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Japanese universities in crisis - what they can learn from Europe

27 Comments

Are Japanese universities internationalized? My short answer is NO. What do we need to do to rectify this situation? Three things are essential. First, foreign languages are a means to advance and we should give incentives to students to learn foreign languages instead of forcing them to do so. Second, English must be a common working language. Third, foreign students and scholars should study and work together with Japanese students and scholars.

The University of Tokyo, the most prestigious university in Japan, has been trying to shift to a fall enrollment system from the current April enrollment system so that it will be easier for Japanese students/scholars to study/work abroad and for foreign students/scholars to come and study/work at Japanese universities. This is a wonderful idea, but it would require tremendous changes to Japanese society: changing school enrollments at all levels from kindergarten to high schools, altering the examination dates for public servants, physicians, lawyers, and many other professions.

Rather than trying to change the whole system, we can do many things within our own university to carry out internationalization in a more practical way. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University (Sweden) and the American Studies Section of the English and American Institute at Technical University Dortmund (Germany). Both organizations constitute excellent role models for Japanese universities that aspire to become more internationalized.

The director of the Center at Lund University, Professor Roger Greatrex, has organized the center in such a way as to foster internationalization. Professor Greatrex has made a bold decision NOT to employ the language requirement as most other departments and institutions where area studies are offered. At Lund, master-course students who study Chinese economics or Japanese politics do not have to learn the Chinese or Japanese languages. There may be pros and cons about eliminating the language requirement, but this certainly makes the center a unique entity. I have been teaching at the School of Foreign Studies at former Osaka University of Foreign Studies and currently Osaka University for over 20 years. This school currently offers 25 languages as majors. Because our students have to spend a substantial amount of time on acquiring language proficiency, they do not have enough time and energy to learn subject matter. They might read and speak Swedish without much knowledge of Swedish politics or history.

Often, students regard acquiring foreign language skills as their goal at university. They tend to forget that language is just a means to pursue something else. I would not advocate eliminating the entire language requirement, but students should not be forced to learn foreign languages. Instead, give them incentives to learn foreign languages for themselves. Learning about culture, society, politics, economics, history and other subjects with regard to specific countries or regions would provide students with excellent incentives to learn languages.

The American Studies Section of the English and American Institute at Technical University Dortmund led by Professor Walter Grünzweig, director of the Institute, provides a wonderful model for Japanese university departments that major in English-related subjects like the English Department of the School of Foreign Studies of Osaka University. I had the privilege of attending several undergraduate classes during my visit: Classes on Mark Twain, American movies, Puritanism, street arts, memories of the Holocaust, images of 2012 election, etc. Because classes in the American Studies Section are taught in English, the undergraduate students learn the subjects and many aspects of American studies in English. Classes consist of people of various nationalities such as Poles, Hungarians, British, and Americans as well as Germans.

Not only students but also faculty members are heterogeneous. The center consists of faculty members, researchers, and long-term and short-term visiting scholars with many different ethnic, cultural, and language backgrounds such as Austrian, American, Japanese and Turkish besides German. It offers such a cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was inevitable that English had to be a common working language in this community. I also had a chance of attending a staff meeting held once a week that was conducted again solely in English.

Thinking about the academic community back in the English Department of Osaka University, the only classes taught in English are those taught by native speakers of English to improve students’ English language skills. We have one British, one Irish, and one American colleague in our department. We have had very few long-term and short-term non-Japanese visiting scholars/researchers, say a couple of times, in the last 20 years or so. However, these native English-speaking faculty members and visitors are considered to be temporary outsiders, and they are not invited to our staff meetings. Consequently, I have never experienced a staff meeting conducted in English. We just take it for granted that classes and meetings are conducted in Japanese only.

Students in the English Department spend a tremendous amount of time learning how to use English, but once they come to seminars and lectures that deal with America studies, they suddenly encounter classes conducted solely in Japanese. Most, if not all, of the students in classrooms are Japanese. All of them, including Japanese instructors, speak Japanese; they look alike, and think alike. This is a closed, isolated, solitary community. We wrongly believe that we offer one of the best educations in Japan. We would say, “Don’t you know that the English Department is ranked first or second among foreign studies departments among Japanese universities?” Ah, we are a BIG fish in a little barrel. It is high time to look outside, think globally, and do something at home.

