We’ve been imagining a future for Tetsuo, our imaginary middle-upper-class Japanese child. We’ve assumed a moderate degree of financial difficulty in getting Tetsuo-kun into university, but nothing too major: We’ve been blandly middle-class.
While Japan is proud of its illusion of low income disparity, the difference between its lowest paid members of society and those at the top is actually higher than most developed countries. In more concrete terms, Aya Abe, a Social Security researcher in Tokyo, estimates that “more than a quarter of Japanese families cannot afford to send their child or children to university.”
Single-parent households in Japan are worse off than any other developed country in the world, excluding the United States, with single mothers in Japan limited to part-time work and making 60 percent less than standard annual wage. Another study found that a third of single women in Japan aged 20 to 64 are living in poverty.
So, Tetsuo’s middle-class life may be the norm, but just barely. You and I have raised Tetsuo together as husband and wife. If I go deadbeat, we’re looking at a very different story.
This is Your Life
The poverty line wasn’t officially declared until 2009, when the Japanese Government finally determined it to be 1.14 million yen annual disposable income ($14,300 USD). That breaks down to 95,000 yen ($1,191) per month. In 2012, 17% of Japanese citizens lived with that or less.
Japan offers a handful of subsidies (though only .2% of GDP, according to OECD data from 2006). Welfare in Japan is a last resort and rewarded accordingly. For example, income from family members can actually be included in calculating your eligibility. For various bureaucratic and social reasons, distribution to “work-capable” parent(s) is rather low.
So we’ll assume that you’re just slightly above the poverty line. As a single mother, we’ll assume you have a part-time job at a konbini, and that Tetsuo is your only child. Your parents have some retirement money they set aside for Tetsuo’s well-being.
You’re submerged, but you’ve not yet drowned.
The Cost of Public High Schools
Since schools in Japan don’t benefit from property taxes in any given town, they’re charged outright to the students who attend them.
Japanese public schools have been nationally subsidized since 2010, with full tuition grants for any student. These grants cover the fundamentals of tuition, which averages 2,160,000 yen ($27,000 US) for three years.
The other incidentals we’ve discussed would also be out of reach for any child born into poverty. Take the cram schools, practically a requirement for universities – 35,000 to 50,000 yen per month ($438 to $626) or about 510,000 yen ($6,400) per year.
You’ll pay for Tetsuo’s school uniform – 48,000 yen, or $600 USD – plus textbooks for 118,000 yen ($1,500). This leaves out the cost of other school supplies, and puts educational opportunities – such as school trips or extracurriculars – well out of the reach of a single parent.
The Cost of Private High Schools
At unsubsidized private schools, costs can be significantly higher, but are oftentimes the last resort for students who don’t test into public schools and might otherwise have to drop out.
When you think “private school” in Japan, you might imagine the ivy-covered schools attended by families like the Prescotts and Kennedys, the academies and prep schools of the wealthy. But it can – and often does – mean schools that are specifically tailored to accept students that don’t make it into the public high schools, typically the result of low test scores.
Education subsidies don’t cover private schools, which average 3,230,000 yen ($40,000 US) over three years. Remember, you’re earning about 1,600,000 yen ($20,000) per year. (Some municipalities cover some of the cost of these schools, put some of these subsidies are a pittance – I heard of one city subsidizing up to 6500 yen, or about $88, per year of private education).
The students who are most disadvantaged academically are typically the most disadvantaged economically. So this system – where students with low academic achievement are forced to pay the most for continued education, or drop out – is completely lopsided against low-income families.
These schools accept payments on a semester or monthly basis. I’ve heard of students who can’t afford to attend, but can’t afford to pay their balance, either. The school policy was such that one couldn’t drop out until the ledger was paid in full, meaning the student, who dropped out to take a full-time job, had to continue paying for classes they weren’t taking until they could afford to pay for the classes they hadn’t taken.
The Cost of Entering University
In either case, public or private, the cost of university can be the largest financial investment a family will make. But before you start paying for university, you have to get in.
So you’ll have to cover the costs of the tests. The minimal nationwide Center test (covering basic required subjects) costs 12,000 yen ($150 USD). For private schools, you’ll pay 35,000 yen ($438) and about half of that for public, and usually you’ll take one or two of each.
If Tetsuo can afford to take the test, you will then have a whole new crisis. Just as you must gamble on your high school, you have to gamble on your university.
National (public) schools are generally more desirable in Japan, but announce their acceptance a few weeks after private schools do. If he isn’t accepted to a national university, Tetsuo will be forced to attend a private one, or take a year off before trying again (typically meaning another year of juku and part-time work).
Unfortunately, private schools need a non-refundable entrance fee of up to 300,000 yen ($3700) to hold these “safety spots” – due almost universally a week or two before national schools announce who has been accepted. So most students pay the painfully high fee to reserve their “safety spot” at a public school.
Before his first day of school, your household – which earns roughly 1.4 million yen per year ($18,000) is shelling out 600,000 per year on cram schools, plus 60,000 for tests and 300,000 to reserve a safety spot.
The cost of three years of preparations alone for Tetsuo’s first day of university – not including the tuition fees – will cost Tetsuo 1,126,000 yen ($14,000).
There’s no point in simply declaring that poverty reduces the opportunities of the people who live within it. But this system, in all its complexity, is rooted in outdated concepts in need of (and resistant to) modernization.
The modern “sorting” system used by Japanese schools is a throwback to the post-war crisis period that spawned Japan’s economic explosion from 1950 to about 1989. People were sorted and shoveled through a system designed to crank out workers as quickly as possible, with exceptional intelligence being an exception (an exception unsurprisingly found more often in the children of elite wealth or privilege).
This system served Japan well into contemporary times, where it now seems dangerously geared toward preserving a status quo of economic and creative stagnation.
The trouble is, it’s not something fixable by decree. So long as Japanese parents have money and the desire to spend it on their children, there will be alternative schools and free-market “fixes” that make the system what it is.
Loans and Scholarships
Japanese culture has a strange relationship with charity – it’s a country where people are told to “persevere!” rather than the wistful “good luck!” – and so offering and taking charity is rare. In conversations with teachers, and other schools’ teachers, no one is aware of the existence of scholarships for high schools. Loan programs exist, but are still daunting for students with uncertain futures.
I’ve heard of homeroom teachers who have had to wonder if they should just start pitching in on behalf of poorer students struggling to pay for the obligatory books or handbag. But then, the question becomes: How much can the teacher afford? And why is the system allowing teachers to even ask themselves this question?
Life is unfair, and nobody ever said any different. But it came as a surprise to me that within a system so rooted in a Japanese ideal of uniform opportunity, children and families can still fall through the cracks.
And another shout-out to Okinawa Soba, who I’ve stolen every image in my Education Series from, go see his Flickr page for an amazing assortment of images from old Japan.