Asia is Japan’s internationalisation blindspot

Japan needs more gurobaru jinzai (global talent)! Or so we are constantly told these days. Politicians portray global talent as individuals whose knowledge of foreign cultures and languages will connect Japan with the outside world, restoring the country’s competitiveness and strengthening its international relationships.

But probe a little deeper, and difficult questions arise regarding the identity of these jinzai, the kind of knowledge they should possess, and their social function.

Are they Japanese with ‘international’ skills, or foreigners familiar with Japan, or both? If ‘internationalisation’ is intended primarily to serve Japan’s national interests, how are these defined? And in the light of this, which societies, cultures and languages should form the main foci of ‘internationalisation’ efforts?

Shortly after the launch last autumn of Japan’s Super Global Universities programme, the most ambitious attempt to change Japanese universities since World War II, a promotional brochure appeared outlining the internationalisation strategies of the selected institutions. Its glossy cover pictured four students – two male, two female, and all Caucasian.

In other words, it looked much like the adverts for eikaiwa (English conversation) classes visible in every Japanese city. ‘Internationalisation’ here is implicitly equated with ‘Westernisation’, and gurobaru jinzai identified as those equipped to deal with Westerners. Statements associated with the Super Global programme refer repeatedly to the prioritisation of links with ‘outstanding European and American universities’. Meanwhile, political, media and educational debate on foreign languages focuses exclusively on English.

Up to a point, the focus on English, and on ‘outstanding European and American universities’, is understandable. The global economic dominance of North America and Western Europe may be fading fast, but the pre-eminence of Western universities remains unchallenged – for the present. Universities in the ‘Anglosphere’ benefit from the status of English as the established international language, and the language of scientific exchange.

Most top journals in the natural sciences, medicine, engineering and maths are published in English. A university that fails to cultivate proficiency in English among its staff and students, or to engage with institutions in the English-speaking world, is unlikely to produce globally competitive scientists, doctors or engineers.

But nurturing scientific, medical and engineering talent is only part of the function of a top university. Elite institutions – such as those selected for the Super Global Universities programme – also educate future leaders in fields such as commerce, law, education, public administration, politics, diplomacy, journalism – and academia.

In other words, universities exist not just to turn out better robot designers, bridge builders and brain surgeons. They also exist to promote critical reflection on the goals and organisation of human society – including the purposes to which technology should be put. For this, the study of philosophy, history, literature, politics, economics, art and culture is essential. After decades of technological advance (in which Japan has played a significant role), these fields will be increasingly important as this century unfolds.

For study and research in these fields too, a command of English is increasingly important. But just as important – if not more so – is a deeper knowledge and understanding of those societies in Asia with which Japan’s past, present and future are most intimately intertwined. This is a crucial blindspot in the current discussions over educational ‘internationalisation’.

Asia, university internationalisation and Japan’s future

A century ago, things were different. Up to the Edo period, to be educated was to read Chinese. In the late Meiji era, many Japanese universities and educationalists actively engaged with Asian societies. Chinese students flooded into Japan, with the encouragement of the Japanese government. Special colleges and courses were established for them, with teaching often conducted in Chinese.

Unfortunately, this phase of educational ‘internationalisation’, and the Pan-Asianist ideals that inspired it, were cut short by the imperialist ambitions of the Japanese army in East Asia. And after those ambitions led to the disasters of the Asia-Pacific War, a traumatised Japan for several decades focused its limited efforts at ‘internationalisation’ almost solely on America.

Nor was Japan’s experience entirely unique. Much of Western Europe similarly underwent intense wartime trauma followed by a tight and prolonged American embrace. But in post-war Europe, educational exchange programmes at both secondary school and university level – most famously the Erasmus programme – have been used to promote a sense of shared Europeanness.

Perhaps even more significant has been the heavy investment by many European countries in foreign language education. Not only do most educated Europeans nowadays speak English, but many also speak a second or even a third European language. And they are often required to study multiple foreign languages from secondary school level onwards.

By contrast to many European countries, Japan’s ambitions to improve foreign language competency largely begin and end with English. Popular interest in learning Chinese has grown considerably in recent years, but largely despite, rather than because of, official policy.

In Germany, almost all secondary schools offer French classes, and over a quarter of students study French in addition to English. In Japan, by 2010, only around 15% of high schools (800) offered Chinese classes at all, and the number of high school students studying it was under 20,000.

This has since increased and the numbers studying Chinese as a second foreign language at university level have also grown. But even today, in 2015, there are national universities that offer French and German as options in their entrance examinations, but not Chinese or Korean.

All this contributes to a general level of proficiency in modern East Asian languages far below what it should be considering the region’s crucial importance to Japan.

Here the contrast with Japan’s closest neighbour is telling. South Korea, with a population of 50 million – accounts for 21% of China’s international student population, Japan only 6%. Even America, despite its poor foreign language education and distance from the region, sends more students than Japan to Chinese universities.

And this reflects a fundamental irony: internationalisation in Japan still leans overwhelmingly towards the ‘Anglosphere’, even while in America, Britain, Australia and Europe, the focus is increasingly on East Asia in general, and China in particular.