I am particularly impressed with the high-standard of the course contents at Dortmund. Students there do many reading assignments in English, they conduct group work in English, make logical and informative presentations in English, participate in heated class discussion in English, and American scholars teach not language skills but literature and cultural study in English. I felt like I was in a classroom in a major research university in the United States. Faculty members carry out extensive preparation to promote students’ interest in American studies for 90 minutes: employing group work, students’ presentations, showing movies and slides, etc.

In one class, students have to watch American vampire movies before the class session and conduct lively class discussions based on these movies. In another undergraduate class, several instructors besides the main instructor who was responsible for the class participated in the class and had a lively class discussion on street arts and graffiti in English. Have you ever seen a class like this in Japan?

Japanese universities are far behind the international standard in terms of internationalization. Can we change? Yes, we can …. I hope.

© Japan Today

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27 Comments
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I suppose that theoretically speaking, Japanese universities could change. But realistically speaking, they won't change in any significant way. The reasons are almost too numerous to name, but let's start with the biggest: Education systems reflect the wider society of which they are a part, and therefore, why should we expect Japanese universities to suddenly become international and progressive when the society at large is anything but? Ain't going to happen.

The professor talks about the open give-and-take of ideas that happens in Western universities. Well, that sort of conversation doesn't happen in Japan, where students are passive, intellectually deadened and simply tired by the time they arrive in Japan. Also, the hierarchical nature of society and the overarching tendency not to want to stick out or rock the boat is a huge damper on free conversation.

More importantly, the Japanese just don't have the language skills to operate in English. They place LAST in the world on the speaking section of the TOEFL IBT test. That's right: LAST. So how can we expect that overnight, or in a decade or two, they can suddenly get their language skills up to the point where they can hold useful discussions in English? As any professor of mixed Japanese and foreign students will tell you: When you institute a discussion or debate section of the class, the foreigners quickly outshine the Japanese students and the Japanese students either just clam up or drop the class.

And there's no way we can realistically expect foreign students to learn enough Japanese to study in Japanese. Just learning the written language is a minimum two-year commitment. Few students other than those who already have a script-based language background will attempt this.

But more generally, as anyone who has any experience with Japanese higher education will tell you: The quality of the teaching, the level of discussion (or lack thereof), and the intellectual curiosity of the students at Japanese universities is just horrendous. Why on earth would a smart student with a variety of choices choose to study in Japan? Especially when one considers the grim economic outlook of the country, the opaque and arbitrary immigration system of Japan, and the racist and xenophobic nature of the society? Why indeed, when they can choose from schools in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

12 ( +17 / -5 )

I like that tegakiSan is saying. I would have loved going to prestigious University based solely on a Letter of Recommendation + Entrance Exam. Then simply party for 4 years before getting my Uni Degree and be accepted for a job at a large prestigious company that doesn't care exactly what I studied, just that I was a student at that University, because they are going to train me from the bottom up anyways.

Would have made things a LOT easier...

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Japanese Uni's biggest problem is that they believe their own "sour grapes" based propaganda.

Why would they want to copy the west? They are obviously better than the west.

How do you explain that? Only a Japanese would truly understand.

Why doesn't the world give Japan more props? They simply can't understand Japan's unique greatness.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I find this whole letter pretty laughable given my experience of being involved a few years ago in setting up an exchange program between this exact school and probably the top ranked public university in the world. Myself and other professors from Osaka University went to the university, discussed with several deans how we wanted to set up a program, were warmly received and told they wanted their students to study in Japan. The only thing we needed to provide was English descriptions of the courses at Osaka U so they would know what courses they correspond to at the other school.

When I told this to the Japanese administrator in charge of instituting the program, he was disgusted. "We can't be bothered to provide this sort of information! Don't they know how how great our university is? If they don't want to send their students, that's their problem!" Needless to say, nothing came of this initiative.

I won't hold my breath waiting for Japan to get serious about internationalizing. In the meantime, I'm sure professors like Sugita will write meaningless letters like this and absolutely nothing will change.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

This is naive. Japan clearly does not want or value the attributes you ascribe to a good education - heterogeneity, openness, non-hierarchical, disagreement.

