What To Be When You Grow Up

Pilot. Hair dresser. Football player. Princess. After some time, you start to think about your future for real. What are the dream jobs? It’s funny that these differ from one country to another.

In Belgium people aim for the highest wage. Prestige is not so important as in Asia, but some jobs has a status that is somehow culturally stereotyped. For example, studying medicine guarantees a prosperous future. There’s no way doctors can be poor or unemployed. Especially specialists’ income is high. Of course they have to work hard for that. Studies alone take 6 years, after that you can have 2 years of training for GP or 4 to 7 years for specialisation. The ethical aspect of medicine is of course appealing too. Follow up is lawyer. If you’re blessed with an excellent memory and some eloquence, law studies shouldn’t be too hard on you.

“I heard your son is so smart. Then he’ll become a doctor or a lawyer, isn’t it?” Her son will probably get a job, but it’s a fact that he won’t be paid most anymore. On a ranking of 15 best paid professions, lawyers rank 13th and doctors aren’t even mentioned. Well-off are managers, engineers and scientists.

Not so very attractive is the job of a civil servant. Especially municipal or government officials have the image of boring, slow and lazy men, spending their time staring with glazed eyes at a mountain of documents piled up on their desk. Obviously, the civil servant has been made fun of in numerous jokes (What’s the busiest day for a civil servant? Monday, because he has to tear off three sheets of the almanac).

How big can the difference with Japan be? Only the best students get this prestigious job.

Top officials work every day from early in the morning to late till night, very often under high pressure. When students are asked what job they would like to do most, the answers are 1. civil servant, 2. post office clerk, 3. bank clerk. Although officials are held in the highest regard, their wage (approx. 6,328,000¥/year) doesn’t reach a comparable summit. Software designers for example, earn 23,000,000¥.

Why the high prestige? Probably it has something to do with the examination system. Imported during the Heian period (794-1185) from China, it still exists today. This bureaucracy structure selected the bright minds of the country (although this was only reserved for the elite) and gave them legislative power. Together with politics and business, bureaucrats form the so-called “iron triangle”, who, according to Chalmers Johnson, governs Japan. After retiring around the age of 53, they comfortably settle in a high-ranked business position. This phenomenon is called amakudari (天下り), ‘descending from heaven’.

And what’s about the doctors? A possible explanation could be that healing people required touching dead bodies and blood, what made, and still make to some degree, a strong taboo in Japan. Take the whole issue about the stigmatized burakumin for example. Although, it has to be said that traditional Japanese medicine was not about surgery or dissection like in the West. Japanese doctors treated patients external by prescribing herbs. This originally Chinese medical system is called kanpō igaku (漢方医学). By the time Western medicine arrived, doctors could resort on a respectable reputation. Therefore, they were never really expelled from society because of their “impurity”.

The same respect for civil servants counts in South Korea. Here’s not government official, but teacher a dream job. After high school, central examinations are taken, and the 0.8% best scoring pupils aim for becoming a primary school teacher. There’s an Confucian explanation for that: out of the 44 professions Confucius distinguished, teaching is on first place. In 2005, South Korean teachers earned 234% of the BBP, the highest salary in their profession worldwide. Barack Obama tried to raise respect for teachers by telling that “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders.”

South Korea is famous for its obsession with education. After school hours, kids stay till 10 o’clock to study or go to cram school (hakwon 학원). At least 80% of the graduated high schoolers goes to university. On the day of the university entrance exam, traffic is diverted around exam halls, and Seoul has a flight restriction to not disturb students in their concentration. Police cars even give those who are running late a ride.

We can trace this obsession back to the Koryŏ period (918–1392) when the examination system (kwagŏ 과거) was established in order to select the officialdom. There were three kind of exams: one for Chinese literature and poetry (chesul-ŏp), one for Chinese classics like Confucius (myŏnggyŏng-ŏp) and one for technical knowledge, like science (chap-ŏp). The last examination was traditionally regarded as for the lower standing. Therefore doctors were not be found among the aristocrats but among commoners. The prestige of literary ability exceeded by far those of the practical professions.

Doctors and lawyers in Belgium, public servants in Japan, teachers in Korea. Useless to say that Japanese Studies aren’t mentioned  anywhere. Although it’s doubtlessly the most interesting thing to do…

Facts for Fun

– in Belgium, doctors work at their own office (GP’s) or at the hospital. In Japan, all doctors work at the hospital. If Japanese people say: “I’m not feeling well, I think I’m going to the hospital,” it may sound ridiculously dramatic for Westerners: we only get hospitalized in case of emergency. On the other hand, straightly translating “Let’s go to the doctor” into Japanese is quite absurd too.


– Belgian wages, Japanese wages : research by university of Kyushu, Korean wages

– Johnson, Chalmers A. Japan: Who Governs?: The Rise of the Developmental State. New York: Norton, 1995.

Belgian minister of Education visits South Korea 

Korean obsession with education 


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