Japan has been an Asian pioneer in learning from the West since the Meiji Restoration. Every now and then, though, the effort has been questioned: Why should Japan imitate others? Today’s Japan answers that question with some assurance: communication is a two-way street.
While Japan has adopted many Western ways, from culinary skills to schools of philosophy, it has traditionally struggled when it comes to teaching its people to speak English. Now, however, its institutions are trying some new innovations. This April, for instance, Japan’s education ministry announced that one of its divisions would carry out a four-month trial in which it would conduct its meetings in English, to see if that improves its English skills.
Meanwhile, many leading universities, including Tokyo’s Meiji University and Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, have begun offering undergraduate programs that can be completed entirely in English.
It has been 10 years since Tokyo’s Waseda University opened its School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) in 2004. Since then, more schools at Waseda started offering English-only programs, in political science, social science and engineering. With 4,800 foreign students, accounting for almost 10 percent of its entire student body, Waseda enjoys the largest overseas student ratio in Japan.
“At Waseda, we not only aim to teach international students, but also and more importantly, to learn from them,” Associate Dean and Professor of SILS Adrian Pinnington told The Diplomat.
In addition to expanding degree programs, Japanese higher education is also looking to reform its admissions system to adopt a more global outlook. According to a survey of senior university officials by the Nikkei, 30 percent said their institutions have already revamped their admissions system, and 60 percent were positive about the changes taking place.
Traditional Japanese university entrance exams heavily weight rote learning. Many elite universities, however, expect the new system to be more comprehensive and attract students with an increasingly international mindset.
Overseas, Japan has been busy setting up educational programs through local governments, projecting influence in different regions. In 2010, a research university, Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology was established through collaboration between the two countries’ governments. A hundred Japanese instructors are sent to its campus in Borg El Arab each year. The university will accept students from other African countries and is expected to become a magnet for aspiring engineers in the region.
Likewise, another institute of technology, funded with $63.9 million in loans from the Japanese government, was founded in Malaysia in 2011. Japan has also reached an agreement with Turkey to open an engineering school in Istanbul.
Apart from technology, Japan plans to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian countries by promoting its culture in combination with the Japanese language. It has announced a $296 million project, the “Asia Centre” initiative, in which 3,000 Japanese assistant teachers will be dispatched to ASEAN countries.
Speaking at the launch event, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remarked: “I hope the younger generations in Japan and other Asian countries will be tied through sympathy and friendship, have the same dreams for the future and begin the next stage (in relations).”