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Transformative Education and Social Innovation: Insights from Toshiki Sumitani, President of Kobe Institute of Computing

Interview - February 15, 2024

In an interview with Toshiki Sumitani, President of Kobe Institute of Computing, insights into Japan's educational landscape emerge. Sumitani underscores Japan's welcoming, safe environment for international students, promoting cultural integration and a unique Eastern perspective on education. Addressing critiques about institutional distinctiveness, Sumitani emphasizes Kobe Institute of Computing's focus on social innovation through ICT, empowering students to address real-world issues. Discussions encompass Japan's technological evolution, AI's role in education, and KIC's strategy to attract diverse global talent, particularly from Africa. Sumitani envisions KIC as a catalyst for societal advancement, fostering continuous improvement through technology and human collaboration to address global challenges.


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-19 pandemic, as well as concerns about languages, distance, and the prospects of long-term employment have seen a startling drop in international student enrollment. From the perspective of a specialist school and graduate institution, what do you believe is the added value of studying in Japan?

I think there are many barriers in place in Japan, however, I do feel there are many positives too. Students can feel safe and secure in Japan, and the country is very well known as one of the safest countries in the world. Japanese people are also very open-minded and respect various other cultures. We are more than willing to take students on regardless of their background, culture, or religion. We are open and have no discrimination so students can feel safe and there is no fear of being attacked. I think this is a very important factor for a lot of foreign students. This kind of safe environment allows students to focus on their studies and they can socialize with local people.

Another point is that most popular universities are located in Western countries, whereas we are from the East, and that gives students a new perspective. Although there is some influence from the West, we have still managed to maintain our own culture, meaning that the way we look at things is different from the way Westerners think. An example is that in Western universities what is taught is specialized and divided into departments and subjects. Of course, you can learn very specialized knowledge, but Eastern people have more of a broader perspective; a more holistic way of looking at things. This more flexible way of looking at things is certainly an advantage.

I think that we also have more emphasis on human beings and their passions, meaning that class goes beyond just teaching knowledge. We are looking more at the people and what makes them tick. I think this mindset is inherent to Eastern culture.


A recent criticism of Japanese institutions is that they don’t create a distinctly Japanese experience. They might offer some of the Eastern and Asian experience but not a holistically Japanese one that would justify students studying overseas. In particular, some feel that merely structuring courses around English isn’t sufficient enough to create a unique learning environment. This has been coupled with concerns that educational institutes lack a clear identity or direction of how to meaningfully transform their programs to better cater to these international students. Do you believe this is a warranted criticism, and how does your institution create a distinct Japanese experience?

I don’t believe that because I feel it is too generic of an argument. I think that each university and professor has their unique characteristics. Maybe we are not good enough at communicating our uniqueness, but I think each university has its strong points.

One challenge for us is, of course, the language. There aren’t many professors in Japanese universities who speak English well, so that is certainly a barrier. At that point, we see tremendous growth in AI in terms of automatic translation. ChatGPT is doing amazing things to bring down language barriers and bring benefits to Japan. Another point might be that we are not very good at making keywords to help international students understand our uniqueness. One of the characteristics of Japanese is that words can sometimes have vague meanings and are not clearly defined. Even a phrase such as “Tankyu,” can have various meanings in Japanese. I think that Eastern culture in general is defined by this vagueness of words, allowing some element of flexibility in the interpretation of phrases. If you are too rigid to some definitions you can sometimes destroy the human element of an explanation of something. Interestingly, students from Africa tend to accept this vagueness easily and I think they are very happy studying here.

I started teaching international students 10 years ago, but so far my experience has been very comfortable. By talking to students I grew to understand international cultures better. Most students who graduate from here love Japan and often contact us after graduation.


In one of your earlier answers, you mentioned that one of the key challenges of Japan is the communication of its uniqueness. What would you say is the main uniqueness of the Kobe Institute of Computing (KIC)?

Our motto is “Social innovation by ICT and yourself,” which represents our uniqueness. I became president here 13 years ago. At that time I would ask students why they wanted to study ICT and they would almost always say money. That kind of economic incentive was typical at the time. The same year I wrote a book about social issues and social entrepreneurship, and I started to advocate for the need to look at more social issues besides making money. KIC’s management team accepted this kind of thinking. We discussed our uniqueness and how to make a social impact. I think this position is quite a unique one, especially in the engineering field. Most universities focus on technology, business development, and new products, but we instead focus on solving social issues.

The final word in our motto is “yourself,” and I think that is very important. In most universities, the professors decide on the research area and teach students based on their research topic. Here we take students from many countries and their countries have their issues. Each student chooses a topic of interest, basically a social issue, and then they try to solve that issue with technology. They are the center of their research and learning. They are the ones who take action. We encourage the students to go to “Gemba”, where people face real issues, and help them solve issues by utilizing technology. They come up with ideas, develop prototypes, and test the ideas, making sure that their ideas apply to solving issues in the real world.

