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Cultivating global leaders and fostering local ties to ignite educational transformation

Interview - March 8, 2024

Tsuru University stands as a beacon of educational excellence, bridging global perspectives with local community engagement, and empowering students to thrive in an ever-evolving world through innovative programs and a rich cultural experience.

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

Studying abroad requires students to leave their home country and learn about the mindset and culture of the people in the country they study in. With globalization, the contents of the courses are basically the same, but where you study changes what you learn and which culture you will experience. Speaking of Japan, it does have a high barrier due to the language and the distance. By overcoming this barrier, overseas students can learn about the real uniqueness of Japan. In fact, I feel that the distance and the language have created the uniqueness and one-of-a-kind feeling of Japanese culture. In our case, since we offer specialized courses, education, and pedagogical programs, students from overseas can learn about the Japanese educational system, culture, and values, while receiving education within that system.

 

A recent criticism of Japanese institutions is that they don’t create a distinctly Japanese experience, that might offer some of the Eastern and Asian experience but not a holistically Japanese one that would justify them studying overseas. In particular, there are those who 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 completely agree that the American version of Japanese education in English is not significant enough to provide a unique experience to overseas students. What is important is to add value by providing unique aspects to their learning experiences. Historically speaking, Japanese education has been based on the concept of standardization, where student’s level of learning has been standardized so that everyone is at the same level. As a university, it is important to go beyond this standardized level and offer unique curriculums for international students in order to manifest the individuality and creativity that they need.

The programs we are offering for exchange students are designed specifically to provide them with a distinctly Japanese experience. To give one example, international students can have an internship at a local high school once a week for 15 weeks. This allows students to learn about real-life, onsite Japanese education context.

Located in Tsuru City we also have a strong network with the local community. We do have a program where students collaborate with local government and local companies to find solutions to local communal issues. We are now trying to open up this program to international students so that they can also engage actively in the local community.


Tsuru Humanities Center


Digital transformation and the integration of ICT have significantly impacted education worldwide. Japan, however, is a culture that emphasizes the use and importance of handwriting and the nation still seems to be searching for balance in terms of how to integrate digital tools within a classroom environment. Your university has opened the Tsuru Humanities Center to promote DX education and further enhance regional collaboration. How do you see DX and ICT shaping the future of education within Japan? What challenges or opportunities do you envision in adopting these technologies to enhance classroom learning?

The Tsuru Humanities Center was established in April 2023 with a target to raise human personnel that is fluent in DX and ICT usage. Another uniqueness we have here at Tsuru University is that we have created a space we call the Digital Commons where we have all sorts of digital devices such as computers, printers, VR headsets, 3D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment. We provide the opportunity for anyone to use these devices. All of these DX devices are only a tool and we are all still in the phase of exploration: all looking for ways to apply and make use of these digital tools. By providing this free space and opportunities for our faculty members and students, we believe it will lead to new innovations in teaching and learning.

We have ICT advisors, our trained students, onsite at the Tsuru Humanities Center, who are there to assist anyone interested in utilizing these new technologies. We have high expectations that interesting new innovations will come out of this freedom to explore new technologies and the interactions they empower.

From April 2024 we will also be restructuring our education curriculum with a minor in ICT DX. The hope is to create a structured education program around the use of ICT and DX, all centered around our Tsuru Humanities Center.

As I mentioned, ICT and DX are only tools, so finding the best utilization is very important to integrating these technologies into educational programs. Historically, Japanese education has been focused on raising a race of people with standardized knowledge levels, but with the world being the way it is now, standardized education is not enough. It is very important to focus on the individual and explore the talents of each student. By having these new tools, we believe that a trigger point can be achieved that would instigate new educational approaches.


Classroom environment at Tsuru University


Your university built itself off of three main pillars; the local community, global communication, and teacher training. You allow students to mainly specialize in literature-related subjects, with your most recent addition being your Faculty of Liberal Arts in 2018. Your university also promotes the philosophy of Seiga Ikusai. Can you describe to us what this concept of Seiga Ikusai is and how you have managed to diffuse it within your classes and enrich your student's knowledge levels? In addition to your Faculty of Liberal Arts, are you looking to integrate any new faculties or departments in the near future?

The university’s founding philosophy is Seiga Ikusai, which comes from the Confucianist teachings. Its symbol is Tsunoyomogi plant, a type of plant that grows very quickly. Ikusai means human capacity building. By combining these words, we have created a school philosophy that represents our desire to create an education system where students can grow rapidly and vividly like the Tsunoyomogi plant.

