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Preparing the multinational graduates that will ensure Japan's future economic success

Interview - March 20, 2024

With over 90% of its students coming from abroad, the International University of Japan is playing an instrumental role as Japan's corporate world becomes increasingly more open to international graduates.

TAKEO KIKKAWA, PRESIDENT OF INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF JAPAN
TAKEO KIKKAWA | PRESIDENT OF INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF JAPAN

Japan as a country is currently looking at a number of challenges facing it as we enter 2024. On top of a lack of labor force, globalization relative to other countries and the nation’s demographic shift are anticipated to cause a shortfall of 11 million workers by 2040. The government has decided to boost its education system with the ambitious target of attracting 400,000 foreign students to Japan. What role can universities play in addressing Japan’s challenges, including the need to globalize and the shortages in labor?

The role universities play is massive. There are two main issues why despite the need for universities, there is a gap in the supply. Firstly there is the language barrier and secondly, there is the labor culture of lifetime employment.  

I have an interesting case study I would like to talk about now. We receive a fund from a major thermal power plant player called JERA, and the fund is for scholarship tuition. Three of our graduates, all female, have joined the company, and in fact, two of them were mid-career employees. The other person speaks very good Japanese so was employed as a new graduate. For mid-career hires, the Japanese system is somewhat similar to the global standard. Two of our graduates were from the Philippines and one was from Bangladesh and they are playing an active role in the Asian market. However, with the other newly graduated staff, they need to go through a new graduate program. There was another graduate, a Vietnamese lady, and she had to go through this Japanese career development program. Although she is unique there are restrictions on her career. In regards to the two International ladies, I’m sure that if their Japanese was better there would be more career development within their scope. 

This is my personal view and not the company’s, but I believe that newly graduated students need to stay within the restrictions of the Japanese new career development system. On the other hand, from my observations, it seems that mid-career graduates are struggling with the Japanese language barrier.

 

It is interesting that you mentioned the limitations on new graduates because one of the criticisms of Japanese universities is that it is difficult for international students to secure employment post-graduation. These concerns are fueled by the perceived lack of university support in navigating Japan’s complex job market and the relatively low numbers of foreign workers in Japanese companies. Despite this perception, the trend has been changing over the past five years, and now there are more than double the amount of foreign workers operating in Japanese companies. What kind of framework can you provide to help bridge the gap between those students, new graduates, and companies?

The uniqueness of our institution is that 90% of our students are from overseas, and although they had careers in mind, they have decided to enter our graduate school. Once a year we issue a resume book to explain their backgrounds and past careers and we then distribute that resume book to partnering companies.

We have two departments in our graduate school; International Relations and International Management. Alongside those, we also provide language education programs for Japanese students in English, and vice versa, for foreign students we have an intensive Japanese learning course.

 

Japan has a reputation as one of the safest countries globally, coupled with the fact that it has very modern universities with an emphasis on English language programs. This aligns perfectly with the country’s foreign corporate presence and domestic job market that is in severe need of more supply. Additionally, with the favorable devaluation of the JPY, living in Japan is more affordable than ever for foreign students. From the perspective of a university, what do you believe is the added value of studying in Japan?

Personally, I’m a historian, so from my perspective, Japan is in a very interesting position. The Japanese Industrial Revolution actually happened right after the USA, French, and German Industrial Revolutions and it ended right at the beginning of the 20th century. From 1910 to 1980, so for almost eight decades if you exclude the years Japan was involved in WWII, Japan recorded the top economic development among G7 countries. However, since the 1990s when the economic bubble burst, Japan’s economy has stagnated and it became one of the worst G7 countries. Colloquially, the resulting decades have been known as the Lost Decades, and we are now looking at 40 years accumulated under this moniker.

Japan is a very unique country that has experienced rapid economic growth as well as long periods of stagnation. If foreign students elect to come here they will learn all about both growth and stagnation which will be a valuable insight into their own country’s development.

Currently, we have over 400 students from 68 countries and regions, and among all of these countries and regions around half rely heavily on agriculture. Globally it has been felt that there are issues growing economically from a purely agriculture-based economy. At the same time, it is important for nations to retain agriculture within their economic growth. This area is known for its rice fields such as the prized Koshihikari rice grains. Simply put, there is traditional Japanese scenery all around our campus. Of course, studying in urban cities is a good option, but at the same time learning in a locality in Japan where traditional scenery and culture are all around you offers international students something that is truly unique.

