Japan needs IT talent

July 6, 2001

From web-accessible colour screen mobile phones to interactive robot pets, Japan has always been associated with cutting-edge technology and technical innovation. Yet it is facing a severe shortage of software engineers.

The shortage may shackle the nascent information technology revolution in Japan. How could this be possible in the land of Sony and Panasonic?

One reason is that computer education has come late to Japan's universities, which have emphasised the "hard" disciplines over the "soft". Very few universities in Japan have computer science departments.

"Researchers in this field are usually within a department of electrical engineering," said Robert Kneller, professor at the Tokyo University Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

Unlike other countries, computer science in Japan is a discipline without formal recognition. This makes it difficult for professors to get research funds.

"This is why Japan produces only 30 PhDs a year in pure computer science," said Tosiyasu Kunii, dean of Hosei University's IT programme.

The situation is slowly changing. Keio University, Japan's most prestigious private university, launched two interdisciplinary programmes based on IT in 1990. In 1993, Aizu University was established as Japan's first university dedicated solely to computer science. Aizu had more than 1,200 applicants for its 240 undergraduate places last year.

Hosei University, a private university in Tokyo, launched its computer and information sciences department last year. Its one-year masters degree in IT attracted 170 applicants for 40 places despite a £17,000 tuition fee.

Even the conservative Tokyo University is changing to attract more students. The university has reorganised its engineering and computing departments under a faculty for computer science.

The government has made IT literacy and excellence one of its main policy goals.

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