Today we look at educational privatization in Japan. My guest is the renowned Marxist scholar Makoto Itoh. In our two-part conversation, Professor Itoh argues that both the capitalist market and Soviet system have not produced democratic equality. In both systems, schools have been used to sort people by class.
Makoto Itoh teaches at Kokugakuin University and is professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo. His newest book, written in Japanese, is A guide to Capitalist Economy, which was published in February.
Citation: Itoh, Makoto, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 112, podcast audio, April 16, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/makotoitoh/
Will Brehm 1:15
Makoto Itoh, Welcome to FreshEd
Makoto Itoh 1:18
Thank you very much for your invitation.
Will Brehm 1:19
It’s really wonderful to sit down today in Tokyo and discuss, well, probably a whole bunch of things about education and your own life and about Marxism. And it’s a good time because you just told me you published a new book called ‘A Guide to Capitalist Economy’, which is published in Japanese a few months ago. So, congratulations on the book.
Makoto Itoh 1:40
Will Brehm 1:42
So, what I’m interested in speaking about today is your understanding of Marxism -you are an internationally renowned Marxist scholar- and applying it to the field of education. How would we apply Marxist thinking to education? So, you know, I’m not really sure where to begin because Marxism is so big of a body of literature but perhaps we can think about the costs of education. Because the costs seem to be one of the big pieces of capitalism: prices and costs.
Makoto Itoh 2:20
Indeed. Well, when we look at education costs today, it is worrying to see how it became so expensive, especially to learn at university level. The data in Japan for last year said that in private university, it costs in four years in total, 7.4 million yen. So, you can calculate.
Will Brehm 2:48
So, 7.4 million yen is something like $70,0000 US dollars?
Makoto Itoh 2:57
Right. So, it costs very much in private university. And in case of six-year medical students, in total, it costs 27 million yen, whereas average household income in Japan is 5.3 million.
Will Brehm 3:18
So many people wouldn’t be able to even afford to go to medical school and probably very difficult to go to private university.
Makoto Itoh 3:27
That’s right. It is said that almost educational costs of one child for medical department is almost the same as purchasing a house. So, I am afraid that such expensive educational cost cannot be affordable for all parents. The basic idea for democracy is egalitarian, freedom to run for everybody. But that cost prevents such a basis for social democracy, isn’t it? And although rate of university students among the same generation, as you may know, reached just over one half in 2009.
Will Brehm 4:20
OK, so in 2009, 50% of the same generation went to university?
Makoto Itoh 4:30
Four years university.
Will Brehm 4:32
Makoto Itoh 4:32
Whereas in my youth, it was below 10%. At the year 1954, I became a university student in the next year, but at 1954 it equaled 7.9%. So, less than 10%.
Will Brehm 4:51
Makoto Itoh 4:51
So, the rate of higher education at the university level became more and more broadly shared, whereas it became so expensive nowadays. The rate of increase of students among the same generation became very, very stagnant and became slightly down lower to 49.9%. Less than 50% in 2013.
Will Brehm 5:21
Okay, so it’s the numbers of students enrolling in universities has slowed compared to when you were a student?
Makoto Itoh 5:31
No, no, no, the same generation? The rate of university students became lower in several years.
Will Brehm 5:38
Oh, right. And is this mainly because of the costs?
Makoto Itoh 5:42
I guess so. At least one reason. And this affects in various ways. For one thing, students became so busy to earn money while they are students too. So, that they cannot have enough time to enjoy their college life. And, “I’m sorry, I’m busy to do some advice” is a common phrase for the present students and they became so conscious about the career after graduation because they had to earn money for the sake of parents who paid university costs. And many students nowadays, just like in the United States, depend on student loans. And this newspaper reports, that personal bankruptcy, over 150,000 person a year bankrupted now. And this bankruptcy affects naturally to their parents, and sometimes to grandparents due to joint-signatures.
Will Brehm 6:54
This is the students that go bankrupt because of the loans they’ve taken out and they’re unable to pay them back.
Makoto Itoh 7:03
It’s a tragic situation. So, in many cases, it affects the total society broadly.