Japanese students who value these attributes, leave.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I think the article brings a lot of things to light about education in Japan and @Frank Rizzo hit the nail on the head about language ability and the lack of interest of wanting to study in Japan for the sole reason there is no discussion at any level (that is unless an ALT is running the class) on the material covered - in my experience.

The way students study needs to be addressed, and the system of rote test prep needs to be dissolved if there is to be any shift to truly "internationalizing" Japan.

As well, most people fail to realize that a lot of foreign universities offer seasonal enrollment. So, students can enter university at different parts of the year. Changing the entire Japanese system under the impression that fall enrollment alone makes it far better to internationalize is quite ignorant - which again leads to how little Japan knows about foreign institutions and their schedules.

Still, the point is Japanese Universities - albeit society - need to start somewhere. Is it with fall enrollment schedule? Maybe. Could it be with allowing a dual citizenship policy in Japan? That would probably speed up the internationalizing. Yet, Japanese have to ask themselves "Who do they want to internationalize with?" I'm pretty sure 9 out of 10 think of this idea as mixing with the US, Canada, or Europe. Through China and SE Asia in there and a lot of policy makers would shrill at the idea. Just an opinion.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

After coming to Sophia here in Japan, it has been made clear to me by the Japanese themselves, it doesnt matter what the bloody ell I do at Sophia, because I WeNt to Sophia and thats enough, apparently. Pfft. I was annoyed to see that the courses I wanted to study most that were in the English speaking department -Philosophy- was made into its own department with the goal of retaining English as the language of use -Great!? No, they all started using Japanese and so locked the philosophy courses away from non-Japanese speakers.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Ah, we are a BIG fish in a little barrel. It is high time to look outside, think globally, and do something at home.

Same could be said abut almost any aspect of Japan, not just universities. Japan leads the world in navel gazing and nothing will likley change that anytime soon.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I think that if there are great educators in Japan like Professor Sugita, people who do not accept the status quo and are prepared to think (and look) outside the box, then, yes, there is hope for Japan.

Japanese universities have gotten into a rut and need Professor Sugita and like-minded people to get them back on track...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Often, students regard acquiring foreign language skills as their goal at university.

Um, no. Indeed they do when they are majoring in language like the program the writer teaches in but certainly not for the other say, 90% of students. It is also interesting to point out that most of the students that enrol in this writer's school are returnees who already having language skills from living abroad. It is rare for the "average" Taro to get into Handai for languages because it is one of the top three language universities in Japan.

While I understand what he's trying to say, I don't think he's really aware of the language issues at most other schools. He's obviously competent in English (basing this on his writing), however, many Japanese profs are not and this is where the problem begins - and this problems needs to be addressed before any of the others can be.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I would like to add that the PE thing said above is nonsense, students are always sleeping in class regardless of time of day or whether they take PE classes. We have to once a week -Wed, other classes are on Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri and yet I see people sleeping in EvErY class.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Surely the main internationalisation problem for Japanese Universities, at least in the humanities area, is that they are not able to engage with the discourse of other institutions at the same level. Whether it is undergraduate students or universitiy professors attending conferences, time and again they are having to make excuses for themselves.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

And well said Carbon and Frank.

So many things need to be addressed that its hard to pick one place to start - though I'd go with the teaching staff and management myself!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Though there are several reasons internationalization or globalization fails to gain traction in Japan, some of which the writer mentioned--such as the currently academic calendar and language of instruction, another is the educational system overall--from K-12. Japanese kids have to study/cram like crazy from K-12 to get into a top university, that getting into the university is the goal (whether they are learning anything is a separate issue). In other words, this age-old tradition of partying, partaking in circle activities, having part-time jobs at jukus and tutoring, and not taking their classes seriously is the general concept still held by most non-sciences/engineering Japanese students (I often hear professors saying that many students don't even come to class, and even if they are in class, they sleep through the lectures or don't even study because graduation is pretty much guaranteed). This still happens at both national and private universities, and many professors and administrators overlook this because they believe it is only at a university that Japanese students can relax and play before working like a dog for Japan Inc. Unless the whole system from K-12 changes and the Ministry of Education reforms the admission requirements, globalization is still a distant mirage that will never gain a foothold among the Japanese students. One last point about the standardized tests for universities--some of the questions they ask are sooo ridiculous that is makes one wonder for what does a student need to know such information--in other words they cram sooo much info just for spitting them out on some silly test that measures very little of a student's real intellect/capability and has little relevance to the knowledge they would need in the greater society. Sooo much need to change for Japanese education to be relevant and effective.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Tegaki, thanks for the laugh.