We’ve interviewed quite a few manufacturing firms, and we are aware that Japan is quite slow at adopting new and innovative technologies. Japan was ranked 29th in a recent digital competitiveness rankings. The former Prime Minister Suga’s administration created a digital agency, promoting the use of digital tools through incentives to adopt IoT and cloud-based solutions within the private sector. As someone who teaches the next generation how to use ICT, what is your take on Japan’s ability to adapt to new DX tools?

I find that ranking quite odd because so many Japanese children can utilize technology so easily. Just look at the usage of Minecraft for example, so it might be older people that are the problem. Japanese management still has old people at the center so that might be the problem. Public institutions, in particular, are very slow. In contrast, private companies have no objections to digital technologies, it just comes down to managing them correctly. Also, Japanese politics is very old-fashioned and slow to change.


How long before you think Japan will undergo a full digital revolution?

Around 10 years or so.


From an educational standpoint, AI can be an excellent way of enhancing the learning experience. It can cater to each student’s different needs and provide real-time assistance to teachers. There are downsides too. There are privacy concerns as well as concerns over the educational content being inconsistent. Also, there can be a lack of accountability regarding what AI might generate and whether the information is correct or a “hallucination.” As a computing institution, where do you stand on AI being utilized in the educational sector?

We are very positive about using AI. Of course, AI can have a negative impact on society as well as a positive one, but as I said, students are the center of learning and so we encourage our students to utilize technology to create social good by wisely using AI.

There was a big earthquake here 18 years ago, and the vice president started utilizing the internet at the time so that he could rescue affected people. KIC has a history of utilizing technology to create value in society, therefore we are very positive about utilizing the latest and greatest innovations in technology.


This institution was founded in 1958, and since then you’ve contributed to the development of computer technology and the development of professionals as the largest vocational school in Hyogo Prefecture as well as the longest-running computer technology institution here in Japan. What do you believe have been the key milestones in your institution’s history?

Of course, we need to talk about the founder Mr. Tomio Fukuoka, and even 65 years ago when he started this school he thought that electronics and computers would be a great driving point for Japan. He was an engineer so he was very good at analyzing technology and producing new things. He also thought that teaching new technology was crucial, with the feeling that if people can’t utilize the technology then it is useless. This was the reason behind starting KIC. In fact, in the early 1970s together with some students, he built a computer completely from scratch, something that hadn’t been achieved in Japan alone at that time. Around the same time, he also wrote a book about computers, which was one of the first textbooks about computers in Japan. He was a man of great foresight.


One of the biggest challenges for educators in technology fields is keeping up-to-date with ever-evolving technologies. How is your institution able to make sure that students can keep up-to-date considering technology is constantly changing at an ever-increasing pace?

Of course, our students learn the latest technologies here at KIC, but that isn’t the key point we are teaching them. Instead, we want them to apply the latest technologies to solve real-world issues. The methods and their experience can be applied to next-generation technologies when they arrive. As the needs of users change they can adapt because of the lessons they’ve learned at KIC. We are teaching ways of thinking and identifying issues, then learning and acquiring the latest technology, before combining the two to solve the issues at hand. Teaching new technologies is certainly part of this approach but it is not the whole story.

Typically engineering schools have just engineers, and social universities have people interested in social topics. We take all of them. We have students who are engineers, who are interested in social topics, and even those who want to become educators. Combining and encouraging collaboration is something we feel is very important. Many times on a project the engineers can design the ICT side of things, but they might not understand the human element. Collaboration between different specialized people can create new value and better outcomes.


KIC is known for its Tankyu Practice, which allows for the improvement in the utilization of strengths and practice for system developments in the real world. International agencies have even started utilizing the Tankyu Practice in training programs. Can you give us a breakdown of this Tankyu Practice and why you believe it has been so effective?

There are many methods for project planning and project management and of course, I know many of them. However, in many cases, they are too complex. I like to keep it simple so that people from different backgrounds can understand and collaborate. When students get a chance to see their solutions in action they are happy and understand the effectiveness of this method. They then return to their home countries with the methodology and then they can teach local students. This is how we now have a relationship with the University of Rwanda. This combination of our methods and our graduates has contributed to the method's success outside of Japan. This basis builds the fundamentals of the Tankyu Practice.


The president of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (TUAT) also emphasized this collaborative aspect when we spoke to him. Are you currently looking for more collaborations with other academic institutions across the world? 

