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‘Universities in Japan are aware of the need to attract more students from overseas’

Interview - June 27, 2018

Hanazono University was established in 1872 by Myoshinji Temple of the Rinzai Zen sect of Buddhism, and comprises of a Faculty of Letters and a Faculty of Social Welfare. Dr. Mitsuhiro Tanji discusses how HU and other universities in Japan are both working to attract overseas students and to encourage Japanese students to go abroad, in support of Japan’s internationalization drive, which has education at its core. He also gives his interestingly optimistic perspective on the issue of the nation’s aging and shrinking population.



How important is higher education in the internationalization process of Japan?

Education plays an important role in globalization especially from the perspective of learning English, which is one of the largest obstacles faced in the education system. Japan maintains proper activity and relationships with foreign countries at a basic level. The Japanese language is very different from European languages which tend to have some similarities to each other. Therefore, Japanese people find English a difficult language to learn and vice versa.

In an effort to improve this situation in the future, the education system began teaching English in primary schools seven years ago and this is expected to be become further established within the education system next year. However, seven years later, people can still not speak correct English which I think maybe just a natural outcome. Students do not need to focus on learning English as a priority; however, it is important - especially at the advanced education stages - in order for the world to be opened for them. Even if students decide not to personally internationalize themselves, it is still advantageous for them to speak English in many situations they may encounter such as welcoming foreigners into their working environment later on in their career. The main objective is to teach students the skills they need to be active on an international platform.


What are the consequences of Japan’s decreasing demographic for its education sector? 

Japan is considered to have an increasingly shrinking population which is putting pressure on the country; both in the education sector as well as economically and culturally. However, even so, Japan has a larger population than many countries who seem to be just as successful, if not more so. Even if the population is a 10th of what it is today it will only give us more reason to connect with the rest of the world. The smaller working pool may mean less productivity but still Japan can continue to personalize services and products giving value as a country and benefit to trade. In this way, I do not personally view the decreasing demographic to be such a large problem as it is considered to be

Japan pays great attention to detail as reflected in our Monozukuri, but we have tended to chase the western vision of what success is. If we personalize the strength of our identity, products and services, I have the belief that it will help Japan and contribute positively across the world. There is a campaign similar to the American First policy in Tokyo that is led by the Mayor and known as TokyoCitizens First. I disagree with such philosophies in that I do not think it is possible for only one group to live in a happy environment; it should not be limited to a select person or group.

On a different note, Japanese families used to put a lot of pressure on continuing the family empire. At our university, we teach that things are always changing and that nothing lasts forever, and this was recently echoed in a historical drama which views on NHK TV. The clan leader said, “It is not such a big deal if the family line does not continue, the most important thing is for people to live in a happy and safe environment.” It may be going too far to say that Hanazono University or even Japan may not exist forever; but it is important to reflect that there must be more important things to life besides the maintenance of these two.


In 2016, Japan retained its 7th position as a host nation worldwide. 90% of Japan’s 230,000 international students came from Asia, with strong growth from the ASEAN region and Taiwan. How important are Asian students in the internationalization process of the Japanese higher-education system?

I consider our relationships with them are of great importance. However, we

might have a tendency to look to America first, and Japan has felt too
strongly about beating America. I am an expert in psychology and know that many western researchers recently focused on the word - mindfulness - perhaps because of the outcome of problems with capitalism.

The Japanese people have only just realized that they have always had things such as mindfulness in their environment and it is the same for Asia. A good example being Vietnam, who we have a lot more relationships with through education today. Asian countries are culturally similar to Japan and when I watch Korean TV this belief is strengthened by witnessing similar nuances and familiar aspects. To expand relationships with our neighbors is one step in the right direction or perhaps even a shortcut towards achieving globalization.


The current climate has pushed Japan to start producing or to have production facilities outside of Japan, due to the decreasing population and increased labor costs. What is the role of higher education in preparing the future workforce and business people of Japan to work in Asia; bringing Monozukuri with them whilst producing outside of Japan to be able to compete with the prices of Korea or China?

It can feel as if we are not doing enough in respect to this aspect. We have a foreign exchange program but today fewer students are choosing to go overseas with many Kyoto students wishing to live and work in Kyoto after finishing their education. Of course, if any student expresses their own dreams and hopes, we will personalize their education and support them; however, it seems today there are less challenger types of students than in previous times.

Our job is to show them that there is more to the world than they already know; and naturally language and culture will always be a barrier we will face. We welcome foreign students to our University including students from Tonga who come to join our strong rugby team and study the sport. Our foreign students might have some difficulty in speaking Japanese when they first arrive but they learn to adapt - they all learn to adapt.

Friends and friendships are the inspiration behind learning other languages – some even meet their spouse whilst studying here. Perhaps our job is not to educate our students on language or various ways to integrate into the culture but to instead show them the interesting aspects at the sharing stage of learning and to give them opportunities to build the friendships which will inspire them to learn about other cultures and languages. The period after WW2 was an era where many Japanese people had dreams and ambitions; we believed that the 21st century would see flying cars for example. That hope is not lost but decreasing; so perhaps these are the kind of hopes and dreams we should be passing on to our students.


