Japan on the Threshold of Academic Globalization

Society Culture

The University of Tokyo’s new all-English undergraduate programs may sound like the last word in academic globalization, but university administrators are quietly planning a far more momentous step. Ueyama explains the significance of aligning the academic year with international norms and the ramifications for Japanese society as a whole.

The University of Tokyo (Tōdai) made quite a splash on July 22 when it announced the introduction of an all-English undergraduate program beginning in 2012. Within the confines of the program, the admissions process and all courses will be conducted entirely in English, and students will matriculate in September instead of April, the traditional start of Japan’s academic year.

But the idea of a four-year university program oriented to foreign students and the children of Japanese expatriates who have received their schooling overseas is scarcely revolutionary. The Tōdai plan merely implements the “Global 30” Project for Establishing Core Universities for Internationalization, launched by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) in 2009. Besides, comparable programs have been operating for years at other Japanese universities.

Far more momentous was the slightly earlier announcement that Tōdai had set up an internal working group to study the impact of instituting a September start date throughout the university. A change on this scale would affect much more than just the time of year when college students matriculate. In fact, it would shake up some of Japanese society’s most hallowed systems, challenging the principles that have driven scholarship and education in Japan for decades and forcing changes in traditional hiring practices in both the public and private sectors.

Tearing Down the Walls

Tōdai President Hamada Jun’ichi is prepared to push hard for these far-reaching changes. Although he is confident that Tōdai can hold its own against the world’s other major universities at the research level in the natural sciences, he believes that Japan’s insular approach to human resource development needs to change, and change soon.

Hamada is not the first to call for September matriculation. Japan’s major universities enroll far fewer foreign students than most top-tier institutions overseas. At the same time, the number of Japanese university students studying abroad continues to decline. People have argued for some time that bringing Japan’s academic calendar in line with the international norm would make it easier for Japanese students to take part in study-abroad programs.

But the current move toward fall matriculation has bigger implications, as Hamada made clear in a recent interview.

“Until recently, there was plenty of demand for higher education from within Japan, so all universities had to do was to meet that demand and train people for the Japanese labor market,” Hamada explains.

From their beginnings, Japanese universities have operated on the premise that students will look for work in Japan after graduation, either in a Japanese company or, in rare cases, in an international organization headquartered in Japan. In the vast majority of cases this orientation has meshed neatly with the expectations of students, who asked no more from their higher education than that it should qualify them for a career in Japan.

This assumption was so fundamental to the system that even when universities began to take steps to boost their numbers of foreign students and Japanese ”returnees,” a key rationale was that these heterogeneous elements would have a healthy influence on the rest of the students, who had never known anything but Japanese culture and society.

During the economic bubble of the 1980s, the number of Japanese students studying abroad jumped. But the vast majority were interested only in enhancing their career prospects after they returned home. By contrast, talented students from other Asian countries not only flocked to the United States to study but often stayed on after graduation to pursue a twenty-first-century version of the American Dream. Japanese universities saw nothing strange in this. The whole focus of education in Japan was intensely domestic. Now Tōdai is seriously attempting to challenge this system for the first time.

On the Path of True Globalization

Unfortunately, the University of Tokyo cannot go it alone on this. If Tōdai instituted September matriculation in isolation from the rest of the eduation system, high school graduates would be forced to wait a full six months between graduation and the start of the term at Tōdai. And if businesses continued their established practice of hiring new graduates en masse in the spring, another six-month gap would confront students upon graduation. In essence, Tōdai students would lose a whole year compared with their counterparts at other universities. This would put even the illustrious University of Tokyo at a disadvantage when competing with other Japanese schools for the top students, at the same time that it placed itself in direct competition with elite universities overseas. If Tōdai is serious about this reform, it has no choice but to seek a simultaneous, across-the-board change throughout the primary, secondary, and higher education system, along with radical changes in the hiring practices of business and government.

Japan’s higher education system, instituted in the Meiji era (1868–1912), was built along Western models, and many of the early instructors were Westerners themselves. Accordingly, the academic calendar adopted was the same as that common in the West. But the government preferred to hire new civil servants in April, at the beginning of its fiscal year, and the private sector did the same. Primary and secondary schools aligned their academic calendar to the fiscal year, and in the end the universities, seeking to eliminate the half-year gap between graduation and matriculation, decided to follow suit.

This system is now deeply entrenched in Japanese society, and changing it will be no easy matter. Tōdai’s plan, it seems, is to enter into discussions with other universities and high schools with a view to implementing the switch about five years down the road. But if the change is to become a reality, Tōdai will need to drum up a broad-based national debate and make its case to society as a whole.

The University of Tokyo’s willingness to take on this challenge is a sign that the impact of globalization has finally begun to breach the walls of the ivory tower. Globalization should mean diversification of values, not greater uniformity. In the process, therefore, the campaign should highlight the need for more flexibility throughout the entire school-to-work system. Universities should expand their admissions target from 18- and 19-year-olds to include people of all ages, and corporations should shift to year-round recruitment.

Tōdai faces daunting challenges before the new system it envisions becomes a reality. But waiting at the end of its struggles is the promise of a truly global university. (September 21, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Ueyama Takahiro University of Tokyo Tōdai education system entrance examination globalization hiring practice September matriculation Hamada Jun’ichi