Japanese universities go global, but slowly

Published: July 29, 2012

AKITA, JAPAN — Takuya Niiyama, a sophomore at Akita International University, dreams of becoming an international tourism operator promoting the northern Japanese prefecture of Akita, leveraging his hard-earned language skills and a network of international students he befriended on campus.

Mr. Niiyama, who is from Akita, hopes that the university’s mandated one-year overseas exchange program will help him achieve his goal.

“I need to acquire solid English skills,” he said. “And I knew that an ordinary Japanese university would not prep me for that.”

As Japanese schools intensify efforts to globalize their campuses, Akita International University seems well on its way toward internationalization, with foreign exchange students arriving from more than 50 institutions from around the world.

Mineo Nakajima, AIU’s president, visited U.S. schools like the University of California, San Diego and The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, while planning his new institution.

A.I.U., founded in 2004, joins a handful of others in experimenting with these kinds of endeavors. The problem is that they are a glaring exception rather than a trend in Japan.

Some new schools outside the major cities are beating their bigger, older, slow-moving peers to the punch, with more international students and graduates who are likely to be multicultural and multilingual. They are also drawing the attention of corporate recruiters.

“Japan is still an intellectually closed shop,” said Mr. Nakajima of AIU, who was the former president of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

At The University of Tokyo, Japan’s top university, also known as Todai, only 53 undergraduates took part in its exchange program in 2011, or 0.4 percent of the student body of 14,100.

Keio University, another leading name in Tokyo with an undergraduate enrollment of 29,000, sent only 133 students overseas in 2010, or 0.45 percent of the total student body.

Only eight universities across Japan, mostly private, sent more than 100 students abroad to obtain 16 credits or more in 2009, according to a university handbook published by The Asahi Shimbun. (Japan has more than 700 colleges and universities.)

Reasons cited include low enthusiasm among students for study abroad, as well as a lack of drive and commitment on the part of universities to internationalize their programs.

Masako Egawa, a University of Tokyo spokeswoman, acknowledged that it had lagged behind both its international counterparts and its domestic peers.

“It is true, we have not had as extensive a system for international exchange as private universities do,” she said in an interview.

“We have been doing well at the graduate divisions, however, with 18 percent of the students coming from overseas.”

Still, most large universities, including Todai, see the urgency of increasing overseas exchanges. This is particularly true as Japanese corporations need more graduates capable of helping them globalize, and as the universities themselves look to draw more students as the Japanese population ages.

“We would like to see Japanese universities become more open internationally,” said Toshimitsu Iwanami, senior executive vice president of NEC Corp., a major information technology services provider. “And when that occurs, there may be a greater number of Japanese youth with globally ready talent.”

Mr. Iwanami heads a committee on education at Keidanren, Japan’s leading federation of large corporations, which has voiced concerns about a lack of international higher education.

He added that Japanese employers were hoping that universities would introduce more bilingual, foreign graduates to the labor market.

The vast majority of Japan’s leading universities are in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. They admit thousands of students annually and have a century of history behind them, perpetuating the notion that institutions must be large, entrenched and urban to thrive.

But Akita International University, which has struck a chord with both students and corporate recruiters, has surprised the establishment. Located in a part of Akita city surrounded by woods, it was created in 2004 financed largely by Akita Prefecture with a mission to produce internationally minded thinkers.

Half of the faculty are non-Japanese and all classes are taught in English. Today, the university ranks among the nation’s top schools, like Osaka University and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, in competitiveness of admissions. Last year, A.I.U. accepted only one out of 21 applicants in the segment of admissions that requires a competitive examination.

A relatively small university with total enrollment of 834, A.I.U. has become a magnet for corporate recruiters.

“Leading Japanese firms as well as foreign firms such as Morgan Stanley have been conducting recruitment by actually paying a visit to Akita,” said Hiroshi Kobayashi, editor of a university administration magazine. “That is very rare for a school that is located in a remote area.” He said regional universities normally had to woo corporate visitors by paying for their travel.

At A.I.U., 114 international students study there as part of the exchanges that it has with 130 overseas universities.

Mr. Nakajima, the university president, said designing a system that was fully compatible with overseas schools was key. There are bigger problems, like a paucity of English-language courses, and smaller ones, like a course numbering system that is incompatible with what is used internationally.

Another institution with a successful international program is Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University, which was founded in 2000 in Ooita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu.

Its founding president, Kazuichi Sakamoto, said he felt the urge to create a new international university.

“We felt the approach of doing something a little here and there to fix the system won’t do,” he said.

So, he and colleagues from Ritsumeikan University, in Kyoto, founded a new school in Ooita, with the help of a governor who wished to use the project to help revitalize the region.

“The buzz word we worked on was internationalization ‘from within’ to create a campus here that would be made up of students from around the world,” Mr. Sakamoto said.

Today, Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University has the highest number, as well as the highest ratio, of foreign students working toward a degree in Japan: 2,692 from 81 countries who represent 43 percent of the total body. It achieved a 95 percent job placement rate in 2011 and, like Akita International University, is frequently visited by recruiters from leading companies.

A survey published by The Nikkei Shimbun this month asked human resources heads at major Japanese companies which universities they were “paying most attention” to, in terms of nurturing talent. The first three spots went to Akita, the University of Tokyo and Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific.

Akita and Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific employed two different tacks for internationalization. But their success came from one common link: They started universities from scratch.

Japanese universities, experts say, are run in a collegial manner. Top-down overhauls are invariably hobbled by faculty who prefer the status quo.

“Changing an existing university is very difficult. Thus you might as well start a new one,” Mr. Nakajima said. “When I was president at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, I tried to redesign the English-language program to make it more communication oriented.”

The plan was foiled when he was met with resistance from the English faculty.

The answer may not be in tinkering with international programs, but a deeper change in the mind-sets of the faculty and the administrators, said Kirk R. Patterson, former dean at theJapan campus of Temple University, in Philadelphia.

“There is a general lack of meaningful contribution by Japanese scholars to the international dialogue in their disciplines,” he said, citing low levels of participation in conferences and publication in academic journals, particularly in the social sciences. “If professors can’t be participants in the international dialogue, how can universities themselves become internationalized? Just talking about a flow of a few dozen students back and forth will not make universities international. The flow will come if the institutions themselves become more international.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 30, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune

(New York Times, Jul 30)