Anchored with his four, heavily armed black ships in Tokyo Bay in July 1853, US commodore Matthew C. Perry sent ashore a message. No longer could Japan shun foreign contact and shut its borders to international trade, it said.
Outgunned by a fleet of boats equipped with superior Western technology, a treaty was negotiated with the Japanese state, ending 200 years of isolation and paving the way for the rapid modernisation that would turn the country into a global economic superpower.
Now, more than 150 years later, many people sense another “black ship moment”. Japan, they argue, must once again adapt to a new wave of international forces if it is to survive as a society.
So what has precipitated such national soul-searching? Domestic growth is sluggish, graduate jobs are harder to come by and big Japanese multinationals are hiring more and more foreign graduates - rather than home-grown students - to lead their export efforts across the world.
Meanwhile, neighbouring China and South Korea have achieved stunning export-driven growth, while US upstarts such as Google, Facebook and Apple are cornering the technology markets once ruled by Japanese electronic giants such as Sony, Nintendo and Fujitsu in the 1980s.
Business, government and educators are asking what has gone wrong. Many have concluded that Japan’s workforce is ill-equipped to operate in the international arena and that firms are too focused on their own ailing markets to see opportunities abroad.
As with many societal problems, some of the blame has fallen at the door of Japan’s universities. Critics ask if the country’s higher education system is doing enough to encourage innovation and how Japan will regain strength in exports if graduates do not have the language skills to communicate with buyers across continents.
“Japan has suffered from two lost decades and it will sink further unless it changes,” claims Toru Takenaka, professor of history at Osaka University and a member of its international affairs board.
“The only way to make this turnaround possible is through our young people. It is high time that we looked at our university system and made changes.”
And changes are afoot. The Japanese government has committed almost Yen50 billion (£398 million) to internationalisation, including Yen3.2 billion to its Global 30 project, which will encourage internationalisation at 13 top universities.
The cash will fund scholarships for students heading abroad, fee waivers for international students who choose to study in Japan, and the hiring of more international staff who will teach in English.
But radical, structural changes will be required to encourage more Japanese students to study overseas.
Japanese Ministry of Education figures show that only 66,833 students went abroad in 2008-09 - down from 82,945 in 2004-05 - with just 4,505 heading to the UK from an overall student population of 3.5 million.
The main reason for such low mobility rates is simple: counter-intuitively, Japanese students believe that studying abroad is likely to adversely affect their careers.
Students who can afford the high tuition fees levied in the US or the UK generally spend the third year of their four-year undergraduate programme abroad, which is the time that major Japanese companies traditionally interview students for graduate jobs.
With Japan’s academic year starting in April, any students doing a year at a US or European university will also miss the start of their final year, which is another key hiring time, explains Etsuko Katsu, vice-president (international) at Meiji University, a leading private university in central Tokyo.
“Job hunting is very hard for those students going abroad,” says Katsu.
Even for those who stay put, “it takes more than four or five months in the third year to find a job. Students are skipping lectures because they are out looking for a job. Our students are not studying much in this period compared with other students - it is all about interviews.
“If they fail at this point, it will be very hard to catch up. That first company is very important for your CV.”
To solve the problem of the mismatch between foreign academic calendars and Japanese “milk round” recruitment, the University of Tokyo (known locally as Todai) has proposed a startling change: shifting the start of its academic year from April to September to align with the Western education calendar.
The plan, leaked to the press in July last year, shocked some in the Japanese academy, which is often portrayed as deeply conservative, tradition-bound and resistant to change.
“We always want to be a global player. That is why we are looking to change our curriculum because we want to compete on the global stage,” says Masako Egawa, executive vice-president of the University of Tokyo.
“We had the courage to start this initiative because we sense an urgency [to change]. We are now starting conversations with other universities…It’s an uncomfortable position, but we cannot be living in a cosy, entrenched world.”
However, some fear that shifting the academic calendar so radically could cause problems. What will millions of Japanese teenagers do during the six-month break between the end of their examinations in February and March and university enrolment in September?
Some say it is an opportunity to travel, learn English or volunteer for good causes, others fear that teenagers could be led astray. But if the example of Japan’s young football fans is any indication, then they have little to worry about.