Will Brehm 7:11
Why do you think this happens? I mean, is this sort of a natural consequence in capitalists’ systems where fees increase and where you have to take out debt? Debt, as Minsky says is a main feature of capitalism. I mean, should we not be surprised that this is happening? Even if it is tragic?
Makoto Itoh 7:35
Hmm. In my years, when I was a student, tuitions for all state universities seems almost nothing. It was so cheap! So, in student period, student friends are so various in their classes. All a mixture of society. Whereas in the present day, in the University of Tokyo, for example, the other statistics says that over one half of students in the University of Tokyo, you can see over 54.8% of students came from the family type, which belongs just under 10% of top richer families this class.
Will Brehm 8:30
Right, so over half of the students come from the wealthiest families
Makoto Itoh 8:36
9.7% of richest families can only afford.
Will Brehm 8:43
The top 10% send more than 50% of the students.
Makoto Itoh 8:50
Will Brehm 8:50
So, there’s huge inequality in the system.
Makoto Itoh 8:55
The University of Tokyo is a major feeding University Japan to occupy Korea for the future bureaucrat, business circle and many other candidates for the future central.
Will Brehm 9:09
Could you explain that? Because this is actually slightly different than in Western universities, where the University of Tokyo holds this very privileged…
Makoto Itoh 9:17
You probably know Gakureki shakai. Gakureki means career of university period. It is important to remember, and I feel unhappy to talk about that from a Marxian point of view. But the University of Tokyo actually did play a very important institution with some other top universities are important to see who became dominant probability to be declared as a candidate for the leading bureaucrats, leading businesspersons of big businesses and in other many fields. So, those are elite institutions and in order to get into such elitist universities there is certainly severe competition and parents have to be rich to hire private teacher to educate their children.
Will Brehm 10:23
And it’s not just private schooling it’s also tutoring or Juku
Makoto Itoh 10:28
Juku. Many costs extra is necessary.
Will Brehm 10:31
So, over the lifetime of a child you have to be able to spend millions and millions of yen to prepare him or her to get into a university like Todai.
Makoto Itoh 10:41
I read in Piketty’s book that only top 2% is able to send their children to Harvard. Almost a similar phenomenon is seen. To jump from that, I read some material of old Soviet. There was elite educational systems which only allowed to small number of elitist state bureaucrats and party bureaucrats. It was very privileged special course nomenclature education system. So, education system is a “for sale” system to discriminate elitist. In the case of Japan and the United States, or capitalist societies, money can serve as such a discriminatory reproduction of elitist capitalist class.
Will Brehm 11:37
Whereas with the Soviet Union it was…
Makoto Itoh 11:40
It was done by privileged political setting. Which is better? [Laughter]
Will Brehm 11:48
That’s right. I mean is there a better? Because the outcome is similar, right? You sort society in a particular way that gives certain people benefits and not others. It is very far from egalitarianism as you were talking about.
Makoto Itoh 12:02
Right. So, egalitarianism as an idea for both socialism and capitalism. But in reality, they failed for Soviet Union, United States, and Japan.
Will Brehm 12:20
That’s quite a difficult contradiction
Makoto Itoh 12:24
Indeed. An ideal society in common sense under the name of democracy cannot work in reality in the market. Just like a political system in the Soviet Union. We tend to be told that Soviet was a privileged, very undemocratic society. But why can’t we see democratic egalitarian social system on the market?
Will Brehm 12:50
Yeah, they might not -capitalism and democracy are not as intertwined as maybe the common assumption.
Makoto Itoh 13:02
Civil evolution from the age of former British or French Revolution has not been achieved in reality in the system of education. Oxbridge, Harvard, MIT, Boston, and the Ivy Leagues in the United States.
Will Brehm 13:21
When you look at education in Japan, but as you were saying, this phenomenon is in many other parts of the world, particularly in market economies, where inequality is increasing, and education is a way to sort of sort society, does Marxist economics help you understand what is going on?
