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Education miracles in remote Japan

by Gregory Clark

That the death of the head of a small provincial university in the remote Akita district of northern Japan should be national news is remarkable enough. That the same university could in less than 10 years begin to match even prestigious University of Tokyo is even more miraculous.

Yet such is the case for the recently deceased Dr. Mineo Nakajima and the university he managed almost single-handedly to create the Kokusai Kyoyo Daigaku (international liberal education university) — otherwise known as Akita International University. When Nakajima set out in 2003 to create a new university from the remains of a floundering U.S. academic offshoot in remote Tohoku few could have predicted success.

Certainly I had my doubts, even though he had been kind enough to invite me to be his vice president (possibly because we shared an interest in China studies, languages and education reform). Minnesota State had joined the rush in the booming 1980s to create university branches in Japan, and its Akita operation had survived longer than most.

But it, too, fell victim to the realities of the ’90s, and the inability to give graduates degrees recognized in Japan. The Akita prefectural authorities had asked Nakajima to take it over at a time when the last thing Japan seemed to need was yet another prefectural university clamoring for scarce funds and dwindling student numbers.

But Nakajima had his vision. As the former head of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (Gaidai) he had suffered for years the factionalism and bureaucratism that afflicts so many universities in Japan. He would downgrade the professorial committees that can stifle decision-making. Management at AIU would be severe top down, with only an occasional nod to other opinions or options. Firm academic performance standards would be set.

And the teaching would all be in English. It was the all-English demand that drew most attention. Some would say it is a mistake not to give young students the chance to use and improve their own language over four crucial years to maturity.

But the emphasis on English caught well the growing mood here that says lack of English ability is why Japan is losing out internationally. Quite a few other Japanese universities are now setting out to imitate AIU. One good byproduct is that many foreign universities now want to send students to AIU for year-in-Japan studies. These students then mix closely with the Japanese students under AIU’s compulsory dormitory system. AIU also requires that its own students spend a very useful year abroad with one of other of its many partner universities.

As a result, AIU now ranks with or betters most of Japan’s elite universities, including even Tokyo University, in desirability and entrance difficulty. The ratio of applicants to openings is almost 20-1 in some categories at a time when many other universities are struggling even to fill quotas.

Other innovations, some taken from the 1999 national conference on education reform that I attended, include optional September entry to match the school years in other Northern Hemisphere countries, and a provisional entry system letting those with grades slightly below entry level become regular students if their first-year results are good. Grade-point averages and English test results are carefully monitored. It is these demands for performance results that underlie AIU success.

Many now realize the woeful state of much university education in Japan, with students pretending to study while teachers pretend to teach. Few want to waste four years and large funds for such useless superficial education. Finally the universities and courses that seem to demand high standards are gaining respect, and numbers.

True, the AIU phenomenon was helped greatly by heavy attention from media that shared Nakajima’s conservative political views. Soon there was a snowball effect: The more publicity AIU got, the more it could attract good students; the more good students, the more publicity it got. Other universities trying equally hard to improve education have not been so fortunate.

Nakajima’s status in Japan’s education bureaucracy also helped; getting the Education Ministry to recognize degrees from an all-English-language-education system was not easy.

Nor was it easy to find native Japanese teachers able to provide such education. One problem was having to inherit English-language teachers from the previous Minnesota operation. Most were good and experienced. But they lacked the Ph.D.s or equivalents now demanded by Japan’s status-obsessed bureaucrats.

As their contracts ran out and they had to be replaced, their discontent simmered for years on angry websites.

That, together with a self-aggrandizing “black list” blog bizarrely accusing AIU of anti-foreigner discrimination, hampered for a while the recruitment of quality foreign teachers (rules to prevent such Internet abuse cannot come too quickly).

The problem now will be finding a replacement for Nakajima. His ability to drag funds from reluctant prefectural authorities for AIU’s excellent facilities and office staff was unmatched.

But the demand in future could be for a university that serves local students rather than students from all over Japan, and the world. Our improbable little island of internationalization in remote snowy Akita may have to fight hard to survive.

Gregory Clark, is a trustee at Akita International University, and a former president of Tama University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.

  • Firas Kraïem

    “That the same university could in less than 10 years begin to match even
    prestigious University of Tokyo is even more miraculous.”

    No way, Jose. “Desirability” and “entrance difficulty” don’t really tell the whole story. Call me when you have seven Nobel laureates.

  • Hiroki Sano

    It’s very sorry for Mr. Nakajima to leave Akita International University, since now is the start point for the university to provide excellent students to the international world.

    Akita International University has been paid attention by educators, and media. What is surprising for me is that all the lessons are taught in English. Students are required to learn basic English competence to listen to the lecture and to speak their own opinions. You may think it is almost impossible to enroll in this university, however, if you have will, there is a road. Challenging this university changes you dramatically.

  • http://twitter.com/bjohns531 brian

    “Nor was it easy to find native Japanese teachers able to provide such education. One problem was having to inherit English-language teachers from the previous Minnesota operation. Most were good and experienced. But they lacked the Ph.D.s or equivalents now demanded by Japan’s status-obsessed bureaucrats.”

    Lol, nice try but most of the current AIU professors (http://www.aiu.ac.jp/en/faculty/faculty0102.html) don’t have PhDs. Several just have B.A.’s.

  • Roy Warner

    “But they lacked the Ph.D.s or equivalents now demanded by Japan’s status-obsessed bureaucrats.” This is not accurate. Japan’s bureaucrats would demand doctorates from non Japanese faculty at national universities, but there are many national departments brimming with Japanese whose highest degree is a master’s or lower. But alas, are my comments “internet abuse”? It’s quite incongruent for a former university official, a moulder of young minds, as it were, to demand that the opinions of other university employees be censored to the extent they differ from his own.

  • johnny cassidy

    What’s the name of the “black list blog” mentioned in the article? Does anybody know?