While many of the events marking the 30th anniversary of normalized relations between Japan and China have taken place amid a blaze of publicity, another less-celebrated development could have a similarly positive impact on bilateral ties.
In September, the first institute of higher education to be jointly run by parties in Japan and China opened its classroom doors.
The inaugural class at the Tianjin Japan-China Graduate School sees a mix of 21 students from both countries pursue three years of study for degrees either in business administration or environment development. An information and finance degree will be added within the next two years.
Organizers hope the educational experiment will help smooth over the disputes that have soured ties between the two nations.
“With Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, differences over history textbooks and other problems, it is clear that our relationship is not proceeding smoothly,” remarked Masayoshi Sadakata, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Department of Chemical System Engineering.
“For a number of years we have been wanting Japan-China relations to get better.”
One man who has arguably waited longer than anyone for this to happen is 61-year-old Akihiko Morita, former chief editorial writer for the Mainichi Shimbun.
The program is primarily his brainchild.
“This is the first time that Chinese and Japanese students will live, study and really be able to do everything together,” Morita said.
Classes are conducted in English, Japanese and Chinese at facilities owned by the Tianjin University of Science and Technology, with which the new school is affiliated.
Morita should know as well as anyone what is necessary to forge ties on an individual level.
He spent the latter part of World War II in Manchuria, losing both parents a few years later during the Chinese civil war.
In the following years Morita live in an orphanage with his older brother. He was finally able to return to Japan in 1953.
“Japan-China relations haven’t been going well. Ever since I was a child I have wished that our relationship would get better,” Morita said.
Although Japanese students can pursue other education programs in China, the content and activities of these programs are dictated by local directors.
Morita emphasized that the new graduate school is the first to be jointly run by steering committees in both countries that consult on curriculum, instruction and other issues.
While the university, which Morita has been planning for more than a decade, has been launched on a small scale, the backers hope it will ultimately boast some 300 students.
The toughest part of the operation has been gathering money — the bulk of which has come from corporate and individual contributors — to get the school up and running.
Initially, Morita and others were intent on winning the Chinese government’s blessing to establish a university in Beijing.
This idea fell on deaf ears, however.
“Beijing is not exactly eager to let in foreigners,” he said.
But a more forward-looking attitude in Tianjin, which Morita describes as one of China’s more progressive areas, helped get the idea off the ground.
Although the Foreign Ministry-affiliated Japan International Cooperation Agency and The Japan Foundation are helping out with the cost of dispatching Japanese instructors to the school, the government is ill-suited to help this sort of project, Morita said.
The Foreign Ministry is dedicated to diplomatic concerns, while the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry focuses almost exclusively on domestic education issues, he said.
“Hopefully, if this (program) goes well, attitudes will change in the future,” Morita said.