Setsuo Otsuka
Victoria University of Wellington

Deep South v.2 n.1 (Autumn, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Setsuo Otsuka, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.


I thank Professor Hugh Lauder from University of Bath and Mr.John Bonallack. Without their co-operation, this piece of work could not have conducted.
















    It is often perceived that East-Asian students (e. g .,Chinese and Japanese students) perform better in English speaking countries like the United States and New Zealand than other ethnic groups. The most recent figures in New Zealand (Ross, 1995; Shelton, 1995) have suggested that 38. l% of Asian school leavers in 1994 gained university bursary, as compared with 23% of their Pakeha (a) counterparts, 4.4% of Maori and 5.2% of Pacific Islanders, giving a national average of 19%. The purpose of this study is to seek to determine why East-Asian students have a higher rate of academic achievement than any other ethnic group in New Zealand, in spite of the fact that they face language difficulties and cultural differences. There are two broad explanations which have been canvassed in the literature.

    These are:

    1. East-Asian culture, particularly the Confucian ideology of education, may have played an influential role in motivating people to be committed to educational achievement.

    2 . East-Asian students' achievement in education may be influenced by their genetic intelligence.

    I will attempt to show that culture is the key, since I believe that no racial group is genetically more intelligent than another, even though there are lines of argument that suggest that East-Asian people are genetically brighter than other racial groups (see e.g., Herranste and Murray,1994; Sautman, 1995). These lines of argument seem to me to have limitations in that they tend to rely on I.Q. scores, which are rather crude and fallible measure of intelligence.


    An analysis of 1993 School Certificate (b) and University bursary (c) results in New Zealand (Rivers,1994) has shown that Asian students top scored in both examinations. Of Asian students 15.8% gained A-grade passes in School Certificate (b) - almost double the national average of 8%. Pakeha students did slightly better than the average, with 9.4% getting an A. Maori students were below the average, with 2% scoring A grades, while 1.3% of Pacific Islands candidates gained an A.

    19.6% of the Asian students who took the Bursary examination(c) gained A in 1993 (Parratt, 1994), whereas the Pakeha (a) students who got an A bursary numbered 14.5%. 6.8% of Maori and 4.l% of Pacific Islands candidates gained an A.

    In 1994 the proportion of seventh form Asian students awarded bursary or scholarship was 40.8% - about double the national average. Asian students exceeded the national proportion for all 7th form awards in 1994, while just over one-twentieth (5.2%) of Maori students, and a similar proportion of Pacific Islands students gained these qualifications.

    37.5% of all school leavers in 1993 gained 7th form awards. The proportion of Asian students with the form awards was 61.7%, whereas the proportion for Pakeha (a) students was 42.6%, for Maori students, 16.3%, and for Pacific Islands student, 23.5% (see the diagram in the appendix).

    A similar trend occurs in the United States. A study (Stewart, 1993) has shown the impressive educational performance of Asian Americans (including immigrants). The educational levels of these immigrants significantly exceed those of the white population of the country. In the 1960's, in America the Japanese ranked first among all racial minorities in education, and they have continued to exhibit high achievement in school (Ueda, 1974). A study (Bachu, 1991, cited in Stewart, 1993) has suggested that Japanese immigrants (42.3%) are more likely to hold a highschool diploma than native Americans (39.9%). The study (Bachu, 1991) has also shown that 30.5% of Japanese immigrants have a university degree, as compared with 19.3% American born people who hold it. 42.8% of Chinese immigrants are university graduates.

    Lynn' s work (1988) has shown the international comparison. Japanese children in the United States have achieved the highest average mark on tests of science and mathematics (see the tables 1 & 2 in the appendix). "The average Japanese 12-year-old is approximately at the same academic level as the average 15-year-old in the West"(Lynn,1988, p.11).


