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Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University: A vision for global education and diversity

Interview - January 29, 2024

In this interview, Hiroshi Yoneyama, President of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), discusses the value of studying in Japan, APU's unique approach to international education, and the institution's plans for the future. President Yoneyama also addresses the challenges of international student recruitment, creating a distinct Japanese educational experience, and helping international students navigate Japan's job market. He shares his vision for APU's role in promoting diversity, collaboration with local communities, and contributing to a more open and equitable society in Japan.

HIROSHI YONEYAMA, PRESIDENT OF RITSUMEIKAN ASIA PACIFIC UNIVERSITY
HIROSHI YONEYAMA | PRESIDENT OF RITSUMEIKAN ASIA PACIFIC UNIVERSITY

With dozens of globally-ranked academic institutions and a low financial barrier to entry, Japan has long been praised as a fantastic destination for foreign students looking to enter the international workforce. However, even as the nation continues to internationalize, the COVID pandemic as well as concerns about language, distance and the prospects of long-term employment, we have seen a startling drop in international student enrollment. From the perspective of a university, what do you believe is the added value of studying in Japan?

During the pandemic, the enrollment of international students in Japan declined due to the stringent entry measures imposed by the Japanese government. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean the appeal of studying in Japan is lost.

The competitiveness ranking for global universities is based on research output and mutual reputation, with North American universities attracting quality professors with high salaries and good working environments, which means reduced teaching obligations.

In North American universities, students often pursue graduate-level education in order to receive high-quality education, creating a potential gap in quality education at the undergraduate level. While Japanese universities have experienced a decline in international rankings and research capabilities, they maintain high standards in education and research. One notable advantage is the comparatively lower tuition fees compared to Western universities, coupled with high-quality education from excellent professors.

Japan's global perception has evolved over the years. In the 1980s, international media, including Newsweek, hailed Japan as the "Eastern miracle" for its remarkable success. However, this admiration later became criticism that Japanese society isn't quick to align with the mass mindset.

The younger generation seems increasingly drawn to the well-organized and structured nature of Japanese society compared to the US or Western counterparts. This trend is enhancing people's interest in not only Japanese pop culture but also the society’s deeper culture. Despite challenges such as COVID-19 and other factors, I don't think people's interest in studying in Japan has diminished.

 

A recent criticism of Japanese universities is that they don't create a distinctly Japanese experience in their education that would justify people studying overseas. Merely structuring courses around English isn't sufficient to create a unique learning environment, and this has been coupled with the concerns that educational institutions must have a clear identity and direction of how to meaningfully transform their program to better cater to these international learners. Do you believe this criticism is warranted? How does APU create a distinct Japanese educational experience for international students?

I agree with that criticism because the internationalization of universities targets the globalization of Japanese students. The university curriculum reflects a traditional Japanese perspective on globalization, rooted in the Meiji era, where learning English and studying in English-speaking countries were seen as pathways to globalization. English-based curricula are predominantly found in liberal arts schools and colleges.

Indeed, Japan is very behind in offering English programs in specialized fields. To pursue specialized education in Japan, students are required to attain N1-level proficiency in Japanese, posing a significant challenge for international students aspiring to study in the country.

While APU doesn't provide specific programs on Japanese culture and society to our students, we immerse them in the Japanese experience during their stay. APU graduates have shared that spending four years at our university enhanced their understanding of Japan and its culture. In addition, they also reported experiencing culture shock when joining Japanese companies or moving to other universities. This suggests that the APU experience, serves as an excellent initial step.

The structure of APU’s curriculum ensures equal learning opportunities for both Japanese and international students, offering a unique and international-friendly experience in Japan. Situated in the smaller city of Beppu, unlike bustling metropolises such as Tokyo, APU benefits from significant local community support. Many graduates consider Beppu their second home, showcasing APU's role in providing a distinctive Japanese experience to its students.

 

APU was founded in 2000 in Beppu and has since become one of Japan's leading universities. It's been the most international university, with an international student ratio of around 46.5% and an international faculty ratio of 46.7%. What is the core motivation behind establishing this institution, and why was Beppu chosen instead of larger, more international cities like Tokyo and Osaka?

We had a local initiative. Oita Prefecture wanted to invite a major university to the region. After reaching out to various universities, Ritsumeikan responded positively to their call. While we had considered several potential locations, Beppu City stood out with its mountaintop area offering a breathtaking ocean view. During the establishment phase, we envisioned that the sight of the ocean would bring a sense of calm and comfort to international students, with them thinking that the ocean leads to their home countries.