At a match between Oita Trinita and Kyoto Sanga at Kyoto’s Nishikyogoku Stadium, fans leap around excitedly on the terraces for 90 minutes, shouting non-stop for their team. Afterwards, supporters of Kyoto Sanga stay behind to bow respectfully to their defeated team, before volunteering to pick up litter, leaving the stadium spotless.
How are Tokyo’s plans viewed by other universities? Naoyuki Agawa, vice-president (international collaboration and education) at Keio University, one of Tokyo’s most prestigious private universities, is cautious.
“It is a thought-provoking and challenging idea, but we need to talk about its merits and difficulties.”
He concedes: “It will certainly have advantages to make us more international in a globally competitive world. We have been a very self-sustaining country - now Japan has to become more global-looking.”
The 19th-century founders of Japanese universities certainly shared a spirit of adventure and a global outlook. After Commodore Perry’s intervention, several restless young men left the shores of Japan, visiting US universities and returning home with a wealth of new intellectual ideas.
A number of these pioneers set up their own universities, including Keio’s influential founder Yukichi Fukuzawa. That is no doubt why its central Tokyo campus bears a strong resemblance to a traditional Ivy League campus, complete with leafy quads, towering cedar trees and pink-brick, neo-classical buildings. Add Keio’s own set of elite private schools, whose smartly dressed students bustle through the nearby streets, and the campus has a distinctly “preppy” feel.
“This was Japan’s first example of a private university at a stage when we were learning from the West,” explains Agawa, who still lectures in Japanese constitutional history.
“Fukuzawa was a Newman-type figure, who questioned how society and universities should function. At the time, Japan was closed, but he said we have to apply what we have learned abroad to Japan.”
Two hours away on the 190mph bullet train in Japan’s second main regional centre - comprising Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe - there is a far frostier reaction to the plans being hatched in the capital.
This is most apparent at Tokyo’s great rival Kyoto University, which prides itself on its autonomy and commitment to academic freedom - values that have helped its alumni and researchers to win seven Nobel prizes and two Fields medals.
“We have not said yes or no, but these plans are just part of reforms to our system,” says Junichi Mori, vice-president for international relations at Kyoto.
“Our president is very careful about [the proposal]…It will be very difficult to manage this gap year and most families do not have finances to arrange things for their children in this time.
“But the decision to shift the entrance date is not so important for us. Most graduate schools [in Japan] are already doing enrolment in both September and April.”
Mori believes that the supposed malaise in Japanese universities has deep roots, including an overly traditional method of teaching in high schools. University entrance exams, which have encouraged a boom industry in cramming colleges, are also “biased” against those students unable to afford the revision courses, he adds.
He suggests that government investment might be targeted more effectively at partnerships with Western universities, such as Kyoto’s alliance with the University of Bristol, or Kyoto’s five-year postdoctoral research fellowships for international scholars.
More than 600 young academics applied for the 20 positions, which allow researchers to do their work anywhere in the world.
“A university outside the capital should have specific meaning - something that characterises its mission,” says Mori, whose comments on academic freedom sound far removed from the UK’s current focus on the economic and social benefits of research: “For us, researchers must have freedom to pursue their own topics - it means we do not care about how much we are ‘contributing to society’.”
Kyoto’s desire to search out the best global talent - and willingness to pay handsomely for it - follows arguments that Japan needs to learn from abroad if it is to remain a world leader in science.
This message was perhaps most vividly brought home in the terrible hours following the Fukushima nuclear crisis of March 2011.
When French robots were needed to assist in the investigation and repair of the nuclear reactor, Japan realised that it was no longer leading the field of robotics that it had largely invented.
Some senior academics fear that some of the government’s internationalisation targets, which include doubling international student numbers on Japanese campuses by 2020, are unrealistic.
“It is very difficult to get international students to come here as regular degree-seeking students,” explains Osaka University’s Takenaka. “You need to consider the ability of students and whether they can speak the language … Internationalisation will not bring much money - unlike the UK, universities will lose more than they will earn.”
Instead, the objective should be “to focus on short-term placements for international students in Japan”, he believes.
