Japanese universities in crisis – what they can learn from Europe

by Yone Sugita Japan Today OPINIONS Nov. 16, 2012

Are Japanese universities internationalized? My short answer is NO. What do we need to do to rectify this situation? Three things are essential. First, foreign languages are a means to advance and we should give incentives to students to learn foreign languages instead of forcing them to do so. Second, English must be a common working language. Third, foreign students and scholars should study and work together with Japanese students and scholars.

The University of Tokyo, the most prestigious university in Japan, has been trying to shift to a fall enrollment system from the current April enrollment system so that it will be easier for Japanese students/scholars to study/work abroad and for foreign students/scholars to come and study/work at Japanese universities. This is a wonderful idea, but it would require tremendous changes to Japanese society: changing school enrollments at all levels from kindergarten to high schools, altering the examination dates for public servants, physicians, lawyers, and many other professions.

Rather than trying to change the whole system, we can do many things within our own university to carry out internationalization in a more practical way. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University (Sweden) and the American Studies Section of the English and American Institute at Technical University Dortmund (Germany). Both organizations constitute excellent role models for Japanese universities that aspire to become more internationalized.

The director of the Center at Lund University, Professor Roger Greatrex, has organized the center in such a way as to foster internationalization. Professor Greatrex has made a bold decision NOT to employ the language requirement as most other departments and institutions where area studies are offered. At Lund, master-course students who study Chinese economics or Japanese politics do not have to learn the Chinese or Japanese languages. There may be pros and cons about eliminating the language requirement, but this certainly makes the center a unique entity. I have been teaching at the School of Foreign Studies at former Osaka University of Foreign Studies and currently Osaka University for over 20 years. This school currently offers 25 languages as majors. Because our students have to spend a substantial amount of time on acquiring language proficiency, they do not have enough time and energy to learn subject matter. They might read and speak Swedish without much knowledge of Swedish politics or history.

Often, students regard acquiring foreign language skills as their goal at university. They tend to forget that language is just a means to pursue something else. I would not advocate eliminating the entire language requirement, but students should not be forced to learn foreign languages. Instead, give them incentives to learn foreign languages for themselves. Learning about culture, society, politics, economics, history and other subjects with regard to specific countries or regions would provide students with excellent incentives to learn languages.

The American Studies Section of the English and American Institute at Technical University Dortmund led by Professor Walter Grünzweig, director of the Institute, provides a wonderful model for Japanese university departments that major in English-related subjects like the English Department of the School of Foreign Studies of Osaka University. I had the privilege of attending several undergraduate classes during my visit: Classes on Mark Twain, American movies, Puritanism, street arts, memories of the Holocaust, images of 2012 election, etc. Because classes in the American Studies Section are taught in English, the undergraduate students learn the subjects and many aspects of American studies in English. Classes consist of people of various nationalities such as Poles, Hungarians, British, and Americans as well as Germans.

Not only students but also faculty members are heterogeneous. The center consists of faculty members, researchers, and long-term and short-term visiting scholars with many different ethnic, cultural, and language backgrounds such as Austrian, American, Japanese and Turkish besides German. It offers such a cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was inevitable that English had to be a common working language in this community. I also had a chance of attending a staff meeting held once a week that was conducted again solely in English.

Thinking about the academic community back in the English Department of Osaka University, the only classes taught in English are those taught by native speakers of English to improve students’ English language skills. We have one British, one Irish, and one American colleague in our department. We have had very few long-term and short-term non-Japanese visiting scholars/researchers, say a couple of times, in the last 20 years or so. However, these native English-speaking faculty members and visitors are considered to be temporary outsiders, and they are not invited to our staff meetings. Consequently, I have never experienced a staff meeting conducted in English. We just take it for granted that classes and meetings are conducted in Japanese only.

Students in the English Department spend a tremendous amount of time learning how to use English, but once they come to seminars and lectures that deal with America studies, they suddenly encounter classes conducted solely in Japanese. Most, if not all, of the students in classrooms are Japanese. All of them, including Japanese instructors, speak Japanese; they look alike, and think alike. This is a closed, isolated, solitary community. We wrongly believe that we offer one of the best educations in Japan. We would say, “Don’t you know that the English Department is ranked first or second among foreign studies departments among Japanese universities?” Ah, we are a BIG fish in a little barrel. It is high time to look outside,

think globally, and do something at home.
I am particularly impressed with the high-standard of the course contents at Dortmund. Students there do many reading assignments in English, they conduct group work in English, make logical and informative presentations in English, participate in heated class discussion in English, and American scholars teach not language skills but literature and cultural study in English. I felt like I was in a classroom in a major research university in the United States. Faculty members carry out extensive preparation to promote students’ interest in American studies for 90 minutes: employing group work, students’ presentations, showing movies and slides, etc.

In one class, students have to watch American vampire movies before the class session and conduct lively class discussions based on these movies. In another undergraduate class, several instructors besides the main instructor who was responsible for the class participated in the class and had a lively class discussion on street arts and graffiti in English. Have you ever seen a class like this in Japan?

Japanese universities are far behind the international standard in terms of internationalization. Can we change? Yes, we can …. I hope.

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