 

In Japan the priority is rising for the hiring of high-caliber international talent including doctoral and master students to boost global education and research competitiveness. Efforts are being made with investments of JPY 10 trillion in order to achieve an attractive research environment and reward system. How important is the internationalization of your university and what initiatives have you put in place in order to be attractive to foreign students and faculty members? What can your university provide to master's degree and Ph.D. students?

Our institution was established in 1982 and we now have over 5,000 alumni, however the characteristics have changed over 40 years. The first 20 years were more or less dominated by Japanese male students studying in order to go abroad. In the last 20 years, however, there have been more international students studying in Japan, and the male-to-female ratio is about 55% males and 45% females. Honestly, that ratio for women is higher compared to other universities. We have about 50 office staff members, all of which speak English which is very unique. In fact, I’ve never seen this in any of the universities I’ve taught before. Another unique aspect of the staff here is that many of them come from the local area. Many would go to study in urban areas like Tokyo or Osaka but then come back here. The fact that they come back to their hometown to work creates a very unique system of education.



You are a historian so we would love to get your viewpoint on the Lost Decades. There was of course the Economic Miracle after WWII, but then the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s. When we look at Japan from 1998 all the way to 2010, one of the big changes that occurred in the labor market was entrepreneurship. Japan was very famous in the 1960s and 1970s for creating new products and companies, and it felt like the sense of entrepreneurship was lost. In fact, there is a perception these days that young Japanese are too comfortable, and as such the mindset of taking risks has disappeared. Do you agree, and if you do, how do you think this risk-averse mindset can be changed?

Basically what you say is 100% true, but it is also a very complex matter. Up until the 1980s, Japanese companies invested heavily, but with the Lost Decades, Japan went bad because companies stopped investing and taking risks. I think the reason people stopped taking risks was because innovation had changed globally. Until the 1980s we saw more of an incremental, step-by-step approach to innovation, which followed essentially the Kaizen philosophy which Japanese people are really good at. However, since the 1990s with the ICT revolution, the latecomer Kaizen advantage was no longer applicable because we are not good at adapting to disruptive innovations. The markets Sony was successful with up until the 1990s, Apple has taken over since then. Likewise with Panasonic and Samsung.

In the semiconductor industry, Tokyo Electron is still a major player, but while many Japanese companies feel they are in blue oceans, unfortunately, because they are so niche they are actually in blue lakes. Tokyo Electron is a dominant player in the manufacturing devices for the semiconductor industry, but even that is a limited and niche field compared to TSMC which has emerged victorious in a red ocean. Honestly speaking, the strengths of the companies are incomparable. 

 

You mentioned the impact of ICT in the '90s and early 2000s, and I think today we are experiencing a second big ICT impact with the emergence of generative AI such as ChatGPT or Google’s Gemini. It is having a very big impact across sectors, specifically in the education field where it is not only forcing universities to adapt their syllabuses and practices but also pushing companies and institutions to adopt lifelong learning, where professionals have to update their capabilities every few years. We know that your university created a DX program back in 2021. How are you reacting to these DX trends, and more broadly, how do you think DX will impact how you are educating your students moving forward?

It was a very successful move of our establishment to create the DX course. Many of our students are Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) supported students, but with the introduction of our DX course we are able to enlarge the student range and portfolio.

JICA-supported students are mostly bureaucrats of their own countries. They study here and then go back to their own countries, but with the opening of the course, we are able to gather students that are from countries like India and the Philippines, where they are interested in learning in Japan and then staying in Japan for work. I think the reason students come to Japan comes from the influence of manga and anime. They aren’t just interested in picturesque landscapes that they’ve seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as The Boy and The Heron, but instead, they are actually interested in the lives of the characters they’ve seen in popular manga and anime series. They resonate with Japanese culture where human emotion is reflected in a few words. Hospitality culture is also a big allure of Japan.

I’m now reaching 72 years of age, and although we are currently seeing a dip in the Japanese economy, I do believe now more than ever Japanese culture is being highly evaluated globally to the point where we might be living a golden age of J-culture. Students who choose Japan over the US, China, or even Europe are greatly appreciated and we do see them as a valuable asset for the future of Japan.

 

Your university has built itself over two main graduate programs; International Relations and International Management. You’ve also added other programs to complement your core two for those interested in language or global leadership. Can you describe your programs and the key advantages when compared to similar programs found in schools or universities internationally?

