Sunday, Oct 22, 2017
Education | Government | Asia-Pacific | Japan

The Culture Of Japanese Education

Japan to transform its education sector for a more globalized world

2 years ago

Hakubun Shimomura, Former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, greets US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Bouvier Kennedy in Tokyo (US State Department photo by William Ng/Public Domain)
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Hakubun Shimomura

Former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

Education is vital to Japan’s economic reorientation through Abenomics. The country is increasingly viewing education as a vehicle to drive economic growth. Hakubun Shimomura, Former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, discusses how Japanese policies highlight globalization through student and faculty exchanges, as well as increasing the focus on foreign language learning while reinforcing the Japanese identity by allowing its students to appreciate Japan’s rich history and culture.


The education sector is going through a dramatic transformation at the moment to face a more globalized world in three main areas: foreign language education, the internationalization of Japanese universities with partnerships with American universities, and the teaching of Japan’s traditions to strengthen the students’ sense of identity. What are your biggest challenges in terms of implementing this ambitious plan?

First of all, even compared to the various ambassadors of the past, Ambassador Caroline Bouvier Kennedy has taken particular interest in connections related to education between the USA and Japan. I see her quite often, so we know she is very active on this front. I would like to explain to you some of the things that we are currently discussing with the ambassador. There is an organization called CULCON that was created when the ambassador’s father, John F. Kennedy, was president. This is an organization to promote exchange between the two countries.

By strengthening this organization we would like to increase the number of exchange students between Japan and America. At its peak of the number of exchange students from Japan to America there were 50,000 students. But currently there are less than 20,000, so it is about a 60% decrease. For example, Korea, which has roughly half the population of Japan, sends about three times the number of exchange students to the USA, and in the case of China, they send 10 times the number that we send. So, the presence of Japan in the USA is decreasing.

We have set 2020 as the target year for many different projects. Of course there are the Olympics and Paralympics that year, which are included in this plan. Our aim is to double the number of exchange students by 2020. In the case of the number of students from Japan to the USA, we would like to bring it up to 50,000, which was the peak number in the past, so not just double. And, of course, we want to increase the number of American students coming to Japan as well. That is the first point.

Secondly, at present, English education starts in the fifth year of elementary school, but we have decided that it will start two years earlier. We have a program called JET, in which we invite native English speakers to come to Japan and work as assistants teaching English in Japanese classrooms. At the moment we have about 8,000 of these young people coming to Japan a year; half of them come from the USA. But I have been speaking with the ambassador and we are hoping to, at least, double the number of young people coming from the USA for this JET program. This is another thing that we hope to do. There is a program in the USA called Teach For America (TFA). We are talking with the ambassador to see if we can make a Japanese version, where these bright young people can come to Japan to teach English.

Thirdly, I would also like to promote exchange between universities. In Japan the school year starts in April, which means it is half a year different from the USA. So, at the moment, when students study for a year in America, then they are a year behind in Japan, which comes to be a drawback for those students. To solve this issue, Japanese and American universities are working together to create joint degrees, in which credits taken from a university in one of these countries can be considered valid for the university in the other country. We are also looking into a unity system in which top-level universities in Japan and the USA work together so that students can graduate with a degree from both universities. I am making a lot of effort to strengthen the connection in education between Japan and America.


How closely linked is the transformation in the education sector to the overall development of the economy? Can Abenomics succeed without a more international educational sector here in Japan?

Perhaps not so much in America, but in developing countries the population is decreasing. In this environment, the Japanese Abenomics is receiving a lot of attention from around the world. When the population of a country decreases, demand also decreases and the productivity of corporations also declines, together with the economy of the country, as the size of the pie is also reduced. Abenomics is trying to overcome this challenge by stating that it is possible to achieve economic development even with a decline in population, i.e. population decline does not necessarily lead to the decline of the country itself.

I believe there are two crucial points to make this possible, and they both need to be implemented together. The first is the development of human capital, and the second is globalization. When I speak about development of human capital I mean that we aim to increase the inherent value in each person. Of course, if you increase the work hours by 1.5, the output will be increased by 1.5. But this is not what we are aiming for. That is a matter of quantity, but we are aiming for quality. We want to implement education that will increase the work productivity of each person by up to five to six times. This is how we want to increase output. Simply continuing working on the current educational system will lead to such a decline, so we will need to make drastic reforms. Educational reforms are key issues in Prime Minister Abe’s administration.

Globalization is also fundamental. If we limit ourselves to the Japanese market this may go on decreasing, so we need to extend our horizons to encompass the world market. In order to achieve globalization we need to develop human capital that can work globally and, since English is a lingua franca, we need to begin English education early. Up to now, English education has not had the right balance in teaching language as a whole, so I believe that we need to reconsider how English education is conducted.


Your ministry has just launched a campaign to fund Japan's top 37 universities in order to double the amount of Japanese universities that are in the top 100 globally by 2020. Inherent in this is partnering with prestigious international universities. Are you targeting American universities for this? Do you think this will increase Japan’s soft-power, because students really are the first ambassadors for the country, as they travel internationally?

