The challenges to internationalizing Japanese higher education

The challenges to internationalizing Japanese higher education

The Government of Japan plans to globalize Japanese higher education. One of its flagship programs wraped up in 2014 is the Global 30 initiative to invite 300,000 foreign students to Japan, i.e double the current numbers. Global 30 stresses that there is no initial requirement to know Japanese since “the best universities in Japan are now offering degree programs in English. By doing this, these universities have broken down the language barrier which was one of the obstacles preventing international students from studying in Japan.1” The top global universities project which is the continuation of this effort will follow along the same lines.

The University of Tokyo, which sits at the apex of the higher education pyramid in Japan, has initiated an undergraduate department where English is the language of instruction.2 In these new faculties, which now exist in several universities, students can obtain their bachelor’s degrees fully or partially in English. Universities are to simultaneously train a new generation of globalized Japanese while to luring foreign students who lack the capacity to study in Japanese from the start. Ideally, some of these foreigners will remain in Japan, providing Japanese corporations with a more international managerial pool.

At the same time, the government and other organizations such as Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) are encouraging Japanese to study abroad.3 More schools promote studying abroad and taking regular classes rather than enrolling in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

The globalization of Japanese universities, sometimes also labeled internationalization, is thus the order of the day in the country. This globalization drive bears some similarities, but also differences, with the quest for modernity which characterized the early decades of the Meiji era (1868–1912), when the Japanese establishment concluded that for Japan to prosper as a sovereign polity, it would have to adapt the legal, administrative, and political institutions which underpinned western nations’ economic and military might.

Today, the situation is obviously less dire. Nevertheless, much of what used to be called “Japan Inc.,” namely the political, bureaucratic, and corporate elite, fears Japan is missing out on the educational aspect of globalization. Japan, the world’s third largest economy, accounts for only 4% of the world’s foreign students and is not even in the top 10 sending countries.4 Additionally, the number of Japanese studying overseas has declined. Foreign students in Japan are on the rise, but 80% come from two countries (PRC, with a more than 50% share by itself, and the Republic of Korea), with Southeast Asia accounting for a large proportion of the remaining 20%.Most observers note that the most ambitious and privileged Chinese prefer to attend schools other than in Japan.

This state of affairs preoccupies Japanese officials, educators, and corporate executives for several reasons. First, they fear that the next generation of Japanese will be too inward looking to help Japanese business expand overseas. Second, with a dwindling labor force and economic globalization, Japanese corporations will need foreign executives. These foreign hires will, however, perform much more effectively if they have studied in Japan and gained some familiarity with the country. Third, beyond purely economic factors, Japan risks being sidelined as the rest of the world globalizes intellectually and educationally.

The linguistic focus on English is not surprising. It is the official or dominant idiom of over 50 countries across all continents as well as many international and regional organizations and multinational corporations, including those not headquartered in Anglophone cities.

Taking the United States as the lodestar is also understandable. In recent years, we have seen the development of various league tables to rank universities, such as the Times Higher Education, QS Top Universities, the Academic Ranking of World Universities(or Shanghai Ranking), and more specialized ones such as the Financial Times MBA rankings and the CWTS Leiden ones for the sciences. Though many experts disagree on the value of these metrics, US institutions dominate the rankings.

Nevertheless, looking to the United States as model also raises challenges. It is a decentralized society where private initiatives are key drivers in higher education, whereas Japan is centralized and state-centered. Private universities are numerous but under the guiding hand of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Private philanthropy underpins US private universities, whereas it is less developed in Japan and subject to more government intervention. Massive immigration of faculty and students is the norm in the United States, along with the use of English, the closest language the world has to a lingua franca. This stands in contrast to the small proportion of foreigners in Japan and its linguistic isolation.5

Americanizing Japanese higher education would succeed if Japan itself were Americanized, but this would entail reshaping the country. Since this is clearly not the goal of the government, grafting a made-in-USA pattern onto Japanese academia will be particularly difficult.

Offering classes in English has a logic if most university-bound high school graduates are already fluent in the language. It facilitates integrating foreign faculty and students while broadening the reading lists of students. In Japan, however, few teenagers enter university with even a junior high school level in English. Many will thus fail to benefit from courses where they can neither follow the discussion nor do the readings.

One solution, albeit a very expensive one, would be to provide Japanese students with 1or 2 years of full-time English as a Second Language (ESL) tuition before college. Improving Japanese primary and secondary school English instruction could work in the long term. Unfortunately, for the next decade at least, it is unrealistic to expect that Japanese high schools can produce meaningful numbers of Anglophone graduates.