To be very honest, it is hard to tell if our programs stand out when compared to other institutions. The biggest asset of our graduate school is that we have students from multiple nations, creating diversity. The role that the university is playing currently among multinational students is a sort of location to share ideas and applications. The motto of our institution is to “Create a space for the world to collaborate together.” That pursuit also includes the elements of DX.

 

With this trend of diversity, do you see yourselves creating or integrating new programs or new fields in the near future, and what will they be?

As for a new program, we are currently collaborating with JICA in the creation of a new department focusing on climate change and green transformations.

 

Among your facilities, you have your IUJ Research Institute, founded in 1997 by merging four existing research institutes which were the Center for Japan-US Relations, The Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, The Research Institute for Asian Development, and the International Management Research Institute. Your goal with this institute is to study various challenges faced by Japan’s modern society as well as challenges on a more global scale. Could you provide us with some more details about the nature of this collaboration and the outcomes or impacts they have had on the local community and industry?

We have just over 40 faculty members, with around 40% Japanese. This includes Japanese faculty members who have studied overseas, so we do have a very diverse background in terms of our faculty members.

Although the focus is on the literature side, there are many faculty members who are also focusing on regional studies. Unfortunately, due to a limited budget, our research institute is not as active as at other universities. There is an organization called GLOCOM located in Tokyo which is related to IUJ and they are taking active actions.

GLOCOM is highly evaluated socially because of its activities digitally and the way it has been addressing communication issues.



Do you have any examples of projects or research that have been applied to the local region?

There is a movement to create a smart community within Niigata prefecture using digital technology, and this is a collaboration with GLOCOM professors. There is actually a restaurant in front of the station that offers a special type of mushroom, and this received the Grand Prix prize at a Singaporean exhibition. Inspired by this award, five local companies want to showcase their original food through a tasting at the end of January 2024 here at IUJ. Additionally, we have an annual snow festival at the beginning of February as well as International Day in May. The snow festival involves a competition between students to create snow statues, and International Day involves students showcasing their own national cuisines and dances.

 

Your university has multiple international academic exchange agreements all around the world. What role do partnerships play in your business model and are you currently looking for new partners among overseas universities?

We have different types of memorandums of understanding (MOU) and partnerships. One is a partnership with top-class universities in European and Asian countries. There we exchange credits, basically recognizing credits for other institutions if a student comes to visit to take classes. There is also another program we do together with universities in Korea, Indonesia, and China, and basically, it is a double-degree program, so students can study one year in their country and one year here in Japan. This will result in them being awarded a double master’s degree.

Another deal we have is with Nagaoka University of Science and Technology, which is an exchange program. We additionally had a recent contract with the Costa Rican government where they dispatched their personnel here to Japan to study. Likewise, we have contracts with over 60 companies domestically where they send their personnel to study.

Having said all this, there are issues in place, especially domestically. With the lasting impact of the Lost Decades, Japanese companies in particular are limiting their budgets for training programs. Although we have received great reviews, fewer and fewer companies are actually dispatching their personnel to study with us.

Currently, we have 400 students, and only 33 of those students are Japanese. This is less than 10%. Some might consider it a strange university.

 

One of the biggest challenges that Japanese universities are trying to overcome is not only attracting foreign students but keeping them in Japan so that they can make a life for themselves here. Despite the Lost Decades of the past 40 years, it is our belief that Japan is now living in a very exciting time. There is a labor shortage and a weak JPY, making Japan an attractive location to study in. Additionally, Japan’s industries have received a lot of coverage over the past year due to a myriad of economic factors. With that in mind, how would you convince international students to consider Japan, not just as a place to study, but also as a place to live?

The depreciation in the JPY is actually a good thing, however, for students it also means that their salary is low when converting back to their home country currency. Comparatively, salaries used to be an attractive point, but that is no longer applicable. Having said that, although all students may not stay in Japan for work, having students to learn and like Japan is important.

The students that remain in Japan are a valuable asset but it is also important for companies to create a career development system which in turn become advantage points for foreign workers remaining in Japan. As such the Japanese government and Japanese companies are taking active steps in creating such a scheme, so I have high expectations for the latest developments. I think the key is to change the career development structure within Japan.

 

Before you pass on the torch to the next generation president of IUJ, do you have any goals or ambitions you would like to achieve?

I want the spirit of Japanese hospitality to spread across the globe. I would also like this institution to act as a bridge between Japanese culture and global society. I myself am 72 years old, and in general Japanese academia is past retirement age, but I still find this environment fun and engaging so I want to remain involved as long as that is the case. As far as ambitions go, I want to promote the overseas impact and change Japan into a more internationalized country.

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