    The following figures suggest that educational achievement by American-born Asians is lower than that of young people from the same ethnic groups who are sent to the United States to study. Obviously, those ethnic immigrants are involved in their own home culture much more than those who were born in the United States, because of the difference of the process of their socialization. In this respect, it could be assumed that their home cultural background may play an important role in producing their high achievement in education. Here are the figures:

    Kim's study (1978) shows that 13.2% of Chinese male immigrants were university graduates, whereas 6.7% of U.S. male citizens of Chinese descent held a university degree. 18.0% of female Chinese immigrants were university graduates, while only 4.8% of U.S. female citizens of Chinese descent held a university degree. 13.2% of Chinese male and 2. 0% of Chinese female immigrants held either a Master or a Doctoral degree, while in this study, no male or female U.S. citizens of Chinese descent had either a Master or a Doctoral degree.

    Kim's study (1978) went on to show that 25% of Japanese male immigrants were university graduates, while 20% of U.S. citizens of Japanese male descent held a university degree. 17.7% that Japanese female immigrants held a university degree, whereas no U.S. female citizens of Japanese descent were university graduates. 10% of Japanese male and 2.9% of Japanese female immigrants held either a Master or a Doctoral degree, while no male or female U.S. citizens of Japanese descent held either a Master or a Doctoral degree. While these figures are 17 years old, I believe that this trend, for immigrants to achieve higher educational qualifications, has continued.

    Chinese and Japanese immigrants are more involved in their own cultural backgrounds backgrounds than U.S. citizens of those racial groups. 87% of these Chinese immigrants are from Mainland China, and 93% of the Japanese immigrants come from Japan (Kim, 1978). These immigrants have grown up in and absorbed the cultures of their home countries, whereas U. S. citizens of these racial groups are more likely to be influenced by American culture.

    Therefore, I consider that the cultural bias of the student is the strongest factor in his or her academic success, and will examine next the Confucian ideology of education, which has influenced both Chinese and Japanese school culture and the people's attitude towards education for over 2500 years. The Confucian ethic, which emphasises harmony rather than change (see Taylor, 1975), may have been one of the reasons why the Confucian ideology has survived, and been adapted to East-Asian societies. Wei-ming (1990) has stated that the Confucian tradition remains a vital force that can touch people's hearts, stimulate their minds and enrich their lives, even in the late twentieth century.

    Before examining the Confucian ideology of education, I will briefly discuss what culture means since it is my assertion that people's attitude towards education is a part of their culture.


    According to Ishida (1967, cited in Kunihiro, 1976), from the perspective of cultural anthropology, the following five culture elements are usually distinguished: (1) 'reality culture' which includes technology, economics, systems of production, etc.; (2) ' value culture' which includes law, values, philosophy and religion; (3) society as a framework (social structure) such as kinship; (4) language and (5) national character and ethos.

    From my own life experiences in living across cultures, interacting with people from many walks of life in their own language and their cultural contexts, I would define culture as the sum of human thought. This includes people's way of life which is socially based. The society admits individual differences to some degree, because they are culturally produced and shaped.

    Cultural anthropologists have attempted to define culture, and their definitions are universally applied to any culture on earth. Here are some examples:

    "That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor, 1871, cited in Keesing, 1971, p.20).

    "The sum total of the knowledge, attitudes and habitual behaviour patterns shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society" (Linton, 1940, cited in Keesing, 1971, p.20).

    "The mass of learned and transmitted motor reactions, habits, techniques, ideas, and values - and the behaviour they induce" (Kroeber, 1948,cited in Keesing, 1971, p.20).

    Understanding these concepts mentioned above, what culture means is, I would say, that culture can be powerful enough to determine how people think, talk, react, and use their own communicative codes both verbally and non-verbally. What is happening in a particular society and what is happening within an individual person are culturally influenced by each other. Therefore, I would define culture as being everything that human beings produce and reproduce (e.g., language, norm, rule, values, virtue, religion, attitude, ideas, social structure, ethos, technology, communication, kinship, ritual, science, economics, education, etc.).

    It therefore follows that people's attitude towards education (including educating someone and someone being educated) is culturally based. Hence, people' s attitude towards education is different from culture to culture. The following section describes Confucianism which is usually considered as one of the most important influences on education among East-Asian people.