Moreover, the language of instruction itself does not define a class, its contents do. Many Japanese undergraduate classes in the social sciences and humanities meet much less frequently and intensively than in US colleges. One of the reasons is that many Japanese students take more classes per semester than their US counterparts, therebydiluting the content of eachcourse. Some schools may gradually alter their curriculum, but this is an arduous long-term task.

Additionally, the purpose of Japanese elite colleges in the social sciences and humanities is very different.Japanese high school students toil hard to gain entrance to university buttheir academic workload decreases significantly once they matriculate. In the hard sciences, where standards are by definition more uniform across national borders and linguistic obstacles lower, there is some room for globalization in Japan.

Japanese college students must devote much more time and energy to jobhunting in their last yearsdue to the time-consuming process of finding a position in Japan. Once they enter the workforce, they arealsorelatively less likely to return to university for further schooling.

In US competitive colleges, some studentswill go straight to graduate or professional schools, which will judge them mostly on their undergraduate record. Many graduates will alsoreturn to university later to obtain advanced degrees where their college transcripts will matter. Long reading lists, the constant writing of research term papers, and interactive class discussions are the hallmark of education in good US colleges. Replicating this type of education would be extremely hard in Japan, especially when most faculty in Japanese English-language programs lack familiarity with US undergraduate education.

Despite major differences, Japanese universities are as effective as US ones. Japanese civil servants and corporate managers are as qualified, but Japan fails at training young Japanese for success abroad. This is a legitimate cause for concern, though to address it requires creating a relatively small infrastructure. A globalization program would work best if it were outside of the orbit of MEXT and of Japanese universities themselves. It could be managed autonomously by Japanese who have extensive and successful educational management and teaching experience overseas and foreigners who have ties to Japan.

For smaller and very open economies, such as Singapore, the vast majority of the educated labor force must be able to interact with foreigners of diverse backgrounds. Japan, however, has a large domestic market and is a relatively closed economy, partly due to its size. Many positions requiring a university education in Japan do not involve international interaction.

Therefore, Japan’s educational globalization drive might be more successful if it started from the premise that the current system works well but that, at the same time, the globalization programs for a select number of students should be run separately from the current educational institutions in academia and government.

1 See Global 30 website.
2 The program is known by its acronym PEAK (Programs in English at Komaba). See website.
3 See Keidanren scholarships for Japanese wishing to study overseas.
4 See
5 Japanese, with over 125 million native speakers is a major world language. Its geographic scope, however, is limited to one country, with no other nation using it as its official language and few foreigners with even an imperfect knowledge of Japanese.(2013 GDP data from, accessed 25 Nov 2014).

Photo: “Tokyo uni1 hibaby“. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Dujarric

About the Author

Robert Dujarric is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan.

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One Response to The challenges to internationalizing Japanese higher education

  1. January 14, 2015 at 05:05 #

    The current higher education system does, indeed, work well, as long as Japan does not deem it necessary to globalize overall. The author seems to be relying on the good old Japanese principle of jikyū jisoku (self-sufficiency), but I don’t think that anyone in Japan today is still convinced that that would work in a major global crisis situation.

    No, on the contrary, I dare argue, there is not enough kikikan (sense of crisis/urgency) in Japanese higher education today, and the government is in fact right to push for massive imports of foreign students (not unlike a lot of other universities in Europe and the United States–the challenge of attracting more international students has been widely and publicly debated in the United Kingdom in 2013, and even major Ivy League schools in the United States are re-organizing their global engagement and global recruitment efforts). Not only the indigenous college student population is bound to dwindle down even further with the continuous negative population growth that the Japanese society has been struggling with for the past 2 decades, but having that population looking more and more inward than outward cannot possible bode well for Japanese companies trying to stay ahead in an increasingly fierce global competition.

    Of course, the problems with the rapid globalization of Japan’s higher education are, as the author points out, not easy to overcome. They do arise, however, not from Japan’s centralized system but, paradoxically, from the less visible ruptures within, such as those between decision-making factors inside the universities themselves. While offices have been set in place in most of the universities designated as Super-Global by the Abe government at the beginning of 2014, they face a fierce opposition in their efforts to bring foreign students from the departments and faculty members. That is what I find to be the most important difference between the situation of the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century and what we experience today: the spirit of common effort for the better good is all but gone in Japan. Combined with the crippling requirement for rather unreasonable levels of Japanese language levels expected from the foreign applicants (English-only undergraduate programs, as the author pointed out, are rather scarce and definitely academically not-aligned with counterparts from abroad), it is no wonder that most Super-Global universities cannot recruit more than 12-15 international applicants per year… But, that is another, longer discussion.