The rise of China

In Japan today, the rise of China is often seen as a threat. But it also offers significant opportunities, not least in the area of university internationalisation. Japan remains one of the top overseas destinations for Chinese students. Despite all the difficulties in Sino-Japanese relations, many Chinese still see this country as an exemplar of Asian modernity.

China’s government has recently been pouring money into the internationalisation of its own universities. But by comparison with Japan, the international attractiveness of China’s academic environment remains limited by political constraints, horrendous urban pollution and other factors.

Global interest in East Asia, and in China in particular, will only intensify in coming years. Likewise, the importance of China to Japan can only increase. Fostering exchanges with Chinese institutions should thus be absolutely central to the current programme for university ‘internationalisation’. But top Japanese universities remain well behind their Western counterparts when it comes to forming partnerships with Chinese institutions.

The recent announcement of a ‘strategic partnership’ between Tokyo University and Peking University sets a welcome precedent. But it will take more than a few elite partnerships to change the entrenched attitudes that continue to stall improvements in Sino-Japanese academic relations.

Consider, first, prevalent attitudes towards the thousands of Chinese students already here in Japan. These students have become essential to the survival of many graduate schools, as numbers of Japanese students decline. They also constitute a ready resource for ‘internationalising’ the educational experience of Japanese students – even without the trouble and expense of sending them overseas.

But there is a widespread sense that the preponderance of Chinese and other students from ‘developing’ Asia is a symptom of failure: ‘Asianisation’ rather than true ‘internationalisation’.

Opportunities for contact between Chinese postgraduates and Japanese undergraduates are relatively scarce. In short, Chinese and other Asian students are often taken for granted by the university authorities – rather than seen as valued members of the Japanese academic community. And, sadly, the outcome is often that these students leave Japan disillusioned and alienated.

This taking-for-granted of Asian students is reflected in key features of current ‘internationalisation’ policy. A government-funded exchange scheme, Tobidate Nihon, promoted alongside the ‘Super Global Universities’ programme, is a case in point.

On the one hand, official policy aims to make universities places where Japanese and foreign students study together and learn from each other. However, the very first condition for participation in Tobidate Nihon is that students should be ‘Japanese nationals or permanent residents’. (The same condition features in other new Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT] initiatives, such as a ‘work-study’ scheme aimed at giving work experience and financial support to undergraduates.)

Excluding foreigners from participation in key elements of the broader ‘internationalisation’ programme threatens to undermine it – and contrasts tellingly with the more inclusive approach adopted by the European Union’s Erasmus scheme, now open to participation by non-Europeans.

Japanese identity issues

This contradiction appears closely linked to the Japanese government’s stance on immigration and identity. Separating schemes for supporting ‘foreign’ and ‘Japanese’ students may be relatively trivial taken alone. But a myriad of regulations, perhaps individually trivial but collectively overwhelming, send a clear message to all foreigners in Japan: ‘You can come as long as you are willing to be second class citizens’ (not a status with which globally ambitious, elite students are likely to be content).

Despite, or even because of, critical shortages of skilled labour and severe tensions with neighbouring countries, policy-makers remain obsessed with limiting the mingling of Japanese and foreigners – including foreign ‘jinzai’.

When the government’s former education advisor, Sono Ayako, recently advocated apartheid-style separate residential districts for non-Japanese, the government quickly disowned her comments. But sadly, few long-term foreign residents will have been surprised to hear such sentiments from a member of Japan’s establishment.

They are an extreme but logical extension of the government’s own positions on history, moral education, patriotism and the distinction between a messy, dangerous outside world and ‘the beautiful country, Japan’ (utsukushii kuni, Nihon).

Indeed, government policy in these areas testifies to the profound absence, at the core of the Japanese establishment, of an understanding of the outside world, and of how that world views Japan. When this ignorance provokes hostility in Korea and China, and aids nationalist politicians there, it is extremely dangerous for Japan and for East Asia as a whole.

The rise of anti-Japanese populism in China also fuels negative perceptions of that country here in Japan, and makes it far more difficult to persuade young Japanese to go there on academic exchanges. A vicious circle threatens to develop.

Breaking that vicious circle of mutual hostility should be the central and overriding purpose of educational internationalisation in Japan. Forget about university league tables or the global market for ‘talent’: if China and Japan cannot coexist in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the future looks bleak.

Of course, it takes two to form a healthy relationship, and there is a lot of work to be done on the Chinese side. But there are crucial steps that Japan can take. Young Japanese need to be given enhanced opportunities to study the languages, history and culture of Greater East Asia, China of course, but also Korea, Southeast Asia and India.

And since it is impossible to understand modern East Asia without studying its complex and troubled relationship with Japan, such a focus will force the next generation of Japanese to think more profoundly and critically about their own history, culture and identity.

In the Meiji period, Fukuzawa Yukichi exhorted Japanese to ‘leave Asia and join Europe’, but as the Asian Century unfolds that vision is no longer appropriate (if it ever was). Instead, the careful study of Japan’s complex relationship with its closest neighbours will do more to help today’s students become the type of gurobaru jinzai the country really needs.

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 second in a series of articles. Links to the other two are below.