Oh and you do know ine never refers to him or herself with San, right?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Being a student of the English and American Institute in Dortmund, I am really pleased to read that my university seems to have made a lasting impression. I always loved the fact that our classes are taught in English and that the staff members and students are form such a heterogeneous group (in terms of nationalities). Reading statements like "I felt like I was in a classroom in a major research university in the United States" makes me even more proud of being a student at my university then I have always been.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I meant "Throw" not "Through" ... headache ... ouch.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

First of all: Grade and hold students accountable for the material you're teaching... You need to do away with this Guaranteed Graduation... Grade All Exams, Don't give the answers out in advance before a test! If students Fail an exam, they fail the exam, it's not "Oh, well, please try hard Kenji!" and pass them anyway..

Do away with rote learning.... These kids need to learn critical thinking.

What you have now is a "Simulated Education" system. You're going through all the motions, but it doesn't mean anything, because it doesn't matter if the students passes the exams or not, they will graduate anyway...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I had my undergraduate degree from America and now a graduate student in a national university in Japan.I think many comments are misplaced.

During my undergrad in the States,there was much emphasis on critical thinking and the ability to understand ,explain and discuss various theories.Less emphasis was on attendance.

I am a Teaching Assistant for 3 undergraduate classes in my university,so let me share some light on it.First there is emphasis on understanding what is been taught. Secondly,you are required to attend classes and that alone qualifies you for a pass.Without attendance ,you can not pass the course no matter how well you pass the end of semester exams. Thirdly,you are required to submit a report or take an exam at the end of the semester depending on the choice of the Professor.

I should say there is no discussion in the class,though occasionally it happens, because the culture here is to learn by doing.So,they believe that what the teacher is saying is the best.So,I would say graduation is not a free ride here as many posters assume.

On the question of sleeping in class,there is a reason to that.Many of their Physical Education(PE) classes are held during the first and second period of classes.And PE classes are compulsory ,at least for most national unis.Thus,most students get exhausted.Students in PE clubs are required to attend training 5 times in a week.The Professors know that,so they don't disturb such students when they are sleeping.

At graduate school,Professors place much emphasis on research. They provide laptops,research grants and anything you need for your research.They don't care much about classes.Their goal is for you to achieve results from the research.So,your supervisor takes direct supervision on your work and requires results form you. Your course grades plays no role in your graduation.Your final thesis determines that.There are students whose graduation are even extended for 6 months- 2years ,if the department feels it is not enough.

Since,I have not been to a graduate school in other countries ,I cant say much.

However,I think universities in Japan is not bad at all.The research is excellent. The system is different and there is more other countries can learn from Japanese educational system.I think the support at graduate schools in Japan is better than most countries.

The educational system reflect the culture of the said country.None is bad.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I'm a uni teacher.

I recently met two western women who are studying Japanese here in Japan. One, 20, is at a university in Kyoto and quite satisfied with the language practice she receives, though not the content of the classes.

The other, 29, is at a university in Hyogo. She is truly appalled by the academic standards she has encountered. It's only the fact that she is getting a lot of Japanese practice, and making friends, that saves the day.

One interesting observation she had was that it's the students who DON'T speak up and participate or challenge the teacher who get the best grades. Again, she's a 29 year old mature student and a teacher herself.

One of my Japanese colleagues lived in the USA for ten years. I asked her if she missed anything about it. She said yes, the academic freedom and engaged students. She says students in Japan have declined dramatically in terms of being academically engaged in the last twenty years.

She teaches a course in japanese literature for a combined class of foreign and Japanese students. They read then discuss the texts, as you'd expect in that kind of seminar.

For the first three weeks the foreign students were very patient in painfully slow discussions with their Japanese classmates, but after the third week they started to have their own conversations.

