May 30, 2010

JAPAN: How can it get too late to learn?

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TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times /  Life in Japan / May 30, 2010

How can it get too late to learn?

Diplomas yield little reward for most older people who go to university in Japan, with their considerable endeavors barely rated by employers at all

By WINIFRED BIRD

Professor Ryusuke Yoneyama was in the middle of explaining to the members of his music-production class why Baroque-era violin bows, which resembled loosely strung archery bows, produced a weaker sound than their contemporary counterparts when he paused to ask a question.

Food for thought: This copy of French artist Auguste Rodin's famed 1902 sculpture, "The Thinker," sits pensively outside the entrance to Wakayama National University in Wakayama City. Nationwide, many are pondering why it is that in Iceland 40 percent of entering undergraduate students are aged 25 or older, and 23 percent in the United States — but only 2 percent in Japan. WINIFRED BIRD PHOTOS

"Has anyone here ever tried archery?" inquired 56-year-old Yoneyama, who is both a professor in the Faculty of Tourism at Wakayama National University and a professional classical oboist.

For a moment, a deathly silence hung over the small, nondescript classroom where 10 students sat around a couple of pushed-together desks. Six young women in heavy eye makeup and three young men in T-shirts and zippered sweatshirts fidgeted in their seats. Then the tenth student raised her hand.

"I have!" said Yoshiko Matsuzaki, an attractive, petite woman sporting a lavender suit-jacket with small black flowers embroidered on it, beige pumps and a chunky bob streaked with a few strands of white. "Just a little," she added with a sheepish smile.

Matsuzaki is a 57-year-old fourth-year student in the undergraduate tourism program, and it just so happens that she was married to a local archery champion for two decades. As the owner of an audio-equipment store and a classical concert enthusiast, she also knows a few things about Baroque music.

"Wow . . . " murmured her 20-year-old classmates.

In Iceland, where — according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — 40 percent of entering undergraduate students were aged 25 or older in 2005, Matsuzaki wouldn't be anything special.

In the United States, too, she would blend right in with the almost 24 percent of students the OECD identified as falling into that category.

In Japan, however, she is one of fewer than 2 percent of undergraduate students who bring their experience as adult members of society into its university classrooms.

Experts agree that adult learners should be flocking to Japan's universities. According to the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University (RIHE), the number of 18-year-olds nationwide fell from 2,007,035 in 1990 to 1,214,389 in 2010 — meaning universities are scrambling to keep their classrooms full.

At the same time, a poor economy and relatively high unemployment rates mean more adults are looking for ways to improve their careers.

"The government and universities are all working to increase the number of older students. At private universities in particular, the number of young students is decreasing, so if they don't increase their intake of older students they are not going to be financially stable," said Ikuo Amano, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo who has authored more than 25 books on Japan's higher-education system and is a vocal proponent of educational reform.

The Executive Director for Admissions at Wakayama University, Tatemasa Hirata, put it more simply: "We really want them to come."

Nevertheless, the numbers remain persistently low. Explanations range from university policies geared to serve traditional full-time students, to social mores that define university students as young — to an employment system that often discriminates against older graduates with prior work experience. For many adults who might otherwise head back to school for a new start in life, the barriers simply prove too high.

For Matsuzaki, it literally took a brush with death to get back to school.

"In high school I was a tennis star, and I got sports scholarship offers from a number of universities," said Matsuzaki, who grew up in Niigata Prefecture. She didn't want to keep playing tennis, however, so she turned down the offers and instead moved to Tokyo and found a job at Isetan, a famous department store.

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