    Wei-ming (1990, p. 112) has said that "Confucianism has made an indelible mark on the governments, societies, educational practices, and family life of East Asia . . .Prior to the arrival of the Western powers in East Asia in the mid nineteenth century the Confucian persuasion was so predominant in the art of governance, the form and conduct of elite education, and the moral discourse of the populace that China, Korea, and Japan were all distinctively 'Confucian' states." Confucius believed that good education would change people for the better. "The only way for the superior man to civilise the people and establish good customs is through education" (Yutang, 1958, p.200). That is, education is a ceaseless process of self-realisation and self-cultivation. The Confucian ideology defined learning as socialisation. Society itself is thus a vast educational process (Taylor, 1975). Confucius himself emphasized again and again the importance of being widely read and learned in all aspects of life without forgetting the importance of having a philosophic principle that runs through all these details of scholarship (Yutang, 1958). According to Confucius, "Only one who is able to couple thought with scholarship is a really educated man" (Yutang, 1958, p.189).

    That is to say, Confucius emphasised the importance of acquiring knowledge. This Confucian theory of knowledge has two main conclusions, one of which suggests that every person is capable both of being educated and of being the educator, through the divine spark (Taylor, 1975).

    Confucius valued an education based on competitive examinations and meritocracy (Taylor, 1975). This philosophy has played a major role in the East Asian attitude to education, and in stressing a hierarchical education structure.

    In the following section, I will examine how the Confucian ideology of education is put into practice, taking as an example, the Japanese school system.


    The education system in Japan is hierarchical. The strong link between lifetime employment in one particular company and recruitment from among graduates of the more prestigious universities has made people's attitude towards schooling even more hierarchical. It is now common knowledge that if you want to be employed in big name companies like Sony or Toyota, you need to be a graduate of a prestigious university such as Tokyo University or Kyoto University (see e.g., Dore, 1976). According to Confucius, education provides a model for future leaders (Cleverley, 1985). Becoming a member of the big name companies mentioned above may mean becoming to some degree a leader of the country's economic products. The link between education and recruitment into the leading companies may have taken on the Confucian idea of the relationship between education and leadership.

    However, this idea has made the entrance examination to university very difficult, particularly to the so-called prestigious universities, because there are so many applicants for these universities. It is really competitive; the ratio of the number of applicants to prestigious universities to the number of successful candidates for them is likely to be thirty (sometimes even fifty) to one (Otsuka, 1994).

    In 1990, for example, 44% of the people who tried for university entrance examinations failed to pass them. More than 70% of those who failed the examinations went to the so-called Yobikoo or Juku (private cram schools). They studied there for another one to two years, and tried for the examination again. In fact, 75 to 80% of a recent freshman class at Tokyo University spent at least one year in cram school (Kunihiro, 1994). However, some people still did not pass the examination. The purpose of the cram school is to coach youngsters to learn all the 'inert facts' (in the parlance of Alfred North Whitehead; Kunihiro, 1994), in preparation for the entrance examination which is known as Shiken Jigoku (English equivalent is 'examination hell').

    We see Confucian values here. Education based on competitive examination was stressed by Confucius (Wei-ming, 1990), therefore certain patterns of elitism could not be avoided (see e.g., Taylor, 1975). The Japanese school system, to some extent, is a meritocracy. People are selected according to the results of the examination they take. In order to pass the examination, students are usually expected to have great knowledge, rather than having critical thinking. Confucius put heavy emphasis on having knowledge. According to him, "The more you talk about what most people don't understand, the greater is their respect for you"(Yutang, 1958, p.176). Students are likely to have 'rote memorization,' which is derived from China where students have always had a strong examination system (Dore, 1964). Here again, the Chinese education system, which is rooted in .Confucian ideas has influenced Japanese attitudes towards examinations.


    Up until quite recently, most Japanese secondary school students went to school six days a week, which meant 240 days, or 1104 hours per year. American secondary school students had 180 days a year to go to school (900 hours per year). New Zealand secondary school students went to school for 195 days a year (1053 hours) (Passow, 1976).

    Most Japanese secondary school students now go to the school 5 days a week. However, this has made the students even more work-oriented. On Saturdays, most students go to Juku, instead of school. They work there for long hours. Even on Sundays, students usually take the test prepared by the Juku (As a Yobikoo student in 1984-85, I myself remember taking the test prepared by the Yobikoo every Sunday).