Makoto Itoh 13:45
So, the real problem is that what is the social ground to argue for democracy? Political democracy is achieved by one vote for one person. One other person can be given one vote for election. It is a political way of expression of democracy. And in my belief, I think that economic life in society is supported by labor or work, and economic democracy should be recognized social contribution for egalitarian peoples endeavor to spend certain time of his life or day time to work for other persons or to support themselves or other persons. In usual a person statistically tells us that around 2000 hours a year is working day. And I think there are about 50 million persons in Japan working, or supporting our economic life, excepting certain number of wage workers like politicians and bureaucrats in certain parts. Just like Adam Smith said, they are unproductive classes that not support economic life -to work for services and producing something for other persons, socially. If we calculate 50 thousands persons 2,000 hours each makes total number of hours, 100 billion.
Will Brehm 15:37
100 billion hours of work every year-
Makoto Itoh 15:40
-supports Japanese society. This is a very clear image to calculate. And it is my fundamental view of society, that our economic life is supported by that number of hours together. Therefore, if we can conceive that each hour is usually estimated equally, each other homogeneous, this is called by Marx abstract human labor, which is the basis for any concrete useful labor. Marx distinguishes labor in that sense and abstract human labor is shared for different kinds of useful concrete labor. So, this forms division of labor in society. If we can recognize that any person even highly educated doctor and taxi driver is as the same person, same human being, which have concepts in their mind, and utilize their internal nature to act and work according to the their conception and execution is the combination to form human ability to work in any places, utilizing language in common and thinking, sharing certain ideas, and can do what they intend to do unlike any other animals who may also work but human labor is different from other animals’ metabolic functions with great nature. It is different from we share ideas, conceptions, and work according to that conception, this is human work. So, if we recognize each other, every working hour is homogeneous, despite of educational cost difference -it is other aspects to be considered- but if we recognize it in such a way, economic democracy should be based upon homogeneity of social contribution of every person’s work labor.
Will Brehm 18:07
So, for instance, like you said, the taxi drivers one hour of work would be equivalent to the doctor’s one hour of work, or the Prime Minister’s one hour of work?
Makoto Itoh 18:18
This is the basic idea.
Will Brehm 18:20
But even the non-wage labor would be valued the same way, right.
Makoto Itoh 18:25
Will Brehm 18:26
So, the stay-at-home mother or father would be valued for one hour of childcare.
Makoto Itoh 18:32
And in order to think in such a way we have to distinct Marxists treatment of skilled labor issue. Even Marx said, skilled labor may be conceived as doing five times of labor in one hour unlike the unskilled labor. I think it is not democratic way of conceptualizing abstract human labor. I would like to revise that on Marx and almost all the Marxian economists still follow Ricardo -Marx traditions to conceive intensified labor by certain skilled work complex laborer. It is not a democratic way to think.
Will Brehm 19:19
No. You don’t want to have different values placed on different types of labor, skilled or unskilled, they all should be equal. That is the egalitarian way.
Makoto Itoh 19:30
Yeah. 100 billion is the same in quality.
Will Brehm 19:36
Yeah. And what I wonder is..
Makoto Itoh 19:37
It is interesting to think in such a way.
Will Brehm 19:40
Yeah, a hundred billion hours of work!
Makoto Itoh 19:43
And if we conceive certain cases nowadays, say Basic Income idea, for example, and some cases of local currency, time data, they treat labor contribution as the same contribution among community. It has a certain, in my belief, it is through communal ways of understanding each other let us recognize our time as a basis of community. It is a good way to think.
Will Brehm 20:18
It seems like it would also sort of naturally lead to people devoting less time in wage labor, because 100 billion hours of labor per year, I would imagine that’s not completely -or you don’t need 100 billion hours to produce the GDP of Japan.
Makoto Itoh 20:44
If we include certain non-market labor, it might be 1.5 times of that size. We don’t care about that. But the important thing is to recognize egalitarian democratic homogeneity in contributing labor activities, either market or no market, it is an important thing.
Will Brehm 21:08
It seems as if the education system, as we were talking about earlier, the sorting that goes on, would not allow for such an egalitarian system as you were saying.
Makoto Itoh 21:23
Yea. It is because privatization of education attributes educational costs to each family or each individual. Therefore, the person who needs higher education, such as medical doctor, has to pay back, as Becker’s human capital theory says as an investment. It is a type of thinking which seems very natural when we live in the individualistic, private, market economy. Whereas in old period, the educational system could be more public, communal, common goods, as you suggest here. And any children, who may come from the poorer family, can receive that education free. If educational system is supported by common funds, in that case, we do not care about educational costs being paid back later by their higher wages, we can still reproduce necessary types of educated, trained persons for each necessary works.
