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Cutting-edge university instills a global perspective in its in-demand graduates

Interview - June 8, 2015

Kaoru Kamata, President of Waseda University in Tokyo, the leader of internationalization of the education sector in Japan, discusses the importance of the education sector in the “third turning point in Japan’s modern history”


Japan is truly going through an exciting time at the moment. In a period of global economic recession, Japan is making the difficult choices to reorient itself for a more globalized economy. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said, Japan is taking “once in a generation” economic reforms through the popularly termed economic paradigm, Abenomics. How important is the education sector to Abenomics? And indeed, can Abenomics succeed without a more globalized education sector?

During 70 years since the end of World War II we enjoyed a long period of peace and development, but going forward economic growth is really important to achieve. I believe that this is the third turning point in Japan’s modern history. The first one was at the end of the 19th century, the Meiji era. During that period, China and other Asian countries were divided up amongst the Great Powers and colonized. But in a very short period of time Japan became a modern nation and was able to maintain its independence.

The second turning point was in 1945 when the country was basically destroyed during WWII, but again in a short period of time was able to rebuild its economy, as Germany also did. The fact that a small island nation as Japan – with limited resources – could overcome this situation, actually twice, is mainly due to two factors: one is the high level of education among the people; the second is basically their work ethic and dedication to building the necessary technology and scientific foundation.

So now at the third turning point, we think that developing human resources along with innovation and technology are going to be the keys to making that happen. Thus, the Abe administration policy for this era is: number one, industrial competiveness, and number two, human resources. The keys for our human resources include being prepared for a global world, having competence, and producing innovation. And under the leadership of Minister Shimomura, a Waseda alumnus, educational reforms are already being enacted.

Mr. Kamata, you chaired the educational panel that advised Prime Minister Abe and Minister Shimomura on the changes needed to create a more global education in Japan. What progress has been made in regards to globalizing Japan’s education sector, and what do you think are still the biggest challenges that need to be overcome?    

Up until now, national education policy has placed more importance on the independence of universities, leaving each university to act on its own. But now the atmosphere has changed. In the past, international education was sort of left up to a few private institutions like Waseda, but in the last two years the situation has changed and now the national universities are also moving in that direction. This is not a revolutionary change; it is more that the natural competitive forces of the global education market have finally taken hold and forced changes. Waseda is the leader in the field of globalization and education, though we should point out that we’ve worked some 20 years to reach that position.

Waseda University has a rich history of contributing to Japan’s development through cutting-edge research and innovation as you outlined in your message: “If Waseda changes, society and the future will change as well.” You also co-wrote a book, titled Creating a Disaster-Resistant Society, where it is the role of scientists and universities to contribute to its development. Do you feel an obligation to provide Japan with a solution to avoid danger in the future?

Waseda sends almost 10,000 graduates into the world each year, and they become leaders in every corner of society. There are only a few institutions which have that much impact. While we know the only way that a country like Japan can advance is through education and research, and we know the education sector must change with the times, still it has been quite resistant to change. The plans that you see now, the plans that national public universities are making, are actually the type of things that Waseda started doing years ago. As you found, we believe that it is very important and good for the world for Waseda to change and move ahead.

Waseda is number one in Japan both in terms of sending students abroad and attracting foreigners to study in Japan. Indeed, when Prime Minster Abe spoke here last month along with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, he praised Waseda as the leader of internationalization of the education sector in Japan. How have you achieved this? What else separates Waseda from Japan’s other prestigious universities?

Firstly, I would say that as soon as Waseda was established as an institution, when Japan was just evolving from a feudal society, it was part of our mission to connect with the outside world. Before WWII actually about 20% of Waseda’s students were international. So, Waseda has a long history of accepting students from overseas, teaching them Japanese language and culture, as well as modern technology and philosophy, which they have taken back to their countries.

Waseda has a special status in China, because many leaders had studied at Waseda, including two founders of the Chinese Communist Party. When the Chinese president or the premier visits Japan they have a custom of coming to Waseda. The same is true of Taiwan. In the case of South Korea, many leaders in business, politics and other fields are Waseda alumni. So, we enjoy the appreciation that they have for Waseda. Kan’ichi Asakawa, the first Japanese professor at Yale University, was a Waseda alumnus, and Ryusaku Tsunoda, who was a pioneer of Japanese studies at Columbia University, also graduated from Waseda. So, this kind of tradition is part of the explanation.

