The True Benefits of Studying in Japan

Society Culture

The noted nineteenth-century British scholar of Japan Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935) commented in his 1902 work Things Japanese that in Japan there exists a “comparative social equality of all ranks and stations . . . The rich not being blatant, the poor are not abject . . . A genuine spirit of equality pervades society.” That spirit can still be felt today.

Reading these words, I am reminded of a quote by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), a prominent educator during the Meiji era (1868–1912) and founder of Keiō Gijuku (now Keiō University), in his work Gakumon no susume (An Encouragement of Learning). He writes : “It is said that heaven does not create one man above or below another man. Any existing distinction between the wise and the stupid, between the rich and the poor, comes down to a matter of education.”

This idea of status parity likely serves as the backbone for the inherent spirit of equality of Japanese society. Fukuzawa realized over 140 years ago that ensuring Japan’s future meant neither economic development, nor the procurement of natural resources, but the acquisition of knowledge through education.

For me, Fukuzawa’s words are an acute reminder of the troubled state of the Arab world.

A Message to the World

The Middle East has long been considered the “birthplace of learning” and many Arab countries are now making earnest efforts to reinvigorate their historic legacy. Many in the Arab world are searching for a new paradigm, different from the established American and European models, for growth and education. To this end, a keen interest in Japan is building, especially with regard to the procurement of scientific technology. 

The Japanese government, in an attempt to stay in step with globalization, has announced a goal to boost enrollment of international students to 300,000 by 2017 as part of its efforts to draw the brightest minds from around the world.

In October 2013 the United Arab Emirates sponsored Najah Fair, a gathering focused on overseas study and higher education in the capitol of Abu Dhabi. I was asked to present information about universities and education in Japan. Representatives from more than 10 Japanese universities were also in attendance. While the universities made considerable efforts to give presentations highlighting the unique qualities and strengths of their educational models, reaction from participants was muted. Concerns including distance and language made it difficult to convince participants of the benefits, compared to America and Europe, of studying in what was perceived as a “far away” place.

When I lived in Egypt, I frequented a small sandwich stand that offered hamburgers and other standard fare. It was an average place: inexpensive and somewhat popular, with food that was good, but not great. Everyone has different tastes, but I liked the shop and went almost every day to listen to the owner’s stories and enjoy the pickles he served. If I had to rate the shop on “overall value,” there were certainly better restaurants, but for me, chatting with the owner and munching on pickles gave the shop an “added value” second to none.

I relate this story in order to consider this question: “What is the added value of studying in Japan?” I would be interested to hear how those involved in education in the country might respond if asked this question by someone outside of Japan.

Learning from Japan

I asked several friends and acquaintances of mine at Japanese universities to tell me what they find to be the benefits of studying in Japan. I have provided some of their answers below to shed light on some of the positive aspects studying in Japan has for international students.

“When I was in Saudi Arabia, I never thought about how others would perceive what I said or did. Coming to Japan, though, I learned to first consider how my actions would be viewed by others. It has opened my eyes and I can now understand better how others see the world. I learned self-control.” (Engineering student, Saudi Arabia)

“Japanese place more emphasis on process than on outcome, as can be seen by the tendency for people to say ganbare, ‘stick with it.’ When studying a trade in Japan, I learned that the process for making something is more important than what the final product is.” (Engineering student, UAE)

“Communication in Japan is different than that in America and Europe, which emphasizes logic and reason. Through interacting with Japanese I learned to place value on the feelings and thoughts of others and not merely focus on getting my point across.” (Humanities student, Egypt)

Japan’s Added Value Is “Spiritual”

The above answers show how students not only received basic technical instruction, but were also influenced by such things as Japanese notions of harmony, courtesy, trust, respect, and beauty. These spiritually enriching experiences served to add value to their studies.

The Japanese government’s enrolment goal of 300,000 has become a key aspect for boosting the international appeal of Japanese universities, but it is doubtful that many universities have a clear idea how to go about transforming their programs.

It is innovation that creates added value. Merely structuring courses around English will not add substantial worth to the unique learning opportunities that studying in Japan affords.

Universities and educators need to create a new and distinctly Japanese educational experience that will draw international students by enriching not only minds, but hearts as well.

(Original article in Arabic posted on February 12, 2014.)

Fukuzawa Yukichi education university Middle East overseas study