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A digital pivot

at Japan’s universities:

‘A lot of us expected

to have our worst semesters online’

Faculty ingenuity is the cornerstone to having a successful online term

The arrival of autumn in Tokyo’s Hongo neighborhood promises the yellowed leaves of ginkgo trees and an abundance of students. As if reawakening from slumber, the resumption of classes at the University of Tokyo breathes new life into its main campus. Students and faculty return en masse, collectively forming a vibrant intellectual community. And yet, this year, the promise of autumn for universities is uncertain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed the start of a conventional fall term, as the risks of transmission involved with campus life, from large lecture courses to nomikai (drinking parties), have led schools across Japan to hold classes partially or entirely online and curtail campus access. Even as life for many in Tokyo remains (mostly) normal, universities stand as an exception.

No matter the schema or contours of academic life enacted by each university, faculty or department, the professors — the drivers of university education — are tirelessly at work behind the scenes. Many must work harder to maintain the same caliber of education, transforming into video creators, tech gurus and pandemic-era mentors — all while providing compassion and care to their students. Their challenges are manifold, as the already difficult task of holding classes, whether in-person, online or hybrid, is compounded by international students stranded abroad.

“Our guiding principle, even during this situation, is to try to make it possible for students to continue learning, wherever they are,” says Shion Kono, an associate literature professor at Sophia University. At Sophia, as in the spring, the majority of classes this fall will be held online; Kono and some of his colleagues have already developed a toolkit for web-based learning.

This is not to say that the transition to online learning has not worn on faculty, and the absence of face-to-face interactions and in-person classes has altered the university experience for students and professors, alike. The emergence of “Zoom fatigue,” or the drowsiness and general malaise that emerge after long hours of screen-based classes, has added another layer of difficulty to a university education without campus life.

Professor Yujin Yaguchi, of the University of Tokyo, which is planning to continue primarily online learning this fall, says that “to form a community you need some physical interaction,” noting that the success of online learning has, in part, hinged on a foundation of an established rapport of face-to-face contact. As chair of the junior division of the university’s Programs in English at Komaba (PEAK), Yaguchi cites particular concern for the integration of the program’s first-year students, many of whom are international students, into the university community. Unlike most other first-year students at the university, those in PEAK programs begin their higher-education careers in the fall, rather than the typical April start.

Nevertheless, Yaguchi, as well as other professors, have lauded facets of online education. Zoom, he says, is a medium that “(defies) the challenge of physical location and makes it possible to have more diverse students.” For instance, Hiroshi Ohta, a professor at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies, taught a student based in South Korea in the spring, something that would not have been possible without the shift to online coursework.

“Quality education can be delivered online,” explains Matthew Strecher, a professor of modern Japanese literature at Sophia University who says he thrives off the energy of in-person teaching. “A lot of us doubted it and expected to have our worst semesters online. I had a great semester. We all came out of this with a new skill set.”

The success of this fall will hinge, in part, on the ingenuity of professors to find creative means of circumventing the limitations of online education. This past spring, Waseda University’s Christopher Pokarier took to the creation of YouTube videos, filmed around Tokyo, for his Intro to Business and Designing Corporate Communications classes. In one clip, Pokarier stands at the gate to Akasaka Palace in Tokyo and emerges from a guard tower, before launching into a lecture on guarding assets.

In a public blog post, Pokarier musingly wrote of “the sheer improbability” of the professorial transformation into “effective digital content creators over a full semester,” something that may continue long after the pandemic abates. Waseda will remain “predominantly virtual” in the fall, and Pokarier expects virtual office hours, recorded lectures and Zoom classes will be the norm.

Some schools, however, plan to cautiously reopen, with classes offered in a hybrid — both online and in-person — model. Matthew Fukushima, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Toyo University, notes that he, like other teaching assistants, was offered the option to work in-person or remotely in the upcoming term. While he has opted for remote work, Fukushima says the university has stipulated precautions — such as limiting the size of in-person classes to a maximum of 99 students and regulating the days each faculty can hold classes on campus — for those who do attend in-person coursework. Students must also scan a QR code at their seat or record their seat number in each class.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is returning voluntarily. A professor at a small university just outside of Tokyo, who asked to remain anonymous, explains how faculty have been pressured to return to weekly in-person classes, their own qualms and concerns notwithstanding, saying it’s “a move to get students back into school.”

Unlike in the United States, where many of the trials and tribulations of resuming in-person university education, emanate in large part from residential campus life, including dormitories on or near campus, the difficulties are somewhat divergent in Japan. As the anonymous professor notes, faculty and administration must commute to campus, knowing that students themselves “have all come straight off the train” or from part-time jobs across the city.

And yet, the nonresidential nature of Japanese university education has allowed for a more seamless adoption of pandemic-era learning. University life has not yet returned in full, but the community has remained both active and thriving, though largely online — a feat that would not have been possible even a few years ago.