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Without internationalization, Japanese higher education is sinking

Increased study abroad would help shake up classroom environment

Nancy Snow is distinguished visiting professor of strategic communications at Schwarzman College of Tsinghua University and was previously Pax Mundi professor of global public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.


The University of Tokyo "seeks to reimagine the university as an institution that serves the global public by nurturing diverse and talented individuals who can provide creative solutions to world problems," wrote Teruo Fujii, its president, in a recent article for U.K. magazine Times Higher Education.

Fujii, who holds a doctorate in engineering from the school and is a professor of engineering and applied microfluidic systems, unsurprisingly made no reference to Times Higher Education's closely followed World University Rankings.

The magazine's latest annual scorings, released last month, included only two Japanese universities in the global top 200, Fujii's school at No. 30 and Kyoto University at No. 68, and both were down several places from the previous year's ranking.

Meanwhile, mainland China had 11 representatives in the top 200, led by Tsinghua University at No. 16 and Peking University at No. 17, while Hong Kong alone had another five schools in the top 200.

Fujii, who took on his university's presidency last year, has a vision for the school, billed as, "Into a sea of diversity: creating the future through dialogue." This includes a plan to attract more international students and offer more courses taught in English.

I wish I could have faith that an initiative like Fujii's could make a difference in internationalizing higher education in Japan, but it may be little more than sizzle.

I served as a Fulbright professor at Sophia University, an Abe Fellow at Keio University and taught at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies for six years. When I reflect upon Japan's leading qualities, diversity and dialogue are not at the forefront of my mind.

Rather, my experience was one of confrontation with the constraints created by a uniformity of thinking and of top-down monologue. After a two-decade career teaching graduate and undergraduate students in the U.S., establishing classroom dialogue in Japan was a bit like pulling teeth.

Japanese students without experience studying abroad were not used to the back-and-forth of my global classroom. In secondary school, they are used to listening to an all-knowing teacher whom one does not question.

When I probed them on their lack of engagement, they said that they had no practice in offering opinions on global matters. Opinion, much like English conversation practice, is not measured in standardized tests.

Japanese youth are better prepared to abide by rote memorization in education and on-the-job training. As a result, they rarely express individual thoughts or opinions and are wary of being judged for expressing different views, but Japan badly needs new ideas.

Once, when I asked my students to prepare comments and questions for a guest speaker from the U.S. embassy, a young man I called upon said in perfect English, "I have no question for the speaker."

Fujii could amplify diversity and dialogue at the University of Tokyo by making study abroad mandatory for at least 10% of local undergraduates. These days, only 4% of Japanese study abroad, as the COVID pandemic accelerated a long decline in overseas university studies.

More participation in study abroad programs alone would change the learning environment in the classroom and would be worth the cost to the university in order to create the next generation of global education ambassadors. That would provide a two-fold service to the global public and Japan's national security, which is increasingly impacted by global problems.

Some University of Tokyo students are going abroad, but on far too small a scale. The university has a global internship program sponsored by air-conditioning manufacturer Daikin Industries, which places students from various departments into company offices and factories overseas on short stints to give them international experience and help develop practical business skills.

For Daikin, this investment is undoubtedly a win-win in terms of potential future employees, but how international is the experience?

Short stays cannot have the impact of a semester or a full year abroad. On a longer stay, students will undoubtedly experience discomfort when not only their language skills but also their thoughts are on display.

Such discomfort does not last and in fact these experiences will make these young adults more productive contributors to society as they learn to adapt to uncertain situations where they have to problem-solve.

By all rights, the University of Tokyo should take the lead in increasing enrollment in international programs in arts, humanities and communications, as well as business. When we think about nations that are natural global interlocutors in business and politics, Japan is not atop that list.

Fujii has expressed the wish that international students who come to Japan learn some Japanese. This is fine, though it begs the obvious question: when will Japan's higher education institutions embrace global English as the primary language of commerce, entrepreneurialism, scholarship and publications?

University of Tokyo President Teruo Fujii gives an address during a welcoming ceremony on April 12: He once expressed the wish that international students who come to Japan learn some Japanese. (Photo by Suzu Takahashi)

In my experience teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing for the last decade and a half, I have found more enthusiasm for English than I observed with any Japanese student I taught.

English is a key tool for a globally minded citizen as well as for scholarship, research publications and interactions with international students. Keenness for the language has helped China's institutions of higher education continue to rise in global rankings while Japan's slide.

No Chinese student I have ever met at Tsinghua has expressed concerned that too much English learning would diminish his or her Chinese identity or Chinese language ability. But in Japan, I heard the worry many times that a close embrace of living abroad would dilute one's Japaneseness.

Can openness be instilled in the next generation of Japanese students? Not without an investment that far exceeds platitudes of diversity and dialogue.