Will Brehm 22:40
To think beyond human capital theory. To not view education as a future rate of return on my individual wage, but rather, as you’re saying, see it more communally. To me, it sounds like that will take a huge shift in imagination of everyday people. Because, I think the person who’s spending 7.4 million yen to go to university is expecting that he or she will get a return on investment that is quite high.
Makoto Itoh 23:20
And the student loan expect that too. That is a privatization of education for individual. But actually, communist economy in Soviet system, higher education, while also very cheap or free to produce most numerous number of higher educated technicians who are produced in Soviet. And in such an educational system, the public way: In that case, why should be pay higher wages to that doctor or to that engineer? We do not need to paying system such a discriminatory way. So probably in Soviet grading of labor was done, but this grading could be much reduced gaps and connected to educational costs, you see. So that sort of system is conceivable. If educational costs can be socialized, educational systems could be more democratic and probably social mobility could be elevated much more. As a result, it might be more activated society and mobility across various families to contribute in suitable places or according to the children’s aspirations could be achieved.
Will Brehm 24:56
Are you hopeful that in the future we will see a transition in society away from this privatization of education that has expanded exponentially under neoliberalism? Or are you hopeful that we will actually shift -in Japan, and in America, and in other places around the world- away from that private notion and value of education.
Makoto Itoh 25:24
At least my generation experiences such cheap education and cost for educational level. We used to think university tuitions almost does not cost. At that time, National University of Japanese educational system served as a sort of recruiting system for different type classes of societies, which meant a sort of a mobility of society was much greater than nowadays. It is my impression, and I think it might be more desirable for social future. And while educational costs bother me for another reason too, which is reducing children. United States still has growing number of population, but Japan is declining population and many other advanced capitalist countries began to see the similar trend for smaller children, ageing society. It is very bad to see for the future of educational system to maintain. And social activity, aspirations, new ideas would be expected lesser degrees due to smaller number of children may make society very, very conservative. All the sociologists say second and third child is more in a sense, non-conservative.
Will Brehm 27:15
Makoto Itoh 27:15
Progressive, if you say. Or act more ambitiously for new ideas than first children. It is because mothers and fathers protect first child more carefully and the second and third are not cared for much.
Will Brehm 27:40
I am the second child.
Makoto Itoh 27:44
So, I understand why you came to Japan.
Will Brehm 27:50
More freedom, I guess. My brother has much more -I mean, my parents are probably listening to this conversation. And they were very good parents. I mean, that’s not an issue.
Makoto Itoh 28:02
You have to say that. [Laughter]
Will Brehm 28:07
You put me in a difficult position.
Makoto Itoh 28:11
And I’m the third child.
Will Brehm 28:13
Ah! That says a lot!
Makoto Itoh 28:15
My elder brother had to take care of my parents. He’s very good. And I feel a bit embarrassing to take care of my parents and go free as you did.
Will Brehm 28:36
And is that what brought you into the academy?
Makoto Itoh 28:40
Will Brehm 28:41
You felt like you had more freedom. You also joined some of the student protests in the 1970’s.
Makoto Itoh 28:48
Sometimes Yes, but not very much. But I was attracted to Marxism just for intellectual aspect. It seems too heavy problems to think. And I used to think everything quickly. But when I encountered Marxist capital, it was heavy, deep, not easy to understand. It is quite a shock to me. And how to understand those heavy deep thinking was an interesting experience. But the first time in my life to encounter such a theoretical system containing so deep work.
Will Brehm 29:42
So, it was a very intellectual pursuit for you?
Makoto Itoh 29:45
Yes, I began to read Marxist capital in what you say the first year of university?
Will Brehm 29:53
Makoto Itoh 29:53
Freshmen. Among my classroom friend invited me to join the reading group in our university class.
Will Brehm 30:04
Makoto Itoh, thank you so much for joining FreshEd
Makoto Itoh 30:07
It’s my pleasure.
Will Brehm 30:08
It really was my pleasure. I really enjoyed talking today.
Educational privatization in Japan