Many of our students come from warmer countries. Their encounters with winter blizzards while waiting for the bus become memorable moments.



As a relatively young university compared to other institutions in Japan, what have been some of the challenges you faced and overcame in your short history?

Student recruitment is key. Before establishing the university, our staff and faculty members engaged in proactive international recruitment efforts. They visited various countries to explain the advantages of studying at our university to high school students. At the same time, we secured substantial funding from the Japanese economic sector to support the tuition of our international students. To gather contributions, we established a committee of presidents from major companies.

Upon returning to their home countries, APU graduates played a crucial role in spreading positive comments about the university. International students from various countries, including Indonesia, who come to Japan to study are very likely to study at APU. This year marks a historic high in the number of Indonesian students enrolled at APU, and I think we are dealing with their best students. While we previously had a higher number of Korean students, the current trend indicates an increase in Indonesian enrollments.

Despite our successful recruitment efforts, we encountered challenges. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Disaster led to a sharp decline in both applicants and admissions of international students, taking four years to recover. Additionally, tensions in the Japan-Korea relationship contributed to a decrease in the number of Korean students. However, during the pandemic, APU managed to maintain admissions by facilitating online studies for students awaiting border reopening.

In March 2022, the Japanese government implemented a more lenient entry policy. We successfully orchestrated an entry operation, allowing 1,100 out of the 1,200 students who could not enter Japan to finally join us between March and July. The campus was adorned with new welcome banners saying “We’ve been waiting for you!” symbolizing our joy of having our students back.

Student recruitment remains an ongoing issue, but we are confident in our ability to overcome it.

Achieving stability within our organization has been a crucial aspect of our journey. Initially lacking the know-how to cater to international students and faculty, with half of our faculty and students being international, we faced challenges in efficiently managing dormitories and conducting meetings for our professors. Over time, we've overcome these hurdles and established a unique “APU culture,” and currently, I find no confusion in managing APU.

Our international faculty and staff often live in Beppu, so they can somewhat communicate in Japanese. Meanwhile, our Japanese faculty and staff can speak other languages. To that end, we have always conducted our meetings in Japanese and English, preparing documents in both languages and assigning simultaneous translators at most meetings.

A third challenge we tackled was the creation and provision of APU-specific education. By 2008, we had established a comprehensive first-year education curriculum that enables our students to learn the theories behind multicultural collaboration and to practice them through various projects. Through the combination of this curriculum with the multicultural dormitory experience, we deliver a fully integrated multicultural education to our students. To enhance our international reputation, we obtained international management accreditations such as AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) and AMBA (Association of MBAs), along with UNTWO. TedQual for tourism education and TGUJ (Top Global University Japan) designation from the Japanese Ministry of Education.

APU has been mentioned in the report related to the Korean government’s recent Global 30 initiative. We are actively striving to achieve high rankings in global university assessments like Times Higher Education and QS to further solidify our international standing.

 

A phrase in Australia says, ‘Institutions are nothing without their student body.’  It underscores the idea that, despite having the best professors, an institution's essence lies in its students. In April this year, you established the College of Sustainability and Tourism, which complements the College of Asia Pacific Studies and the School of Management. Through this, students can learn subjects related to tourism operations, hospitality, and even environmental studies and resource management. Why do you believe now is the right time to establish this new college? What is your strategy to promote and grow the student body of this new college?       

Our initial plan was to open a new college in tourism in 2022 as an emblematic project of APU's 20th anniversary since its establishment. However, we decided to take an additional year to better align the new college with the post-COVID era. In the end, we decided to open the College of Sustainability and Tourism in 2023. One of our discussions involved APU’s mission of contributing to global peace and people’s happiness. Recognizing the significance of sustainability as an issue for all mankind in today's era, we wanted to place it at the center of the research and teaching of the new college.

We were convinced that the younger generation is genuinely interested in sustainability. While sustainability is increasingly adopted as a field of graduate-level programs in Western universities, we are the first to offer a comprehensive undergraduate degree program. We believe that providing education on sustainability at the undergraduate level would have a more profound and widespread global impact.

 

Can you talk about the role that MOUs and partnerships play in APU? Are you currently looking to find more MOUs and partnerships with overseas institutions?

As a TGUJ-designated university, APU has been expanding its network of partnerships. We currently have an MOU with 162 universities. In the future, we will place a strong emphasis on cultivating strategic partnerships.

As a part of the College of Asia Pacific Studies’ initiative, we are trying to establish partnerships with universities in the Indo-Pacific region. We are working on creating an alliance and tentatively calling it the “IP League” once the network is established. This network will serve as a foundation for fostering active student exchanges, providing them with opportunities to immerse themselves in diverse cultures.