We have had many requests from other universities. We often provide short-term programs to the international community. For example, we are doing a short-term project for Ethiopia. They want to develop a new business development ecosystem, so now they are visiting Japan and visiting our university. This is always happening to me funnily enough. Every time I teach I then get approached about collaborations. We are very happy to collaborate but of course, we cannot go everywhere. This is where online lectures can be very useful. We now have around 30 Rwandan graduates, so they are playing a very important role in their home country. They are respected and they can teach local students the Tankyu Practice. As the number of graduates from each country increases, so do the opportunities for us to collaborate.


You mentioned Ethiopia and Rwanda, so there is a focus on Africa right now. From your brochure, we can see that you have 227 students from 36 different African nations. Is this focus on Africa a deliberate strategy?  

We are a latecomer and started teaching international students 10 years ago. Asian students tend to look at bigger universities. We have to be unique. We focused on social issues and utilized those technologies to solve social issues. I think this thinking caters to Africa’s needs as well as other developing countries. Our students tend to come from developing countries.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) also hands out a lot of scholarships to students from these emerging countries, and without these scholarships, I don’t think some of the students would be able to study here. Nowadays we are seeing more self-financed students, but especially at the beginning, many students were financed by the Japanese government.

What is your current ratio between domestic students and international students?

Right now it is around 60% international to 40% domestic, and out of the 60% international, 30% are from African nations. We have several Asian and Arabic students as well. It is unique and diverse.

What is your strategy to attract more international students to KIC moving forward?

We hope that you can help us with that.


The fear among international students is that the type of education that Japanese institutions offer will put them at a disadvantage compared to Japanese students in securing employment or just navigating Japan’s very complex post-graduation job-hunting system. This fear stems from the perceived lack of support coming from institutions to guide foreign students through this unique recruitment system. This is demonstrated by the job offer rate being 39% for international students compared to 80% for Japanese students in 2021. What framework does KIC offer to help bridge the gap between school and employment? What can you do to make sure that international students get a fair shot at employment?

Certainly, employment is a big issue for us, but we are a graduate school and therefore most of our students have work experience back home. For them, the recruitment process is not so complex, and we have seen no real problems with our international students getting hired by global companies such as Toyota and Amazon. Those kinds of companies will take on interns and they have extensive experience in doing so.

However, there are other tiers of Japanese companies that are still very conservative in terms of hiring foreign people. Some of these companies will require high levels of Japanese proficiency, which can be hard for some of our international students to achieve.

Another problem is, of course, the Japanese work culture itself. Just the simple act of being punctual can be challenging for some who are not used to such strict rules. I think, however, that in terms of actual recruitment, things aren’t so complex these days. I think the real issue comes down to just how rigid and traditional some smaller Japanese companies can be. Our students are very talented people, so as long as they find a position they find interesting I think there are opportunities for them to flourish.


Would you like to explain your Tankyu philosophy a little to us?

I think that if you consider the roots of the word Tankyu, it comes down to the idea of adapting to an ever-changing environment with a never-ending spirit. It is in a sense similar to the Kaizen philosophy of continual improvement. I think that this kind of spirit is very prevalent in Japanese culture, to the point where it is almost engraved into each Japanese person like it is embedded in our DNA. We don’t stop improving ourselves, and this philosophy is something I try to teach to my students when they tackle social issues. It is an ongoing effort that must be continually improved upon.

The reaction to this is often very interesting in classes. Students from Africa naturally think about social value because they have serious issues in their home countries such as lack of education. Students from China pay little attention and often it is the first time they have ever thought about social value. Japanese students tend to have a mix of both reactions.

At KIC we encourage students to develop their strengths, whether that is technical strengths or human strengths. Without these strengths, students stand no hope of solving issues. Of course, this also has to come with a collaborative element because as humans we aren’t capable of solving all the world’s problems alone. This is another core of the Tankyu practice we teach here at KIC.

I can give you some examples of some different projects completed by graduating students. We had one student from Senegal, and she tackled the issue of fake news. She wanted to help people distinguish between fake and real news. Her idea was to create a decentralized, secure system for fake news detection. She used AI, and blockchain and involved media people in the project. What this resulted in was not only machine checks but human checks too. This made sure that the information selected as real news was correct, and I think this is a good example of a mix of technical solutions and the involvement of the right people.


What are your goals and dreams for KIC for the upcoming five years?

We are looking to continue to contribute to society through the development of people who can utilize technology for social good. There are still many issues that plague the world, in many sectors like education, medicine, and agriculture. So we will look to best utilize technology to further our goals. While it is true that technology is very important, we believe that the efforts of people are more important. This is the type of learning environment we would like to continue to cultivate at KIC, allowing our students to tackle the most prominent social issues around the world.