    Most students go to Juku after school, and study there for another three to four hours every day. They often do not get home till 10:00 at night or later. After having a meal, some students will continue with their studies until midnight. This is partly because of pressure of 'double-homework': homework from both school and Juku.

    This phenomenon has now spread even to primary school students (I taught English to primary school students in Japan in 1988, and I know that more than 80% of senior students from my primary school went to Juku at least three days a week. Some students attended Juku five days a week).

    There is even Juku for kindergarten children. And more surprisingly, some pre-kindergarten children, aged as young as two, go to Juku with their mother!

    There are some private kindergartens, and a few public ones, that require their applicants to take an entrance examination. Many parents (and maybe some children as well) are interested only in being on the automatic escalator that will guarantee their future schooling opportunities. Once children are accepted to a prestigious kindergarten, they are likely to continue up the ladder through prestigious primary and high schools, and graduate from a top university. So the competition can start as early as the pre-kindergarten years.


    Hence, most Japanese school students are already used to being in a competitive educational system from an early age. This culture of competition may be a major factor in motivating students to stick to their school work. Some people might argue that competitiveness has a genetic basis and is biologically programmed. However, "there is little double that competitiveness is also developed in children to a greater or lesser extent by parents, teachers and other social influences" (Lynn, 1988, p.82). From my own experience, in the Japanese education system most parents and teachers exhort children to devote themselves to their school work in order to win the educational race.

    Moreover, it is very difficult for people living in a group-oriented and homogeneous society such as Japan to avoid conformity to the norm. Teenage children, in particular, feel the need to follow each other's steps, because of this peer-pressure. This is another reason why so many school children go to Juku. As well as pressure from society, peer pressure can be considerable.

    The attitude of most Japanese children towards their parents and teachers is culturally different from that of the rest of the world, particularly from the West. Children are taught to revere age and occupational position, so children are automatically expected to have respect for their parents and teachers. This cultural expectation makes it easier for parents and teachers to keep children striving for academic achievement. This is another important element which Confucius stressed; he put emphasis on the importance of filial piety and social harmony (Wei-ming, 1990). The Confucian tradition in this sense supports parents when they advise their children on what to do.

    I would argue that Japanese school students' motivation is derived from the combination of intense academic competition, pressure and expectation from parents and teachers, and Japanese cultural and social norms. In Japan we can see a country that has put the Confucian ideology of education into practice. Ideology, including values, philosophy, religion and tradition, are all derived from their own culture. In my view, the culture itself has played the greatest role in motivating East-Asian school students to achieve their educational goals. These highly motivated 'learning machines' come here to New Zealand schools. When they overcome their English language difficulties and cultural differences, it is no wonder that they can achieve in New Zealand education at a much higher rate than the other racial groups.

    The following section will discuss the Japanese language and its influence on the Japanese way of thinking in relation to the Confucian view of what learning is.


    Cultural anthropologists have argued that language and culture influence each other. Some cultural anthropologists like Benjamin Whorf (1956) have argued that language determines how people think. Whorf takes the view that "language is philosophy" and the "door to social reality." Vygotsky (1962) has argued that when people use a particular type of language, they live in its own thought-world. Kunihiro (1976, p. 64) has argued that "Japanese do not specify whether they mean yes or no, whether they agree or disagree. Moreover, they fail to make clear distinctions between one thing and another, and tend to lump essentially different things together." Whereas, the system of logic which, at least until very recently, has distinguished the West is Aristotelian logic. It is based on the dichotomy. "It is . . . " or "It is not. . . " "The Western mind has established clear boundaries between light and darkness, day and night, nature and counter-nature" (Kunihiro, 1976, p. 68). Choice/analysis is almost the Western way of life, while combination/synthesis is the Japanese way of life. I would say that people from the West are good at looking at each tree without seeing the forest, whereas the Japanese are good at looking at the forest without seeing each tree.

    Here, I attempt to argue that this Japanese way of thinking, which is culturally based, may act to encourage the Confucian ideology.

