English 'crucial' in Japan

March 3, 2000

TOKYO

A report from a high-ranking advisory group suggests that Japanese higher education would benefit from the employment of more foreign lecturers.

The deregulation of higher education, greater English literacy in universities and more evaluation of teaching and research activities are three further recommendations in Japan's Vision for the 21st Century, which has been submitted to the prime minister's office.

To help achieve greater English literacy in universities and schools, the report broaches the idea of establishing English as Japan's second official language. All Japanese students should be capable of speaking English before they enter the workforce, it says. The results of a recent survey, which are quoted in the report, reveal that Japan ranks the lowest in Asia in terms of English proficiency.

The panel of experts, which includes academics, journalists and artists, warns that greater "global literacy" is crucial to Japan's survival as a major player on the global stage. As well as higher standards of English language skills, greater "global literacy" in Japan will also require a higher level of mastery of computers and the internet.

To encourage more foreigners to study, live and work in Japan the advisory group proposes that graduates from Japanese universities and graduate schools, and indeed from high schools as well, should be automatically granted permanent resident status.

The proposals have been praised by the growing number of reform-minded educators who are arguing for major change to Japan's moribund system of higher education. "The present system of higher education suppresses ideas and initiative and has to be changed," said lecturer Sayaka Tsudome. "A radical overhaul of teaching and research methods, including greater monitoring and evaluation, is urgently required."

Postgraduate student Satoshi Murakami added: "Major change is necessary if Japanese universities are to help Japan achieve its aims of greater internationalisation, more individualism and the establishment of a high-tech, information-based society."

But considerable resistance to change is evident among academics and bureaucrats who are particularly critical of proposals for greater evaluation and competition in higher education. Radical reforms, they argue, bring considerable risks and uncertainties that could have a detrimental impact on the country's development.

As well as recommending a reduction in the voting age from 20 to 18, the report reiterates the need for greater opportunities for women. Although more women have been attaining high-status posts in Japan, men continue to take up a majority of influential posts in politics, the civil service, business and academia. This, it is argued, is partly owing to the dominance of male students at the country's highest-ranked universities.

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