In October 2014, The New York Times spotlighted an apparent contradiction in what it termed “Japan’s divided education strategy”. Whilst pushing leading universities to become more globalised, the government was simultaneously making schooling more ‘nationalistic’ – revising curricula for history and moral education.
The article underscored the riddle at the heart of Japan’s educational response to globalisation: How can any country become both more global and more ‘nationalistic’ at the same time?
In an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or MEXT, promptly issued a response on its website. The then minister of education Shimomura Hakubun argued that ”there is no contradiction between Japan placing great value on its traditions, culture and history on the one hand, while coexisting in the international community on the other”.
His response was not new: the same logic can be found running through previous education reform plans, from Yasuhiro Nakasone’s Rinkyoshin (Ad Hoc Council on Education) in the 1980s to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Kyoiku Saisei Kaigi (literally, the Council for Educational Rebirth) today.
The statement first confirmed that the government is indeed now strongly committed to globalising its universities. In order to "develop human resources that can compete on the global stage", more foreign students and scholars will be recruited, and the number of young Japanese abroad doubled to 120,000 by 2020.
But Shimomura also stressed that a “weak sense of identity” meant that young Japanese venturing abroad suffered from an inability to “explain aspects of their own country”. He argued that education at all levels must strengthen Japanese identity as a necessary precondition for becoming a ”truly globalised person”.
He insisted that this did not involve promoting “nationalism” or “contempt for other countries”. In conclusion, he even cited Prince Shotoku Taishi’s Seventeen Article Constitution from the seventh century to suggest that current reforms are driven by a “spirit of harmony” inherent to Japanese tradition.
Global higher education for some
So which is it? Is Japan’s current education policy contradictory or harmonious? As it happens, The New York Times article was wrong on several counts. Only 37 of Japan’s almost 800 universities – a mere 5% – are receiving funding under the Super Global Universities programme, the most ambitious attempt to change Japanese universities since World War II. Although these will produce many future elites, the majority of Japanese students will not have a ‘global’ higher education.
Moreover, the article was wrong in asserting that government efforts to internationalise are confined to the tertiary sector. English teaching is now being introduced at earlier grades of elementary school. In 2003, the ministry launched the Super English Language High Schools programme, and in June 2012 a vast increase in the number of Japanese high schools offering the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum was announced.
Nonetheless, the broader point concerning the contradictory nature of current educational reforms still stands. Unfortunately, as former minister Shimomura’s protestations illustrate, these contradictions appear to be nearly invisible at the national level. It is only when one ventures into actual classrooms or listens closely to globally ambitious Japanese youth that one confronts the conflicts.
International education for an internationalising Japan
There are now nearly 6,000 primary or secondary schools across the country where at least some of the students are not Japanese. This number will increase rapidly in coming years due to the declining birthrate, continuing immigration and international marriages.
Is it either possible, or desirable, for Japanese teachers to present a single vision of Japanese ‘tradition, culture and history’ to foreign students or those of mixed parentage in the hope of building a ‘strong’ Japanese identity? Such students must be integrated into Japanese society – but what is the best way of doing it?
Or take the challenge of encouraging Japanese youth to ‘go global’ by studying abroad. Leading universities such as Tokyo University are already considering making overseas study a requirement for graduation.
But many students we talk to, who have already participated in such exchange programmes, confess that their chief difficulty lies not in understanding themselves, but in an inability to understand the starting point of, say, Chinese or American worldviews. Many therefore tend to spend more time while abroad with other Japanese than with their foreign counterparts.
Compelling Japanese students to spend more time at school studying national ‘traditions, culture and history’ is only likely to increase their alienation from the outside world. This will make them even less capable of participating in serious discussions about Japan’s global role.
By continuing to emphasise the drawing of simple dividing lines between Japanese and non-Japanese, current government policy threatens to accelerate the uchi-muki (inward-looking) mindset of young Japanese.
But what if the real solution lies not in drawing such lines, but in erasing them? What if Japanese leaders and citizens alike began to think about ‘identity’ as relational and ever-changing, not eternal and immutable? We believe that such a fundamental shift is key to the success not just of university internationalisation, but to restoring the health and vigour of Japanese society more broadly.
A distinctive voice in the global conversation
In this article, we have written as two foreign faculty at leading national universities in Japan, graduates from ‘world-class’ Western institutions, with years of experience teaching in Japan at high school and university levels. We are committed to Japan for the long term: this is our home too.
We want to see the ambitious current reforms succeed for the sake of Japan’s future, for the sake of our students. And as citizens of countries – America and Britain – whose role in constructing the current global order has been deeply problematic, we believe that the wider world is poorer without Japan’s presence, voice and values.
So let us be clear: we are not advocating wholesale replacement of the current system with a foreign import or global ‘best practice’. Instead, we are calling for education at all levels, but especially in leading universities, to offer space for real dialogue between the diverse cultures, languages and experiences of both Japan itself and the wider world. In short, we want to see universities become sites where ‘Japanese’ identity and values are renewed for a global age.
