In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when student protests were commonplace worldwide, five people at a Swiss university launched the St. Gallen Symposium, a bid to hold a dialogue with the world’s leaders.
Four decades later, the annual gathering at the University of St. Gallen is the longest-running international student-run forum in Switzerland.
The head of the symposium, who was in Tokyo last week, is urging young people to participate in the forum in May and see the world themselves at a time when many of them appear to be inward-looking.
“If today, Japanese youth or . . . any other youth decides to go inward and not go outward, then I think it is a very alarming signal for a society,” said Philip Erzinger, chief executive officer of St. Gallen Foundation for International Studies, which assists the International Students’ Committee, the symposium’s organizer.
“I would always encourage any youth from any country to think differently and actually venture out, go see the world, go broaden your horizon.”
Around 1,000 people, including leaders in politics, government, business, academia, media and students from around the world, participate in the annual symposium. The 2010 event saw 36 people from Japan take part, according to the organizers.
“It’s arguably one of the biggest (symposiums) of the world,” Erzinger said.
He was here Thursday and Friday to meet with supporters and potential speaker candidates for next year’s symposium.
Out of 200 young people from around the world, 18, both students and nonstudents, from Japan participated in the 2009 forum and 13 attended in 2010, according to the organizer’s data.
“This is a huge number,” said Erzinger, 38, adding Japanese students can gain a lot from participating in the forum.
“There are no other symposiums that bring together these two categories, leaders of today and leaders of tomorrow, in such a neutral platform of the university on a very high intellectual level,” he said.
Transportation and accommodation fees for the young people selected for the forum are covered by the students’ organizing body, he said.
Prominent speakers at past symposiums have included former European Commission President Romano Prodi, and from Japan, Rakuten Inc. Chairman Hiroshi Mikitani, Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Fujio Cho and former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Next year’s conference, to be held May 12 and 13, will focus on so-called power relations in society under the general topic of “Just Power.”
The forum will include keynote speeches, discussion panels and informal dialogue on such topics as the power of politics and weapons, of money and ownership, and of the voice. Speakers from Japan have yet to be decided.
One past Japanese speaker, Hitotsubashi University professor Yoko Ishikura, called the St. Gallen Symposium unique and meaningful for both leaders of today and tomorrow.
“For the leaders of today, they will have . . . the opportunity to interact with the leaders of tomorrow. But for the leaders of tomorrow, you will have a chance to interact with the leaders of today,” Ishikura noted. “That is distinctively different from the World Economic Forum, Davos. . . . Because that is essentially (involving) the leaders of today,” she said.
Graduate and postgraduate students from all fields of study, born in 1981 or later, are encouraged to apply for the symposium. Applicants must submit an essay or multimedia presentation in English or German related to next year’s topic by Feb. 1.
Via the essay competition, 100 students will be chosen and another 100 young people, mainly nonstudents, will be selected based on the organizer’s recommendations.
Erzinger said it is a challenge for Japanese and other young people participating in the symposium to stand up to the leaders of academia and business. But he said young participants should intellectually fight with the world leaders at the forum.
“Challenge your leaders and don’t be afraid of intellectual fights,” he said.