Education is key to the development of modern civilisation. A malfunctioning university system in any of the world’s leading economies is thus of grave concern not only for the country in question, but also for the global community at large.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings put the University of Tokyo, Japan’s highest-placed university, in th position. But of the five criteria evaluated by THE - teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook - Tokyo’s score for the final measure is disproportionately poor. This is symptomatic of deeper concerns.
Failure to couple itself with the dynamics of the globalised economy is the cause of Japan’s plight. As a “lost decade” of stagnant growth extends to a lost two decades, its academy seems to be experiencing similar stagnation. Whatever happened to Japan’s universities? A historical review would be useful here.
The Meiji Restoration of 1867 brought modernisation to Japan. The new government, keen to learn from and catch up with the West, established European-style universities. Tokyo was among the first and has been considered Japan’s most prestigious academic institution.
At first, lectures at Tokyo were delivered in English and other major European languages, then efforts were undertaken to update the native tongue so that they could be given in Japanese. Many new terms created in this process (including expressions corresponding to “science”, “society” and “economy”) enriched the language, making it possible to conduct teaching and research in Japanese, especially in the humanities.
Today, education and research are conducted mainly in Japanese at most major universities, particularly in the humanities. Even in the natural sciences, where papers are mostly published in English, Japanese is predominantly used in everyday discussions in classes and laboratories, posing a huge barrier for overseas students.
Modern Japanese universities started as machinery to import Western science, technology and culture. The fact that they were largely successful is evidenced by the nation’s rapid modernisation. When the rules of the game change, however, resources accumulated in the past become obstacles, not assets.
Because of its history, the Japanese education system has traditionally treated English through the filter of literal translation: for example, the University of Kyoto’s entrance examination consists almost entirely of English/Japanese translation problems. Because of this, the typical Japanese student is unable to express their opinion in English adeptly in spite of long hours of cramming dedicated to passing entrance exams.
As Japan’s education system is linguistically closed, its universities find it difficult to attract overseas students, especially at the undergraduate level. This could be the kiss of death for the university sector.
The closed nature of Japanese universities in linguistic terms could be the cause of the nation’s economic slump. In order to create high-tech devices in the web era, it is necessary to organically integrate knowledge from many fields. Graduates of Japanese universities are unable to tap into the potentially lucrative integration of today’s state-of-the-art disciplines because the linguistic divide between the natural sciences (English-oriented for papers) and the humanities (Japanese-oriented) makes it difficult to communicate beyond borders.
Such insularity must end. The remodelling of Japanese universities in accordance with the spirit of the globalised era would be good news not only for Japan but also the world.