Soon after, all the Japanese students dropped out.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Sorry, I meant: "By the time they arrive at university."

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Japanese Uni's biggest problem is that they believe their own "sour grapes" based propaganda. Why would they want to copy the west? They are obviously better than the west.

It's hard to tell if your post is all sarcasm or you really believe this stuff..?

To get a complete understanding of how systemic the J-University problem is:

A year or so ago, Todai or one of the A-rated Tokyo universities was giving away free IPhones... Why you ask..?

So they could track who was attending class...

That's unheard of in the western and European systems... Because you wouldn't dare miss a class and miss out on getting that information, because YOU NEED TO STUDY, If you don't pass the EXAM, YOU FAIL... It's NOT "Oh, Kenji, just try harder next time..."

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

even if they are in class, they sleep through the lectures or don't even study because graduation is pretty much guaranteed

Pretty Much...? Are you kidding...? The only possible thing standing in their way of graduating (once they've passed the entrance exam) is making sure their tuition is paid for (which the parents do anyway, there are no J-Kids putting themselves through school in Japan... PERIOD... Mommy and Daddy pay)

And the only other possible road block for graduation is them getting expelled (which literally is very very hard to do, unless they murder or gang-rape someone) Which has happened a few times (as far as we know, that makes the news...)

Oh, and another indicator is that roughly 50% of those J-University graduates, that attend graduate schools in western Countries Flunk Out before the first year... Why...? Because they're NOT used to studying... Especially Graduate school.. They think it's a FREE ride, party on, just like Japan... And it's NOT at all..

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The responses to this article make me think of one of my favourite sayings: 'There are two kinds of fool in the world; one says 'this is old and therefore good' (Japanese Universities are perfect the way they are) - the other says 'this is new and therefore better' (Japanese Universities need to copy the West wholesale)". Neither attitude is in any way helpful.

Sugita’s article is apt and to the point – and reflective of similar articles currently circulating about Universities in the West (at least those in my country, Australia). There is much that the West can learn from Japan, both educationally and socially; there is also much that Japan needs to learn from the West – the moribund nature of much of the commentary on this and other fora makes that abundantly clear.

As a graduate of a major Australian University (M. Ed) who now works as an academic, I can assure you that the same kind of debate is happening here right now, especially with regard to the learning of Asian languages and cultures.

Both educational communities can and should learn about those practices and philosophies that have proven most effective in their own as well as each other’s institutions and initiate those changes at the legislative, bureaucratic, institutional and immediate pedagogic levels that will result in the best outcomes for both their educational cultures and, most importantly, their students.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Everybody who comes to Jaopan to study deserves to have his head exmained... what were you thinking?

You should add, unless you are Japanese... It's a social club, not a place for higher-education nor to develop critical thinking skills, but a place to integrate into the Japanese Socialistic Hierarchy system, meet friends, meet your future spouse and get recruited into a company which only hires people, from a university... Skills, Education, Knowledge, it's irrelevant, that's not how they hire in Japan. Once you pass that entrance exam, you are in the club... And what club you're in, depends entirely on what University you were accepted into. Hence your lot in life, your place in Japanese society is determined by your entrance exam... Nothing you do after that exam, really matters (unless of course, you cook up a batch of sarin gas, then all bets are off...) If you scored high-enough to get into Todai, you will forever be an "Ivy League'r" and your pathway to financial and social success virtually guaranteed. It's a club. Not a place to learn. I should add, you learn about the Japanese social system.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Thank you, author!

"Are Japanese universities internationalized? My short answer is NO. "

Who would have thought taht? It is shocking and such a surprise. But, I am sure after the election when the new nationalists will be in power, this all will change...

I am so glad I can live in a country where the media will always taach me, so I can learn new things....

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

What benefit will Japanese students get from adopting western styles? Zero. I you think properly, you will find out that many of the Japanese processes learn in Japanese universities are far better than those of the west. The proper thing to do will be to help foreigners to learn Japanese and adopt Japanese standards in their countries. Including the school calendar, which is a marvelous idea, non-Japanese should learn the way of the Japanese. I agree, Japan should go global by encouraging other countries to do things the way Japan does that is.

-11 ( +0 / -11 )

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