What Happens To Japanese Students Who Don't Make It To The Top?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jose asked:

We know the pressure to get into a top school (and get a top job) is a recurrent theme in anime and in Japanese culture in general. But I was wondering: what happens to the Japanese people that *don't* make the top cut? I would think that the top cut people are a minority (maybe I'm wrong), yet in discussions about Japanese culture, we only hear about the typical life of top-cut salarymen or office ladies. What happens to the rest of Japan? Are those the people that go on to work on anime? What about the life outside business? Do Japanese scholars and people working in academia suffer the same infamous amount of stress as salarymen? Is there an industry in Japan that isn't so stress-filled?

Japanese people that don't make the top schools and get into the top jobs are lined up in front of a firing squad and executed at age 23.

Obviously I'm kidding. Those schools and jobs are the "top" schools and jobs because there aren't that many of them, so getting into those slots is very competitive. And just like the American Ivy League colleges and top private high schools, the vast majority of people not only won't get in, but simply won't be in a place where it's even worth applying to them. The extreme societal pressure to aim for those places is borne partly out of the hierarchical nature of Asian society in general, but it's also a relic of the 1980s Japanese bubble economy, where getting into a good company would guarantee you employment for life.

Those days are long over. But in the absence of a sure thing, some people have taken that as a cue to become even more obsessively competitive in their academic and career pursuits. Others have lost hope that there is a place for them, and have become dropouts like NEETs and hikikomori. But the truth is, most people simply do something other than work at the top company until they retire/die. Some work retail. Others work in anime. Or at a bank. Or in government. Or become manga artists. Japan, like every other society out there, is a vast economy of people, nearly all of them located somewhere in the middle. And frankly, those middle slots seem like where most of the action is. I don't know about you, but watching movies and TV shows about the 1% sounds pretty dull to me. But then again, look at the top reality TV shows...

The "top," however fallacious the idea may be, is still something that many people aspire to reach. The fact that the vast majority of people will never get there (and those that have might not even realize that they're there) means that a fictionalized "top school in Japan" basically represents a cultural Valhalla. A writer or manga artist would have entirely free reign to create anything out of such a place, from something depressingly mundane to something crazy and surreal. And often, they do.

But plenty of anime and manga and light novels take place "in the middle." Easily half, if I were to take a shot in the dark. Most romantic anime -- shoujo and shonen -- take place in a "normal" school, and it's never implied that the students are all that special in any way. Plenty of anime take place at the bottom of society's scrap heap, be it in high school (like in GTO or Gokusen) or in the working world (Patlabor or Planetes). Even perennial favorites like Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, and even Naruto could be said to be about normal or borderline-failing people in society, at least those who start out that way.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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