“But we want more students from the US and Europe. The reality of internationalisation now is students from China and Korea. About 80 per cent are from Asia, with 60 per cent from China [alone] - this is good for diversity, but it is most useful for our Japanese students to encounter Western students. They can learn a different culture to their own.”
Takenaka, who lectures in German history, believes that institutional change will be difficult. “Resistance to change is very strong,” he says.
“The reason is the governance of universities. The authority of the president is quite restricted. If the president says we have to internationalise, then many of the faculty deans will speak out against it quite publicly.”
With presidents elected every five years by faculty heads, who enjoy huge autonomy to run their departments, university leaders are perceived to lack the capacity to enact tricky or unpopular changes, thereby perpetuating the status quo.
“Sometimes it is impossible for us to convince others that it is necessary to change things,” says Takenaka.
A lack of professional administrators can also frustrate efforts to modernise, he adds. “If we had a group of specialists, then the work of universities would be much easier and far more effective,” he says.
But many believe that change is not just desirable but crucial to the country’s long-term economic future. With an ageing population - it is predicted that there will be 20-30 million fewer people in Japan by 2030 - moves to attract intelligent, productive immigrants will define Japan’s course for generations, they say.
“If you are losing 20 million people and bringing in 10 million immigrants, they must bring high value with them,” says Monte Cassim, vice-chancellor (international affairs) at Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, who moved from Sri Lanka to Japan 40 years ago.
Cassim subsequently led Ritsumeikan’s Asia Pacific University - located in Japan’s far south-west and a ferry ride away from South Korea and China - which has become one of the country’s most international universities: 50 per cent of its students are from overseas.
“You want to bring people into Japan who lend themselves to high-end jobs, such as researchers and technicians,” he says.
“If you bring the brightest young minds across the world, it forces Japanese students to re-evaluate what they are doing. It shakes them out of a cultural complacency and suddenly wonderful sparks start to fly.”
In the UK, private institutions make up only a small proportion of higher education providers; in Japan, the opposite is true.
Of the country’s 744 universities, around three-quarters are private.
Although private institutions receive some public money in the form of student loans and research grants, government support is heavily channelled into national universities, which charge lower tuition fees.
Fees at the Kyoto-based private institution Doshisha are set at about ¥1.1 million (£8,770) for a first-year undergraduate (with a fee waiver of up to 50 per cent available for foreign students), for example, whereas the public Kyoto University charges ¥818,000 a year.
But Monte Cassim, pictured, vice-chancellor (international affairs) at Ritsumeikan University, a private institution established 110 years ago as a working men’s college, believes it is time to allocate more public funding to private institutions.
“It seems odd that Tokyo and Kyoto universities receive the same amount in public money as all the private universities combined, who produce 75 per cent of the country’s graduates,” he says.
Indeed, the increase in student numbers in Japan since 1945 is largely the result of the expansion of the private sector.
Many have argued that the post-war regulation of these institutions was too lax, but today several private universities have established themselves as worthy rivals to public institutions. Tokyo’s Keio and Meiji universities rank with Kyoto’s Doshisha and Ritsumeikan universities among Japan’s most respected institutions.
Japan’s population of young people is dwindling, however, and experts have predicted that in future some private universities may need to merge to stay afloat.
With the UK government keen to expand private provision, are there any lessons to be learned?
“Japan’s private universities were largely established by idealists - people who wanted to change society for the better,” says Cassim.
“That is a different situation to private businesses entering the market looking for profits.”
Motohisa Kaneko, a lecturer in higher education at the University of Tsukuba, argues that private universities have failed to drive up standards because their fees are not set high enough.
“Selective private institutions, having to compete with public ones, are unable to substantially raise tuition fees,” he explains. “And other private institutions, competing with each other to merely enrol sufficient numbers of students, are not in a position to raise fees.
“These factors come together to create a rather static market. In other words, it has failed to create a sector with high-quality teaching at a high price.”
However, this situation may not last. In the past, “Japanese higher education [has been] insulated from international competition”.
But if competition between Japanese universities and overseas institutions intensifies, “the days of lethargy may be numbered”, he predicts.