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International links broaden education at ICU

Interview - April 30, 2016

Founded on a basis of international collaboration, Japan’s International Christian University (ICU) already has a globalized view of education in practice that gives it an edge in the current push to internationalize the country’s approach to education. ICU’s President, Dr Hibiya Junko, discusses what makes the university and its students different.



How important is the development of the education sector to the success of Abenomics? Can Abenomics work without a more international education system here in Japan?

I was interviewed by Foreign Affairs, some time ago, and I ended the interview saying that unless we finally globalize Japanese higher education, we’ll be doomed. The Japanese government is getting serious about globalizing our education, which is very good, but just giving out grant money through this Top Global University initiative is not enough, unless, Japanese universities themselves try to change. So, embracing the idea is of course most important as Japanese universities as a whole.

International Christian University (ICU) was established in 1953. ICU was founded through international cooperation, mainly between the United States, Canada, and Japan. So, from the very beginning, the mission and the goal of this university is to become the bridge between Japan and the world.

Whether through Abenomics or not, for the success of a sustainable society, it is important to nurture global human resources. Some people may choose to stay in Japan, and there are many important works to be done domestically, but even so, they need to be globally minded in the 21st century. So, that is the key.


Central to education’s transformation is foreign language education, the internationalization of Japanese universities, and the strengthening of Japan’s identity and understanding for its youth. What do you think are the biggest challenges to implementing these reforms?

As for foreign language education, the Japanese unfortunately are notorious. I must say, an average Japanese person is not particularly good at language learning for various reasons, but how English is taught has to change in our educational system. Also, more importantly, each student must try to learn English proactively. Today, even if it’s getting more and more common for high school students to go abroad, or even if you don’t have any those opportunities, there are plenty of materials around you. If you are determined to learn English, and you are willing to do it of your own accord, everyone can make progress. So, up to this point, many young Japanese people have been studying English just to pass entrance exam.


ICU offers a holistic education focusing not only on academic studies, but also cultivating well-rounded individuals who give back to society. How would you say this education differs from other leading universities in Japan, such as the University of Tokyo and Waseda University?

In Japan, 500 students walk into a huge lecture hall where a professor lectures for 90 minutes. It’s getting less common, but this is the stereotypical image of Japanese university education. So, you can read books, take notes, and listen to the professor; some students learn from this type of education. If you are motivated, you can read books outside the classroom, concentrate on the lecture, sit the exam, and you pass. But the message here is that it doesn’t make any difference even if you are absent. Whether you go to class or not, the rest will stay the same. At ICU, we try to make our classes as small as possible to achieve a low student-faculty ratio. We encourage students to discuss and interact. If you are not there, you miss the opportunity to participate and express your opinion, and that will change the direction of the discussion of that day. So being there, you can be aware that you matter; I think this is the most important message that we give out.


ICU was chosen as one of the universities eligible for funding from MEXT’s Top Global University Project. Can you outline your intentions for this program? How do you plan on increasing your global partnerships?

Permit me to stress that, we have been focusing on liberal arts education in this country from the beginning, so we would like to partner with more liberal arts colleges around the world. We joined the Global Liberal Arts Alliance; about 50% of the members are from the United States, and about 50% from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We learn how each region or country embraces the idea of liberal arts, and try to localize that type of education. We exchange students within these member institutions, and we try to exchange faculty member as well. Also, we try to teach a course together using various platforms.

We have three pillars for our Top Global University Project, one of which is to establish and develop a global liberal arts model with the collaboration of these member institutions. We have bilateral liberal arts partners as well, e.g. Middlebury College, which is also our important focus.


As ICU counts some of the most prestigious universities in the US as its partners, are you working to leverage this to increase more partnerships in the US, or are you looking more globally?

We would like to be more global. For historical reasons, we do have many partner institutions in the United States, and of course they are very valuable; however, during the past decade, we have expanded our partnerships to Asia, Europe and other regions where we’ve never had partnerships before. I would love to expand to Africa and South America, but this is probably the next step.


In this push to become more globalized, often it is important to create a brand and to differentiate, to attract these outstanding students and faculty. What would you say is the brand of ICU that you are trying to create?