That is correct. There are 783 universities in Japan and, as you have noted, we have designated 37 of them as super global universities and we have decided to support them in becoming universities that can compete with the world as international. When we think about why the USA is such an attractive country and why it goes on growing, there is an easy answer: it is because the USA is a place to which bright people from all over the world want to go.

We are not trying to completely emulate the USA style, but we would like to make Japan an attractive country so that foreign people would want to come and study and work here. This would become a part of Abenomics and would lead to developing the country as a whole.

So, we would like to remove all frontiers and promote the exchange between bright individuals and prestigious universities from abroad and Japan. For example, Ambassador Kennedy is an alumnus of Harvard University and I have been talking with her about creating a university in Japan. It would be difficult to create another Harvard University, but perhaps, paired with another Japanese university, possibly Tokyo University, we can create unity.


How important are the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in regard to providing Japan with a major platform to showcase the country and promote Japan’s role in global economic affairs?

Actually, this year was the fourth anniversary of the March 11th eastern Japan earthquake. By 2020 we hope to recover completely, so that when visitors from around the world come to the affected areas, they will see that the affected areas have been completely reborn.

I would like to say a word about how we are hoping to make Japan an attractive country, not just emulating the USA, by 2020. This is also connected simultaneously with creating a new industry: the tourism industry. Last year we had a record number of visitors in Japan: 16.4 million. By 2020 we would like to increase that to 20 million and by 2030 to 30 million. At the same time of the Olympics and Paralympics, we would like to promote the arts and the cultural heritage of Japan.

There are many attractive things to show all over Japan. We want to vitalize that so that people from all over the world will want to visit Japan. There are nearly 20 World Heritage Sites and starting this year we have decided to introduce another category: Japan Heritage. This aims to not only showing visitors our beautiful castles, for example, but also explaining their historical background and the relationship a castle has with other castles. We want to have tourist packages that appeal to intellectual curiosity. I am sure this will lead to people visiting Japan repeatedly.

I would like to mention that what led to Japan starting its modern industrialization was the coming of Perry in his Black Ship in 1853. This led to the end of the Edo era and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. I hear that there was a lot of resistance to his effort to open up Japan because it was considered a threat. Last year I visited Hakodate in Hokkaido, where Perry first arrived, and there was something that surprised me. I found out that Perry held a concert for the local people inside his Black Ship to thank them for their hospitality. And I was really moved to hear that every year, since that event, the local people have continued playing the song for the local community. I think this shows that Japanese people do not dismiss things just because they come from the enemy; if something is good, then they will incorporate it. This comes from our spirit of harmony, I believe. Americans would like to hear this story and many stories like this one, and they would be eager to visit Hakodate and many other places in their tours.


You have said “the role that Japan must play to the international community in the 21st century is based on the ‘spirit of harmony’ and the ‘spirit of hospitality’ that have been cultivated in Japan since ancient times.” How important are these Japanese cultural characteristics, such as harmony, innovation, hospitality and hard work for the development not only of Japan’s educational sector, but also of the economy as a whole?

I would be happy if we left the world a legacy of harmony from the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. To be specific, in Japan, we have a spirit of “do”, which is translated as “the way” and is part of “judo” and “kendo” in connection with sports and of “kado” and “sado” in relation to culture.

Next year, we have the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the Brazilian jujitsu is a popular sport. It means “technique”. We call that in Japan “judo”. As “do” is “the way”, it is a way that encompasses teachings on how to live your life. It has a supreme meaning, it is not just about technique.

You may have had the experience of drinking tea in Japan. It is not just about enjoying the taste of the tea. You enjoy the way the space is arranged, how hospitality takes place, and how people move within the space. This is “the way”.

The same happens with judo, which might be seen as physical fighting, but actually through that activity you are learning about how people live. So, it is not just about the obvious things. What is important is to incorporate this supreme spirit. 


The development of any economy is largely based on trust and confidence in the economy from the domestic and the international community, which are based on perceptions. How would you like Americans to perceive Japan?

There is definitely something I would like to convey, an objection I wrote for the New York Times but they did not print. I would love for Newsweek to print it. I received criticism that while Japan is conducting drastic educational reforms at the moment, they are also creating a more nationalistic educational agenda. I can only think that this was written by someone who is not familiar with the Japanese education system.

I believe it is necessary to create true members of global society in this day and age. And in order to do that, we need to educate young people who will actively go out all over the world. In order to be a true member of global society, I believe that one needs to have an identity as a Japanese person.

Speaking English is a must, of course, because it is a global language, but also Japanese people need to know about their traditional culture and history to be taken seriously by their counterparts abroad. But young people in Japan are not very familiar with Japanese culture, history and art. The current state of Japanese historical education is centered around rote memory for entrance exams to universities, etc. So, for example, there is a wonderful work of fiction called The Tale of Genji, which was written about 1,200 years ago, but the students simple memorize that this has happened and learn very little or nothing about its content.

To create a truly global citizen, we need to create a true Japanese person at the same time. We have no intention of creating an educational system that is prejudiced, slammed, for nationalism. 




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