We are also actively establishing strategic partnerships with internationally accredited institutions for our College of International Management. Since our College of Sustainability and Tourism is still in the development phase, our intention is to strengthen the network with universities renowned for their expertise in sustainability and tourism.

 

Is Indo-Pacific a specific region you are targeting to increase your student body count, or are there any regions from which you would like to garner more international students or even faculty?

We have formulated an “IMA Strategy” for 2030, with a focus on attracting students from regions like India, the Middle East, and Africa who have not previously considered studying in Japan. Recognizing the global demographic shifts, it's evident that East Asian and Southeast Asian countries are transitioning toward aging societies, except for the Philippines and Indonesia. Looking at 2050 and beyond, we acknowledge the significance of establishing channels with nations experiencing population growth, such as India, the Middle East, and Africa.

 

One of the fears of many international students in Japan is that the type of education they receive will put them at a disadvantage compared to Japanese students in securing employment and navigating Japan's very complex postgraduate job-hunting system. This fear stems from a perceived lack of support by the universities to guide foreign students through Japan’s unique recruitment system, which is demonstrated by the job offer rate at the end of 2021, 39% for international students and 80.1% for Japanese. What kind of framework do you provide to help bridge this gap between school and employment and ensure that your international students receive a fair shot at long-term employment in Japan?

We provide exactly the same level of support—seminars, workshops, and individual consultation sessions—to international students and domestic students in both languages. At APU, we emphasize avoiding categorizing students as either Japanese or international, preferring to view them as APU students.

Because our students are equipped with unique multicultural capabilities, we actively promote on-campus recruitment events with companies that are interested in APU graduates, creating equal opportunities for all our students. We facilitate various avenues for companies interested in APU graduates to engage directly with them. Some companies go the extra mile by bringing interpreters or English-speaking staff to communicate effectively with our international students.

Recognizing the challenges faced during the job-hunting process in Japan, both Japanese and international students are encouraged to be resilient. This approach helps alleviate doubts about self-worth that may arise from criticism or challenging situations encountered during job-hunting. For international students to know that even their Japanese peers are also struggling in job-hunting gives them the encouragement to move forward. Since everything was online during the pandemic, with no face-to-face communication between Japanese and international students, international students often gave up on job-hunting in Japan. Therefore, we emphasize the importance of mutual and peer support between Japanese and international students. Senior graduates who have successfully secured jobs often act as student career advisers to support their juniors.

In addition to supporting traditional career paths, APU actively promotes entrepreneurship. We encourage students to explore their passions and create their own startups. Financial support is provided to students embarking on entrepreneurial ventures. We aim to offer diverse and open options for both Japanese and international students, allowing them not only to work at Japanese companies but also to pursue their dreams.

 

Do you have the data that shows the feasibility of international students finding a job in Japan upon graduating from APU?

The Japanese data on post-graduate jobs shows whether someone joined a company right after graduation. Since it often takes half a year to a year for a student to return to his home country and find a job, it isn't counted in the Japanese counting system. Recognizing the variations in job-hunting practices in different countries, we are currently conducting research on how university graduates seek jobs and get employed in major Asian countries such as Korea and Indonesia. Our aim is to understand the differences and similarities in job-hunting processes worldwide. We want to cater to the growing need for international students to explore more opportunities outside Japan.

 

Imagine we come back in two years for your 25th anniversary as an institution and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? Do you have any specific dreams that you would like to accomplish for this institution?

I consistently emphasize the importance of expanding our imagination of “diversity” beyond national borders to my faculty members. APU's charm is more than being a global university. In order to encourage APU graduates to be more active in society, the university has to establish stronger connections with various segments of society. This encompasses not only Japanese companies but also extends globally, including emerging companies.

Growing companies in Southeast Asia now require international accounting standards and a more global workforce, underscoring the necessity of this broader connection.  APU, with its abundant resources and personnel possessing significant knowledge and experience can play a key role in bridging this gap. By forging connections with companies seeking our expertise, we have the opportunity to collectively move forward.

With TSMC recently building a semiconductor factory in Kumamoto, a new way of opening up Japanese society has become an imminent issue.  New internationalization within the domestic region has been crucial, with more international engineers and their families choosing to stay in Japan. Leveraging APU's extensive experience in multicultural collaborative education and creating an inclusive organization, we aim to join local governments, corporations, and schools in an effort to transform our society into a more open and equitable one. We want to create a channel for APU students to visit these sites and work firsthand as an agent of change in Japanese culture.

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