Having been awarded with 24 Nobel Prizes, Japan constantly ranks amongst the seven most represented nations in the yearly Times Higher Education World University Ranking (Japan ranks 1st in Asia as well). However, the country’s universities underscore in factors connected to “international outlook” with only 0.2% of Indian exchange students and 10% of South Koreans choosing Japan. As a nation or institution what needs to be done to change this trend and to rank a little higher in terms of international output?

Universities in Japan are aware of the mounting need to attract more students from overseas and the two groups of people that are being looked at to recruit more students are working people and foreign students. Perhaps countries such as the USA may potentially be able to offer a better education but domestically we hope that by teaching our classes in English we may inspire people to study and live in Japan.

We should probably teach our classes in English more extensively. There is another University who teach their older classes in English and have seen great success as a result. Many people are introduced to the Japanese culture through things such as anime and we believe that should such things be presented in English, it would increase awareness further and inspire people to learn our language. At this stage; language is still a larger barrier, however, although it may take perhaps ten to twenty years, it is a barrier we believe can be overcome with the first step already having been made by teaching English in elementary schools today.


Your University also offers a Japanese Language Program for International Students, aimed at overseas students who wish to proceed to a degree program at a Japanese university or to acquire Japanese language skills for future educational and career opportunities. What other facilities have you developed (or plan to develop) that you are willing to offer to attract more overseas students?

Foreign students have always been welcomed and accepted at Hanazono University and we will continue to do so in the future. We recognize the need to teach our classes in English going forwards but today we instead teach Japanese to our foreign students in order for them to participate in the classes. It is our hope that our foreign students will choose to stay in Japan to continue their studies using their new-found language ability. Some of our professors attend the language program held on campus and give sample classes. The students are also able to use the University’s facilities such as meditation and healing. We wish to give our students every opportunity to integrate into the Japanese culture.


What is the most represented nationality of your overseas students?

The majority of our foreign students are from China, Korea and Thailand. We have also seen an increase in students from Vietnam which may be a direct result of Japanese companies expanding to Vietnam and their people wishing to learn Japanese to take advantage of career opportunities. We hope that this will also see more students joining us from places such as Laos. Although historically Japan has never sought or encouraged overseas people to migrate and live in Japan, especially refugees, this is something that has changed with Mongolia being identified as a particular area of interest. In previous years Japan imported Mongolian citizens for sumo purposes but they are becoming more active in the role of elderly care and assisted living which was mainly populated prior to this by Filipino workers that were supported by the government. We expect language to put a stop to its expansion making Mongolia a place of particular interest.


One important aspect for the success of increasing internationalization or the number of foreign students joining Japan's universities - is to have as many quality partnerships as possible with renowned institutions worldwide. Do you have any partnerships with Asian Universities? Are you looking to increase partnerships with other institutions in the area?

We have partnerships with Soochow University in China and another University in Canada as well as Universities in Korea and Thailand. Currently we attract just a few students from these institutions. Our Buddhist related researchers are very active in trading information with their foreign counterparts and we are also conducting plans to connect with Universities in Vietnam. We have been awarded support from the Kyoto city government called the Miyako University Support Ordnance which is a project designed to attract students to our universities and this is something we need to act on in the near future.To take part in globalization it is true that we must increase the number of Japanese students who go overseas and vice versa. Personally, I think this solution is from the perspective of the present and as such is just one step - albeit in the right direction - but not the complete package. Just having partners overseas or foreign relations is not enough. The most important thing for us is to provide our foreign students with an awareness of how large the world is and how to act within that. So, globalization with regards to education involves developing the mentality to accept foreign cultures and not just the activities - which are just a component.


2017 marked HANAZONO’s 145th anniversary. Since its founding, your university has grown into an integrated institution, accompanying students from undergraduate studies to graduates. Looking at the future: What developments would you like to implement over the next ten years? Are you focusing on the Asian audience and the millennial generation?

I do not know what the future of Japan will look like ten years from now but what is very clear is that we cannotoperate without a vision for the future. What we do have is a five-year vision plan commemoratingour 150th anniversary an aspect of which includes the development of Department of Human Development and Education. It is planned to be finalized in 2019. Its purpose is to basically teach future teachers. The world is experiencing so many changes but we believe that some things in life do not change including our teaching of Buddhist philosophy. Zen Buddhism has existed for more than 1500 years and Buddhismas a whole has been in existence for 2500. It cannot be said to be completely unchanging, but it has a solid value. The manner in which to express and teach that to the new millenniumgeneration will most likely not change for us with new education sectors that are utilized in Hanazono’s history being done within our strong Buddhist believes. I am not a Zen expert but I reflect my operation from my own understanding of Zen. We are supposed to find a problem, think about it, and act all by ourselves –this is the true teaching of Zen. We have a saying which translates to - moving forward together whilst holding hands -which basically means to accept other values and to live inharmony together; never trying to control and look down on someone for their different values but learn to live together and that is an important part of our Buddhism that will never change.