Learning Curve: With a Push, Japan’s Universities Go Global

To stay competitive, more schools are welcoming international students and teachers, promoting bilingual programs of study and encouraging young Japanese to study abroad

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

University students take part in a job expo in Tokyo on Jan. 8, 2011

*Updated: An earlier version of this post said that The University of Tokyo does not offer undergraduate international exchange programs, when, in fact, it does. It also referred to the school as Tokyo University. The correct name is The University of Tokyo. Time regrets the errors. 

For Mai Hoai Giang, a student from Vietnam, securing a job in Japan after graduation couldn’t have been easier. No less than 300 corporate recruiters flocked to her school, the Asia Pacific University (APU), which prides itself on bilingual programs. Giang, who is fluent in Japanese, English and Vietnamese, was snapped up by Fast Retailing Co. and is now working as a Uniqlo shop assistant manager in Tokyo. Eventually, she hopes to be transferred to her home country, where the retailer is expanding. “I’ve always wanted to be in an international environment,” she says.

Japan could use a lot more people like Giang. Faced with anemic economic growth, an aging workforce and a shrinking population, the world’s most indebted country is realizing that to grow, it must go global. Leading this push are the country’s universities that are, with government support, embracing a more cosmopolitan approach by welcoming international students and teachers, promoting bilingual programs of study and encouraging young Japanese to study abroad. “We need a change in mindset” says Kuniaki Sato, deputy director of the higher-education bureau at the Ministry of Education. “The world is globalizing whether they like it or not.”

The change has been slow in coming — and there’s a long way to go. Despite billions of yen in scholarships for international students and exchange programs since the 1950s, from 2009 to 2011, only about 4% of students at Japan’s 750 to 760 private and national universities came from other countries, according to the Japan Student Services Organization. Among Japan’s university faculty, only 5% were foreign, and most were teaching English. The Education Ministry says that since 2000, there has been a 50% drop in Japanese university students studying abroad.

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Though some Japan watchers instinctively blame the country’s youth, the inward-looking stance is in many ways a systemic, institutional problem. Japan starts its academic year in April, rather than September, which complicates academic-credit reciprocity and the timing of student exchanges.  Students may also be wary of spending a semester or year abroad because they could miss out on corporate recruitment. Japanese students typically spend most of their junior year job hunting in a long-entrenched system called shukatsu. They worry that they’ll be overlooked, or be considered too different, if they skip it. Meanwhile, high school language classes typically do not prepare students to study abroad in a foreign tongue.

To compete in a global environment, Japanese universities must change. The stinging reality is that the country’s colleges don’t rank well internationally. Japan’s most prestigious school, The University of Tokyo, ranked just 30th in the 2011–12 Times Higher Education Ranking. Second best is Kyoto University, which ranked as 52nd, and third is Japan’s top science-and-technology university, Tokyo Institute of Technology, at 108th. “The most important challenge for Japanese universities is guaranteeing we meet academic world standards, particularly in comparison with the United States,” says Yoshinao Mishima, Tokyo Institute of Technology’s newly appointed president. Mishima has been behind the university’s new initiative to collaborate with top schools in Europe and the U.S. “Along with sending out students for international exchange, we also need to send out faculty for training in the U.S. Hiring more international faculty is another way.”

More are trying. Doshisha University in Kyoto is one of the few Japanese universities that have full-time, tenured foreign faculty. American professor Gregory Poole was hired away from a Japanese national university to teach at Doshisha’s new Institute for the Liberal Arts, which launched in April 2011. Courses are taught in English with about 50 foreign students accepted per year. Japanese students in other departments can also participate. “We’ve been sort of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” says Poole of the endeavor. “But we’re making it work.”

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The University of Tokyo, also known as Todai, will launch two English-only undergraduate programs this October, with 38 students from 14 countries participating. Japanese students can join the classes during their junior and senior years. The venerable institution has been slow to join the go-global shift at the undergraduate level. “The concept of undergraduate recruiting is new to Todai. Admissions have been sacred territory,” explains program director Tadashi Uchino. While 18% of graduate students are from overseas, only 5% of undergrads are foreign.

Funding for programs at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Doshisha and Todai comes largely from the Ministry of Education. The Global 30 initiative, launched in 2008, kick-started the international push. The goal was to bring in 300,000 undergraduate foreign students to 30 universities by 2020. Severe budget cuts, though, whittled down funding to 13 elite universities until 2013. For Todai, Doshisha and the 11 other institutions, it may be hard to fund the programs they’ve just managed to start.

Indeed, it seems government priorities have now shifted. The new Global 30 Plus program from 2012 to ’17 and the 2011 Reinventing Japan project are aimed at sending Japanese undergrads abroad via university collaborations, rather than bringing foreign students in. “The ultimate goal is tied in with improving Japan’s economy,” says Tomohiro Yamano, deputy director general of the higher-education bureau at the Ministry of Education. “More specifically, for Japanese graduates to work for Japanese companies that will do business around the world and become more successful.”

But success often has a price. It remains to be seen if the next batch of worldly, foreign-educated graduates will choose to build their lives, or their businesses, at home. Keisuke Kido, a 2007 APU graduate, set up a property-management company in Malaysia that helps Japanese people invest in a special economic zone near Singapore. “My dream is to go back to Japan and set up my business there,” he says. “But the political system in Japan is not good right now, and the yen is so strong. Business is booming. Looks like I’ll stay here for now.”

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