About 20 years ago, Waseda had a turning point of its own. We instituted a vision to link the university’s heritage to the 21st century, and launched a new phase of internationalization. Part of the reason why Waseda was able to do that is because it’s an independent private institution. So now for public institutions such as the University of Tokyo or Kyoto University to try to do the same thing, they can’t make these changes so quickly. Several years ago, the Japanese government set a target of having 300,000 international students come and study in Japan, but there still are only around half that. And of course it’s not hard to understand some of the hurdles. In order to attract more international students to Japan they need to be able to study here without a high level of Japanese language ability. The public universities don’t have system in place to host thousands of international undergraduate students, and their English-based degree programs are still limited to liberal arts curricula in all-international student classes. To study in a specialized program, a student must first master Japanese. This makes it difficult to attract more international students. Waseda has been building its infrastructure for decades, and now has almost 5,000 international students, the most in Japan. There are six undergraduate degree programs and 11 graduate programs where a student can study using only English and get a degree, and in most programs international and Japanese students study together. We are now moving from the “hardware” development stage, building structures and systems, into the second stage of “software” improvement, enhancement of content.

So, maybe one of the reasons why these international students are coming to Waseda is because you have world-class private sector companies here in Japan that you have research relationships with, like Bridgestone, Canon and Nissan, and this allows your students to have a real-world experience, which is vital in this globalized world. Could you outline some of these initiatives and how they help your alumni be more prepared and better qualified for an international world?

Practical innovation is one of Waseda’s founding principles, and the university has always aimed to make practical contributions to society through its research and by educating people who will work for the public good. This has fostered a powerful network of relationships with corporate and public sector institutions in the fields of research and education.

Referring to the programs that you mentioned, we are proud to be a leader in Japan in creating them. I believe that joint research and experiential programs are important for our students to gain perspective about the world outside the classroom, and that the institutional partners also gain from interaction with young students from Japan and around the world. Our overseas exchange partner schools are also very interested in the opportunities born of Waseda’s network.

Waseda University has had one of the strongest and longest relationships with the United States of any Japanese educational institution, going back over 50 years to when Robert F. Kennedy spoke here, and indeed it hosts more U.S. students than any other Japanese university today. How important is cultural and educational exchanges, such as having Bill Clinton speak or the internships you offer and the classes you provide, to strengthening economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries?

 Waseda began partnering with U.S. liberal arts schools in 1963, and has hosted some 100 or more American students each year for over 50 years. Those former students are now leaders in all sorts of fields in the United States and Japan, binding the two countries together. Waseda having these relationships at home and abroad has an impact in changing people’s thinking, whether they are students or other people within those partner institutions.

Demand for these graduates among Japanese employers is significantly increasing. Japanese corporations such as UNIQLO are also looking for Japanese people who have a global perspective, as well as international people who understand Japanese and Japanese culture. I think that in some ways Japan still lacks in globalization or internationalization, but these days we see many cases where a company that did not have that kind of relationship in the past, purchases an overseas company and now all of a sudden they must deal with global issues.

I see three areas where there has been a huge increase in demand recently: one is for young graduates that companies can hire, whether they are international or Japanese, who can do global work right away; second is training to help the existing personnel to do global business; and the third area is to teach Japanese business to overseas students and businesspeople. I think that the impact that Waseda can have on the economy is increasing with this trend.

Referring to the first area, I can add that it is a huge benefit to be able to hire people who are ready to be effective right away. In respect to the second one, about preparing people who are already in the professional world for this new era, last year we had a program here at Waseda co-produced with the Wharton School of Business, where the students were business people studying the international business situation. As for the third area, Waseda’s Global Leadership Program is a partnership with Columbia, Georgetown, UPenn and other top U.S. institutions, for students to learn cultural understanding and communication, as necessary skills for budding leaders in the 21st century.

Considering the vital role of the instruments Waseda is planning, providing Japan with international profile students to really be agents for growth, do you feel responsibility to Japanese economy and Japanese people?

Yes, at a personal level I do feel responsibility to do what is needed for Japan, but I feel a larger responsibility when I think about what Waseda University should be doing. Private colleges and universities educate three out of four students in Japan, so as president of Waseda, at the forefront of that sector, I feel a duty to maintain Waseda’s commitment as an independent, innovative, international leader into the future.