For students, they can get first-rate education in English, and they can live on campus. We have quite a number of dormitories on campus, so these students can come and live on our campus with our Japanese students. That really makes a huge difference. Many universities now offer dormitory space, but they are scattered around; here the dormitories are on campus, so they can interact a lot.


Would you say that Japanese ICU students are excited to go outside of Japan? Do they look forward to exchanges?

Students who are interested in enrolling at ICU are more globally minded. So, many students choose ICU precisely because we have so many exchange partners, foreign students, and foreign faculty members here in Japan.

Our motto is to nurture global citizens who will serve God and human kind. I think this is very important.


What responsibility do leading universities like ICU have in Japan’s cultural transformation, such as increasing women in the workforce?

More diversity and inclusion at all levels is very important. Now, we have about 34% of faculty members who hold non-Japanese passports; also, one-third of the faculty members are women.


From your perspective in the education sector, do you feel that ‘Womenomics’ is working and that people are embracing this?

From an educational perspective, as long as they are students, yes, but after they leave school, it depends. If you look at figures by the World Economic Forum, we are the last one in the developed countries in terms of gender equality. In terms of educational achievement, our rate is quite high. So here women are highly educated but they just do not get an appropriate type of work. In that sense, human resources, as far as women are concerned, are wasted.


Do you believe that Japan is on the right path to increasing its number of international students, and raising its international profile?

China and South Korea are extremely aggressive in that regard. They are much more aggressive than Japanese universities. I recently had a visitor from China; they created a new type of educational institution jointly with a UK university, so that type of collaboration might be their strategy.


Do you find yourself often reaching out to your colleagues, peers, and other presidents?

Yes I do, that is very important. If you have any doubts, it’s important to go to the campus and see it with your own eyes.


So what would you say, are you goals for the next five years? What would you have like to achieve or accomplish?

There are many beautiful buildings on our campus, but some of them need renovation as facilities for today’s higher education. Educational technology has changed so much during the past six decades, so this campus has to catch up. So that’s one thing, we are building new dormitories; we just tore down one of our oldest dormitories and the new one will start accepting students from April 2017. So when you come back, the first change you’ll see are the new dormitories.

Our Top Global University Project, which will last until 2023, is also very important. We really have to meet our numerical goals that we’ve stated in our application. For example, a slight increase in international faculty members; and another important target is, the increase of courses taught in English. We accept students from abroad but unless those students who have come from Japanese high schools take courses in English, it does not mean much. English courses are of course for international students whose language ability is not enough to take an academic course in Japanese yet, but at the same time they are for our Japanese students so that they can study with the international students. Otherwise, it is unlikely that they improve their academic English to an even higher level. So we set a target number of courses taken by these Japanese students.

The other important goal we have is we have five science majors: mathematics, information science, chemistry, biology, and physics, and of course a certain percentage of students major in these areas. However, if we look at non-science majors like politics, literature, philosophy, or sociology, their coursework tends to be focusing much more on social sciences and humanities, but they need to take more natural science courses even if they are not planning to major in these subjects. We try to nurture a well-rounded person, because unless they are well rounded academically, it’s difficult to make wise judgments in dealing with such issues as a nuclear power plant accident, an environmental problem, or population growth pandemics. Everybody needs a very good background in natural sciences, so that’s another goal.


Reading some articles about education in Germany, they have implemented a dual education model, which consists of having academic education and internship. Do you have any plans like this, any collaboration with Japanese companies?

That is something we have to explore from now on. What we have been doing is called a service-learning program, so it’s hands-on experience type of learning. However, the collaboration is not with the companies, but with NGOs. Some students do that abroad, for example going to India and working in nursery schools.


How critical are cultural and education exchange programs to the further strengthening of Japanese-US economic relations?

Given our foundation, it is extremely important for us; you know that we started with the collaboration with Americans. Also academically, US institutions are doing very well. So, having good relationships with them, or expanding our partnerships, really opens up opportunities for our students, and eventually, economically as well.


How would you like our American audience to perceive Japan as it embraces its globalized phase?

Japanese people are not static; on the contrary they are quite dynamic. Today, so many Japanese students go abroad and come back, and I think their identity as Japanese is much more fluid. So I would like Americans, those who are in the educational sector or not, to try to see us Japanese as something more dynamic. I would like Americans to be more interested in the diversity within Japan, because we have many different kinds of people, and I think that is true with any country.