    As discussed above, Confucian tradition has emphasised the importance of increasing knowledge, and using repetition in learning. A study (Nola, 1995) has suggested that the Western tradition has tended to dichotomise the processes or memorisation and understanding, while in Confucian-based societies like Japan, the dividing line does not fall between mechanical memorisation, and memorisation in order to assist the development of meaning "The development of the ability to use imitation and repetition as an aid to learning is encouraged" (Nola, 1995, p.3). This process is commonly called 'rote learning.' This process is more encouraged by the Japanese way of thinking, which tends to put two different concepts into one. Accordingly, their way of thinking encourages the Confucian ideology. In other words, the Confucian tradition may have been adapted easily to Japanese mind, because of their way of thinking, which is culturally and linguistically based.

    The next section will discuss the limitations of using IQ scores as a measure of intelligence.


    I do not follow the line of argument that because East-Asians tend to achieve relatively high IQ scores, they are therefore likely to achieve in education generally. I still believe that cultural influences are the major factors in producing such high East-Asian achievement in education.

    Some scholars like Herranste and Murray (1994) as well as Sautman (1995) have suggested that East Asian people generally have higher IQs (Intelligent Quotient) than 'White' European people. However, Lynn(1988, p.60) has argued that "intelligence does not appear to be a significant factor in the high educational standard in Japan." Here, I would argue that IQ scores are the products of, and relevant only within, a particular culture. This particular culture's assessment of IQ may not be translatable to different cultures, since every culture is unique. That is to say, IQ scores may not be the universal measure of intelligence of different cultural groups (see e.g., Binet, 1905, cited in Gould, 1981). I think that familiarity with the type of test, as well as cultural differences, may have almost as much effect on the IQ score as intelligence itself.

    I have taken IQ tests, and in my experience the test requires the test-taker to answer as many questions as possible, quickly and accurately in written form in a particular length of time. The test has severe limitations when it comes to measuring the test-taker's intelligence. The test-taker may be better at expressing his/her intelligence verbally. Or he/she may need sometime think better. Few IQ tests give the test-taker the opportunity to express his/her intelligence orally (Sautman, 1995). They also tend to equate speed of thought with quality of thought, and therefore with intelligence.

    In Japan there is an annual public examination to enter public universities. The choice of universities the student can enrol with is determined by the examination mark. There are different requirements (i.e., examination marks) for different universities, and the candidates have to get the mark which the university requires.

    The characteristics of that annual public examination are; (1) there are a certain number of questions to answer in a particular length of time, and (2) all questions are multi-choice. The English examination, for instance, requires the candidates to fill in the blank of a particular English sentence with the most appropriate preposition, noun, verb, idiom, or article. The candidates are also asked to choose the most appropriate Japanese translation for a particular English sentence. There are always five or six possible translations which are very similar to each other. The candidates have to choose one.

    In the history examination, the candidates are likely to be asked to give the most appropriate year/date for a particular event of the history. So, the candidates do not often need to think deeply and critically to answer the questions (in fact, there is not enough time to do that). The important thing, in order to do well in the examination, is to keep answering as many questions as quickly and perfectly as possible.

    Here, the examination style is very similar to that of most IQ tests. Candidates are expected to have the right knowledge of particular topics, and to have a good technique to finish answering all questions in written form within a particular length of time.

    In order for Japanese school students to get high marks in their examinations they have been coached at Juku and other schools from a young age, taking a lot of tests which are very similar to IQ tests. I would say that students are already used to this type of test. Therefore, most students do not feel particularly uncomfortable about taking an IQ test. But, this does not mean that the people whose IQ scores are relatively high always get a high mark in the Japanese examination, or vice versa.

    The Japanese have improved their IQ scores as a result of their practice in taking tests at school and Juku, and this seems to be culturally based. Binet (1905, cited in Gould, 1981, p.155) has argued that "(IQ) scores are a practical device; they do not buttress any theory of intellect" (I put () into this quotation above).


