Nov. 21, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 6

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    Profile: Mary Brinton

    ] Mary Brinton, Associate Professor in Sociology, is an expert on East Asia. She spent much of the past year in Japan, where she studied the labor market and Japan's high success rate in helping graduates find jobs. She found that while the system for employing high school graduates works, it does so at a personal cost that is little understood or explored. Brinton joined the faculty in 1986 after receiving her Ph.D. that year from the University of Washington. She received her B.A. in linguistics in 1975 from Stanford and her M.A. in Japan Area Studies in 1977 from the University of Washington. She is the author of Women and the Economic Miracle: Gender and Work in Postwar Japan (1993).

    How did you get interested in Japan? I went to Stanford as an undergraduate in linguistics and wanted to study a non-Indo-European language. I had a lot of Japanese-American friends at Stanford, and they exposed me to Japanese-American culture in California. I felt very comfortable with the psychology of Japanese culture as I was exposed to it through my friends.

    When did you first visit the country? Through a student adviser I learned I could go to Japan for the same cost as spending a summer at Stanford studying Japanese, so I got on a plane and went to Japan for a six-week intensive language program. I was living on the outskirts of Tokyo, and I totally fell in love with the country. The trip changed my life. I then went on to the University of Washington, where I received an M.A. in Japanese studies and then went back to Japan for one year.

    How did the country strike you then? At that point I fell out of love with Japan because I found there were many things about the culture I disagreed with. I saw the sexism, the racism, and I experienced a lot of difficulties. But by then I'd invested a great deal of time in studying the culture and the language. I decided to go on for a Ph.D. in sociology. In retrospect , I think that the process of becoming very attached to the culture and then becoming more distanced from it was very useful to me as a scholar.

    Why sociology? In sociology, you can develop general principles for studying societies. I was fascinated by how Japan was able to modernize and industrialize so quickly at the end of the 19th century and I was very interested in the differences between Western and Japanese culture. I felt sociology offered me a broad range of tools to study Japan.

    Tell us about your research in Japan last year. I studied high school graduates who go into the labor market without going on to college to see what helps them make the transition. The motivation for the project stems from the American experience, the debates in the media, in academia and in educational policy circles about how American high schools should deal with high drop-out rates, high youth unemployment, and other problems that have occurred in the Midwest with de-industrialization. There have been a few articles written in the last few years about how successful Japanese schools are in helping with this transition. I felt that these articles have glossed over some problems.

    How did you pursue the project? I interviewed teachers who are responsible for guidance and counseling at 20 high schools. Sixteen of these were in an area just outside Tokyo that has lost manufacturing jobs, making it in many ways similar to the Midwest, so the youth employment market has become tougher.

    How did you establish rapport with the teachers? Since I am of course also a teacher, sometimes I would talk about issues in public high schools in American cities, and we would also talk about teaching in general. I thought to myself often during these interviews that I am so incredibly privileged because my students say what is on their minds and they become very engaged with the material we are studying.

    How is teaching different in Japan? Students in Japan are lectured to, so they generally just come in and listen. They are not expected to have their own opinions. The whole culture of the classroom is centered around rote memorization for exams. Some of the teachers I spoke with were trying to be creative, but it was difficult because they had to fight against a strong tradition.

    How does Japan help employ its high school graduates? Because of regulations in Japanese labor law to protect young people from exploitation, employers cannot contact high school students directly, but must do it through the schools. The teachers manage the placement of students. What this means is that every student who wants a job can get a job, but it also means that the teachers are determining who can apply for what, and they will only recommend one student for each job opening. Although students are protected from being taken advantage of, they also don't have the freedom to go out and get a job they really want.

    Do we have anything to learn from the Japanese experience? The system is extremely efficient. I think that many kids have benefited. But this is what I think Americans would find unacceptable: When I asked teachers why they recommended a particular student for a job, the answer that came back over and over again was that "it gave everybody peace of mind." It wasn't that the job was going to let a student explore his or her potential. Parents feel OK about it, the kid feels OK about it. It's settled. Problem solved. The student is in a job. You can say the system is efficient, but at what personal costs? These costs are largely unexplored.

    -- William Harms