Professor Takehiko Kariya - Meritocracy, Modernity, and the Completion of Catch-up: Some Problems and Paradoxes

One of my recent works has been published, “Meritocracy, Modernity, and the Completion of Catch-up: Some Problems and Paradoxes” in a book entitled Japanese Education in a Global Age, edited by Yonezawa, A., Kitamura, Y., Yamamoto, B., and Tokunaga, T., Springer (2018). The following is a summary of the article.


Japan is among a few non-western countries to have experienced both ‘catch-up’ (with the West) and what might be called a ‘post catch-up modernization’. Undergoing these two stages of distinct social transformation, Japanese society has encountered difficulties in making a smooth transition from catch-up to post-catch-up modernity. This is particularly clear in the field of education. In this chapter, I placed these Japanese experiences in a global context, and discussed what implications they have for sociological research on education as well as what theoretical contributions such a lens can contribute to recent debates on modernity.

To explicate this argument, I focused on meritocracy. Under meritocracy, modernizing societies strive to depart from pre-modern society, one where not merit but origins of individuals determine their social positions. Such a rosier interpretation makes meritocracy become an integral principle embodied and embedded in ‘modern’ education. Japan is not exceptional.

Japan is a typical case of a ‘late’ modernizing country, one which intended to design and establish a meritocratic education system rapidly and extensively. Plenty of problems in education are discussed surrounding the issues of meritocratic education, such as bullying, delinquencies, and refusal to attend school. Meanwhile, the Japanese experience undergoing the transition from the catch-up to the post catch-up modernity is outstanding as a case of reflexive modernity in education. What role has meritocratic education played in the process of catch-up modernization? What new roles are expected to exert in the post-catch-up modernity? What problems in meritocratic education are identified and socially constructed over the transitional process from catch-up to post-catch-up phases? What impacts have the transition had on the ways of those problems were constructed? By addressing these questions, I discuss what theoretical and policy implications that Japanese experiences can deliver for larger global and theoretical concerns.

Discourse analyses of policy documents revealed that Japan’s experiences indicate that reflections in modernity are influenced not only by their perceived past achievements but also by their perceptions of what are sacrificed underneath the achievements during a catching up modernization. Encountering the transitional stage to the post-catch up modernity, political leader began regarding the Japanese national meritocracy as a generator to produce a constraint, one preventing the development of new competences and skills necessitated in the global era. This is because meritocracy under the catch-up are believed to sacrifice latent competences and skills to develop due to exam-driven and uniform education, therefore leaders recognize a dearth of those skills required the release of independent individuals to meet the challenges for a new global era.

Despite their ambitious goals, such a folk theory of deficiency tends to lack realistic means to achieve the goals. Furthermore, the government has continuously failed in solving the problem of under-resourced situations in public education that is a prerequisite for achieving their ambitious goals. As a result, inequality in students’ academic achievement linked with their socio-economic background has expanded. Eradicating the evil in competitive meritocracy has produce little to actually be aimed for, but ironically contributed to expanding inequality in education.