    This paper has argued that Chinese culture, particularly Confucian ideology, has affected East-Asian school students' educational achievement. Confucius put heavy emphasis on the importance of knowledge/memorisation, competitiveness, and hierarchy of social/educational order. He also argued the importance of harmony. This has played an important role in encouraging people from Chinese culture (that is to say, Chinese, Japanese and those from the rest of East-Asia) to keep harmony. The sense of harmony in the Chinese cultural context encourages people to conform to each other, and this conformity-orientation may be the significant factor and that pushes people to strive for high educational goals. In the Asian education system, the goal is to pass the highly competitive entrance examination to the prestigious universities. Parents' and teachers' expectation and pressure also play their part in pushing children to achieve these educational goals, and the Confucian ideas of respect for parents and teachers reinforces this. From this background of hard work for long hours every day, Asian children go straight to the New Zealand schools and compete with other children from different cultural backgrounds. It is hardly surprising that highly motivated children (Asian children) achieve such high scores in School Certificate(b) and Bursary examinations(c) here in this country.


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    (a) Pakeha

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    " School Certificate (SC): is qualification normally attempted in Form 5 (the third year of secondary schooling) by pupils typically aged between 15 and 16 years. Students attempt from one to six subjects from a list of just over forty options. While there are exceptions, most subjects involved a three hour, normative external examination, the results of which are subject to hierarchical subject scaling in an attempt to ensure that ' bright' pupils are not penalized by their choice of subject. The exceptions include, for example, three pilot schemes in which mathematics is 'internally' assessed with grades being determined by reference tests sat early in the SC year. This generates a set of grades for students which can then be distributed by the school as it wishes" (Lauder and Wylie, 1990, ix).
    (c) University Bursary

    "Higher School Certificate (HSC): University Bursary and University Scholarships are Form 7 awards attained by the minority of the age cohort who reach the final year of secondary schooling to take this exam. HSC is awarded on the satisfactory completion of the Form 7 year, while B Bursary, A Bursary and Scholarships are awards made on the basis of competitive external exams" (Lauder and Wylie, 1990, x).


    1993 School Leavers

    Source: Education Statistics News-Sheet, Vol.4, No.6, July 1994, Data Management Unit, Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

    Table 1. Science achievement of 10- 14-year olds in 13 countries.

    10-year-olds 14-year olds
    Country Mean S.D. Mean S.D
    Australia - - 24.6 13.4
    Belgium(Fl) 17.9 7.3 21.2 9.2
    Belgium(Fr) 13.9 7.1 15.4 8.8
    England 15.7 8.5 21.3 14.1
    Finland 17.5 8.2 20.5 10.6
    Germany(FR) 14.9 7.4 23.7 11.5
    Hungary 16.7 8.0 29.1 12.7
    Italy 16.5 8.6 18.5 10.2
    Japan 21.7 7.7 31.2 14.8
    Netherlands 15.3 7.6 17.8 12.9
    New Zealand - - 24.2 12.9
    Scotland 14.0 8.4 21.4 14.2
    Sweden 18.3 7.3 21.7 11.7
    United States 17.7 9.3 21.6 11.6
    Mean 16.7 7.9 22.3 11.8
    Source: Camber, L.C. and Keeves, J. (1993) Science Achievements in Nineteen Countries, John Wiley, New York.

    Table 2. Means and standard deviations for 13-year-olds in mathematics

    13-year olds Standard




    Country Mean S.D Mean S.D.
    Australia 20.2 14.0 18.9 12.3
    Belgium 27.7 15.0 30.4 13.7
    England 19.3 17.0 23.8 18.5
    Finland - - - -
    France 18.3 12.4 21.0 13.2
    Germany - - 25.4 11.7
    Israel - - 32.3 14.7
    Japan 31.2 16.9 31.2 16.9
    Netherlands 23.9 15.9 21.4 12.1
    Scotland 19.1 14.6 22.3 15.7
    Sweden 15.7 10.8 15.3 10.8
    United States 16.2 13.3 17.8 13.3
    Total 19.8 14.9 23.0 15.0
    Source: Husen, T. (1967) International Study of Achievement in Mathematics:A Comparison of Twelve Countries, John Wiley, New York.

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