Like many Japanese, we are aware that the competition, consumerism and self-promotion that dominate contemporary global society clash with an emphasis on cooperation, thrift and gratitude that is deeply ingrained in Japan. But as foreigners, we know that these values are not ‘unique’ to Japan, but are shared by many elsewhere. This is precisely why there is so much resistance around the world today to ultra-competitive, hyper-consumerist ‘neoliberal globalisation’.
Unfortunately, however, rather than demonstrating how qualities thought of as traditionally ‘Japanese’ are shared with many in other societies, education policy-makers remain intent on emphasising Japan’s ‘uniqueness’. The effect of this is to foster attitudes that are, at best, dismissive of ‘outsiders’ or, at worst, fearful and hostile. Preserving the aspects of our lifestyle that we value becomes a matter of building barriers against irreconcilably alien foreigners.
Moreover, when values are seen simply as products of some unique, ineffably ‘Japanese’ essence, questions about what we can learn from other societies, and what they might learn from us, become very hard to discuss.
When Japanese youth overseas are challenged to explain Japanese culture and society, if all they can muster are harmonious smiles and vague quotes from Shotoku Taishi, then the conversation will be brief and disappointing. Rather than acting as persuasive ambassadors for a resurgent Japan, they will only confirm stereotypes of their country as a quaint island kingdom cut off from the rest of the world. They will confirm what many foreigners already believe: there is nothing the world can learn from Japan.
So what is the alternative? It is to give Japanese youth an opportunity to critically explore their values before they encounter the outside world as adults. Education reforms should aim to make classrooms at all levels places where youngsters are encouraged to challenge and critique received notions of ‘Japaneseness’.
Conservative commentators constantly complain that today’s youth are losing the sense of ‘Japanese’ identity. But as foreigners we encounter a set of values that are not so fragile as such commentators allege. These values are strongly rooted in the depths of Japanese society, not in the mercurial political realm or only amongst an older generation.
Values are not learnt simply as abstract concepts in the classroom, but primarily through daily practice and in interactions with family, friends and neighbours. We know this because we feel that we have in some sense ‘become Japanese’ without ever being students in Japanese classrooms, won over by the values we see as central to everyday life here.
So schooling should help Japanese youth to become conscious of their values and thus able to explain them. But how should it do this? As we have learnt after many years living in foreign countries, real consciousness of identity and difference is something that comes through experience, not from textbooks.
Everyone has a ‘weak sense of identity’ until they come up against values or lifestyles different from their own. And such encounters have the potential not just to reinforce our beliefs, but to transform them – quite possibly for the better.
Those responsible for education policy, generally lacking significant overseas experience, have failed to understand this. They cling to a vision of homogenous Japan, technologically innovative, but culturally unchanging. But the country they hanker after no longer exists, if it ever did.
Like every society, Japan is constantly changing, forcing each generation to re-examine their values and identity in the face of new challenges. For young Japanese today, these include the need to adapt to a new order in East Asia and to accommodate growing diversity within Japan itself. This will happen not through memorising textbook platitudes about ‘harmony’, but through interaction and dialogue with those who are different.
The ability to understand and communicate one’s identity comes precisely from working with people who do not share the same set of basic assumptions.
Opportunities to interact
For us then, the problems associated with internationalisation – the supposed ‘weakness’ of Japanese youth identity, Japan’s inability to communicate its values, and widespread uncertainty about a global future for Japan – are not the result of a failure to teach ‘Japaneseness’, but symptoms of a lack of opportunities to interact with ‘outsiders’.
The ministry's ideas about ‘identity’ reflect the long-standing assumptions of those at the core of the Japanese establishment – that identity is an objective, culturally specific quality that can easily be packaged up and taught. But the elements of society that are most ‘globalised’, such as students returning from abroad and foreign residents, know that ‘identity’ is relational. We understand that confidence in the global space comes through embracing interaction with the ‘outside’, not reinforcing rigid divisions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.
From this vantage point, Japan’s inability to produce ‘truly globalised’ people looks completely different. Uchi-muki attitudes are the inevitable result of an overemphasis on teaching the values of the core establishment since the early 1950s.
So long as the most global elements of Japanese society remain marginalised, education will fail to produce the change policy-makers say they want.
More tragically, if Japan chooses to portray itself as exotic and ‘unique’, the universal appeal of its values, with all they have to offer the rest of the world, will be quickly dismissed.
Alternatively, education could challenge and transcend arbitrary distinctions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, ‘Japanese’ and ‘non-Japanese’. A new generation of Japanese youth might then emerge – more confident, more articulate, more comfortable with difference, and less confused by the contradictions between what they learn at school and what they experience internationally.
Policy-makers and citizens alike need to strive to make educational institutions places where peripheral ‘outsiders’ and an out-of-touch core interact and transform one another. Then Japan's educational 'rebirth' can really begin.
Jeremy Rappleye is associate professor of the philosophy of education in the education department of Kyoto University, Japan. Edward Vickers is associate professor of comparative education in the education department of Kyushu University, Japan. This is an excerpt of an article that appeared, in Japanese, in the July 2015 issue of the periodical 'Chuo Koron'.
This is the third in a series of articles. Links to the other two are below.
Asia is Japan's internationalisation blindspot
Can Japanese universities really become Super Global?
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