My modern interpretation is that the plant grows when it is watered regularly, and it is under sunlight. Likewise, by providing a good educational environment and encouraging students, they can also grow and learn to become people who make significant contributions to society.

As the Faculty of Letters and the Faculty of Education alone seemed to offer only confined areas of education, we established the Faculty of Liberal Arts in 2018. This was to establish that we offer a wide range of education. From 2024, the faculties will be restructured, in which the Department of Comparative Culture and the Department of Global Education will be integrated into the Faculty of Liberal Arts.

 

Tsuru University implemented internationalization at a very early stage in the university’s history, with the establishment of the Department of English Literature in 1963 and the first international partnership agreement in 1993. Since then you’ve continued to develop your network in order to assist your students in studying abroad as well as welcome foreign students to discover Japanese culture recently with your Tsuru International Student Program (TISP). You’ve even implemented a tutor system where Japanese students can help foreign students integrate themselves into the local community. Why is it important for you to attract foreign students to learn about Japanese culture at your university and what initiatives do you implement in order to be the most attractive facility possible and facilitate foreign students’ integration within your institution?

Tsuru University is a public university operated by the local government of Tsuru City. It has a long history of teacher training and 85% of the current students have come from outside of Yamanashi Prefecture. Within Japan, this university has been recognized as more open to students within and outside the Japanese borders.

The attractiveness of studying at Tsuru University for both international and domestic students is that the university is located in a mountainous area of Yamanashi Prefecture rather than in a metropolitan area. All over Japan, you see metropolitan cities losing their uniqueness, but with Tsuru City, there is a strong local community that is welcoming to students. In fact, with a population of 30,000 Tsuru City houses a large percentage of students, 3,500 of whom attend our university. One-tenth of the population are our students. I think that it is one of the very rare occasions where a local municipality has been so open to students, both international and domestic. This contributes significantly to the variety of learning and cultural experiences in the local community for our students.

Other than our tutor system, we also have an International House where exchange students share their lives with Japanese students and communicate with them on a daily basis.

Of course, being located at the foot of Mt. Fuji, we can offer students all the blessings of nature. This natural charm and splendor of the locality is something that contributes greatly to the attractiveness of the university. As the public university nearest to Mt. Fuji, we also focus on Mt Fuji at an academic level. For example, the Department of English Literature offers classes to introduce Japan and Mt Fuji, which are also available to international students. Mt. Fuji, a world-heritage tourist site, gives international students the opportunity to have unique experiences while learning in our university.

 

How are you able to attract students from abroad to come to study here at Tsuru University?

International students can take advantage of the characteristics of the regional city of Tsuru and meet and interact with local people, which is one of the attractive points of studying at our university. For example, they take part in the annual autumn local festival, where they dress up as Edo-period Samurai warriors and join the Daimyo parade.  Ikebana, the art of beautifully arranging flowers is another cultural attraction here. Sometimes, the students use Ikebana to decorate my office. We offer a wide range of cultural experience opportunities to our international students.

We have recently signed new exchange agreements with two European universities (in Italy and Sweden). These bring the total number of our international partners to 37 institutions. Interestingly, they appreciate that our university is in a great location and offers an excellent learning environment for studying Japanese language and culture, something that large universities in metropolitan cities do not offer. As a medium-sized local public university, we believe it is important that we continue to promote our unique programs that offer authentic Japanese cultural experiences for students from abroad.

 

Your university is now celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2025, since its foundation back in 1955. Having said that, how would you like to describe your university to an international audience? What are your dreams for the next five years of Tsuru University?

Tsuru University’s history is deeply rooted in teacher training, so with the aging population and the declining birth rates in Japan, educating children has become critical to the country. It is important that we as an institution educate and train teachers to attain high teaching capabilities. This allows those teachers to provide high-quality education to the next generation of children going through the Japanese school system.

We consider it important to have an international network in education and are committed to providing an international education framework. Our most recently established department, the Department of Global Education, offers an International Baccalaureate teacher training course, which is rare in Japanese universities. Most students in this department study abroad at European teacher training universities for half a year in their second year. With students graduating from such programs, we hope to send teachers around the world and continue to further our extensive network.

Additionally, on the domestic front, we see opportunities with domestic students who graduate from Tsuru University. They are able to take their experiences here in Yamanashi Prefecture back to their hometown, spreading the academic quality of our university in their own locality. This furthers our network of connections and allows local and multi-national companies to leverage the network we have established for national and international social development.

Society is really a combination of technology, systems, and people. Technology and systems are created, maintained, and innovated by people. So, developing human capacity is the core essence of our efforts. At Tsuru University we aspire to develop and open up new possibilities for the young generation graduating from our institution of learning.

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