Completing one’s education

by Takamitsu Sawa

Until only a few years ago, Japan prided itself on leading the world in the field of manufacturing. Industry as a whole is usually classified into four sectors: agriculture-forestry-fishery, mining, manufacturing, and services. (The mining industry is virtually nonexistent in resource-poor Japan, and coal is costly to mine.)

Japan is not competitive internationally in the agriculture-forestry-fishery sector either, as it imports a large portion of its food requirements, other than rice, and its food self-sufficiency ratio is quite low at around 40 percent.

Nor does the country have a competitive edge in the services sectors such as finance, information, communications, medicine, legal services and education. It would require extraordinary efforts to make Japan’s services industry competitive on a global scale. It has dropped behind China, South Korea, Singapore and India in the process of economic globalization.

That leaves the manufacturing sector the only sector with the potential capability to support the future of the Japanese economy. In reality, though, this sector, too, is being pushed to the brink. Just as Japanese manufacturers caught up with and passed their European and American counterparts a few decades ago, they are now being caught by manufacturers from South Korea and other Asian countries.

Meanwhile, manufacturers in Western countries, which were badly hit by Japanese competitors, have since strived to restructure their industrial base via mergers and acquisitions. As a result, they have re-emerged as powerful forces not only in most of the services sector but also in the production of medical apparatuses and pharmaceuticals, leaving Japan and South Korea far behind.

Invincible lines of brand names in clothing, bags, stationery and liquors come from British, French, German, Italian and other European companies. In the U.S., emerging corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Intel serve as the backbone of its economy.

Japan’s manufacturing industry is caught between a rock and a hard spot. Japanese electronics makers are sandwiched in the front by Apple and in the rear by Samsung of South Korea.

The late Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Inc., once said the source of creating epoch-making products is technology coupled with the humanities. I agree.

Before World War II, and until shortly after that, high schools in Japan used to be an arena for students to learn liberal arts centering on humanities. Even students aspiring to become engineers enthusiastically read literature, philosophy, history and thought about various fields.

For a little more than a decade after the 1949 introduction of the postwar university system, high school seniors seeking to enter national universities were required to take exams on the same subjects regardless of whether their “majors” were in the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences or humanities. Would-be science majors had to take tests in two subjects of the social studies as well as the Japanese and Chinese classics. It was thought that high school students, no matter what they hoped to become, should be well acquainted with the works of Japan’s great literary figures such as Natsume Soseki, Mori Ogai and Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

As a majority of young students in those days were heavily influenced by leftist ideologies, even the engineering-minded were keen on reading about Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. In my view, it was this type of humanities-related knowledge that served as the driving force for the big strides achieved by the Japanese manufacturing industry in the postwar years.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the very roots of Sony’s Walkman portable audio cassette player, Toyota’s hybrid automobile, digital cameras from various optical instrument manufacturers, and other products that have dominated global markets can be traced to technologies that were coupled with awareness of the humanities.

Much has changed of late and not for the better. I don’t know precisely what has caused such change, but for one thing, it seems to me that high school students wishing to become scientists or engineers do not sufficiently study world history or Japanese literature. They spend the latter half of their teenage years without associating themselves with literature, philosophy or the fine arts.

I wonder if the education and science ministry is aware that a fundamental review of the current educational program is inevitable if the manufacturing sector of Japanese industry is to be revived.

Apple and Samsung are in a dead heat for a bigger share of the smartphone market, but Japanese makers have been left out, demonstrating a weakness linked to lack of knowledge in the humanities.

Japan must throw away, as a relic of the past, the science and engineering promotion program adopted in 1960 as part of then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda’s program for doubling people’s income in 10 years, replacing it with an advancement program for the next generation.

The education and science ministry has a pet theme of nurturing human resources in science and engineering who can compete in the global arena. But teaching specific technologies must be preceded by aggressive efforts to provide students with opportunities to learn the humanities. This is important if Japan’s electronics industry is to keep up with Apple and Samsung and if Japan’s services industry is to prosper.

There is no need for college students to dwell on what can be gained through on-the-job training after they finish school.

For the benefit of next-generation science and engineering education, I propose letting undergraduate science and engineering students fully study what can be taught only in university classes — basics of humanities and science.

Let them study the foundation of specific technologies at the graduate level on their way to master’s degrees.

By fusing humanities and technology in six years of university studies, we should aim to give rise to engineering geniuses like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who will surprise the whole world. I believe this is the path for Japan.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.