can take courses in subjects such as industrial chemistry, public works, metalworking, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronic control, information technology, material/bio-engineering, civil engineering, and management information. The merchant marine track focuses on various aspects of marine studies and takes an additional six months, for a total of 5.5 years. In 1999 there were 62 technical colleges, 59 of which were national or public and 3 of which were private. A total of 56,436 students were enrolled, up from 52,930 students in 1990. Technical education continues to be a solid option for students who enjoy skilled labor and do not plan to advance to a university.
Special Training Schools: Another postsecondary option is "special training schools" and other miscellaneous schools that focus on specific vocational needs. Started in 1976 to fill particular niches in the industrial community, these schools are required to enroll at least 40 students and to last for at least one year, offering 800 hours of training for that one-year course. The courses at special training colleges can be grouped into three categories: advanced courses designed for graduates of upper secondary school (high school), high school level courses for graduates of middle school, and other courses. Courses in the high school group usually comprise two-year programs of study in business, engineering, foreign languages, hygiene, or medicine. As of 1999, there were 3,565 special training colleges, 3,206 of which were private and 359 of which were public or national. That year there were 753,740 students enrolled, up from about 40,000 in 1989.
Sometimes grouped with special training schools are "miscellaneous schools," a category that included special training colleges until they were declared a special type of institution in 1976. After the higher category of special training colleges was established, the miscellaneous schools began to be recategorized and thus declined precipitously in number. From 1980 to 1989 the number dropped from about 5,400 to 3,570, and the enrollment dropped from 724,000 to 442,186.
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