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For a more ‘friendly’ Japan

by Takamitsu Sawa

At an April 17 meeting of the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council, professor Heizo Takenaka of Keio University and some other members representing the private sector proposed 23 concrete schemes as the initial step toward making Japan a nation with “the world’s most business-friendly environment.”

They specifically called for introducing bold deregulation in areas to be designated as “Abenomics special strategic zones,” named after economic policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Such deregulation is to be carried out on an experimental basis with a view to improving Japan’s industrial competitiveness.

It is said the idea stemmed from opinions exchanged among the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Aichi prefectural government and the governments of Osaka Prefecture and Osaka City. I would like to express my personal views on some of the proposed projects.

My first comment concerns the proposed round-the-clock operation of the Tokyo subway and bus services on regular routes. As the advantages of operating the subway and buses 24 hours a day, the proponents claim that the number of foreign visitors for both business and tourism would increase as they would be able to travel more easily to and from Haneda Airport, which is now open to international flights; that nighttime business activities would be stepped up; and that corporations would save on transportation allowances to night-shift workers if they can return home by subway.

This scheme is said to be based on tacit understanding of uniting the two existing subway systems in Tokyo — one run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the other operated by private Tokyo Metro Co.

I don’t think that a round-the-clock subway service would serve to increase the number of foreign visitors to Japan because travelers with big, heavy suitcases would prefer taking shuttle buses or taxis to using the subway in order to move from the airport to their hotels.

It is true that London’s Heathrow Airport is conveniently served by a subway line linking it directly to the city center. Such convenience, however, can hardly be expected to an incentive for people from abroad to go to London.

It is not clear either what is meant by “nighttime business activities.” I presume that means eating and drinking places in neon-lit areas. The owners of those bars and restaurants would welcome the 24-hour subway services, but that would also create potential dangers of deterioration in public safety and moral standards.

Since most Tokyo subway lines are connected with private railway lines serving the suburbs, the latter would also be forced to keep their stations open for passengers throughout the wee hours. At present, maintenance work to ensure safety is being conducted during the few hours when the trains are not running.

If the trains were to run round the clock, both the subways and the suburban railways would have to construct four-track lines for inspection and repair, which would require huge sums of money. Who is going to bear such costs and how?

The second scheme I would like to comment on calls for creating within Tokyo specially designated medical districts, where non-Japanese physicians and nurses proficient in English would be allowed to engage in medical activities, which today are banned by law. This, it is said, would serve to promote “medical tourism” and encourage wealthy Russians, Chinese and Arabs, who are currently being examined and treated in countries like Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and India, to move over to Japan instead.

Japan has been left behind other countries in the field of “medical tourism” primarily for two reasons: medical expenses in Japan are far higher than in the Southeast Asian countries, and Japan has a limited number of doctors and nurses who can communicate in English with patients.

The number of wealthy foreigners seeking to receive medical treatment at Japanese hospitals cannot be expected to rise sharply unless Japan proves itself overwhelmingly superior to other countries in medical treatment and service to make up for the cost disadvantages.

Third, there is not much possibility, either, of top-ranking universities from other countries opening up campuses in Japan. During the 1980s, certain foreign universities, mostly American but not necessarily of the highest ranking, attempted to open their campuses in Japan. But those campuses were only given the status of “miscellaneous schools” and not that of “universities” because they did not meet the standards set by the School Education Law. Thus they could not grant students officially recognized university degrees and as a result, most of those campuses closed by the 1990s.

Because the School Education Law will not be applied in special zones, theoretically foreign universities can freely open campuses in such zones. But from the first, there is not enough incentive for top-level foreign academic institutions to establish new campuses in Japan because of high costs associated with such a project. Opening a new university would require huge initial investments and an annual pay of around ¥30 million must be offered to attract top teachers.

Unless several million yen is collected from each student as tuition annually, it is unlikely that such a university can be kept running. If the tuition is so high, it will be impossible to attract enough good students.

This August the National University of Singapore, in collaboration with Yale University, will open Yale-NUS College as a strategic interdisciplinary liberal arts institute with a view to educating future global leaders. The buildings of the new college are now being constructed within the huge NUS compound with the entire costs borne by the Singapore government.

The freshman class will have 150 students while the number of teachers, including those seconded from Yale, will top 100. In line with the British college traditions, all teachers and students will be housed in dormitories. A sales point of Yale-NUS College is that each class will consist of a small number of students. According to the Times of London, NUS ranked second in Asia in scholastic standings in 2013 behind top-ranked University of Tokyo. There is a good possibility that with the opening of Yale-NUS College, NUS will surpass the University of Tokyo in ranking.

Even if the Japanese government attempt to follow Singapore’s example and establish a collaborative relationship between a Japanese national university, which has a special corporate status, and a leading European or American university, it would be all but impossible to squeeze necessary funds out of the nation’s budget for higher education, which is small to start with.

The only feasible alternative would be for a major private university to open a Japanese version of Yale-NUS College by securing financial support from businesses and alumni. If its curricula are limited to liberal arts, large floor space would not be required. Each student would become a full-fledged intellectual after four years of undergraduate work, studying history, philosophy, art, literature, mathematics and social and natural sciences.

They would then find out what academic field they are good at and select subjects to be pursued at the postgraduate level that would be directly related to their future jobs. Existing graduate schools will only have to improve their quality.

Remuneration for teachers coming from the overseas partner school should match what they have been receiving or would have received before coming to Japan.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eli.lyons Eli Lyons

    “I don’t think that a round-the-clock subway service would serve to increase the number of foreign visitors to Japan because travelers with big, heavy suitcases would prefer taking shuttle buses or taxis to using the subway in order to move from the airport to their hotels.”

    –Do you have any statistical evidence to support this claim? From my personal experience and having friends visit Japan, I strongly disagree.

    “If the trains were to run round the clock, both the subways and the suburban railways would have to construct four-track lines for inspection and repair, which would require huge sums of money. Who is going to bear such costs and how?”

    You seem to be very narrow minded on this topic. The subways needs to be expanded anyway. Look, if you want to make money, you have to invest. As for bearing the cost, there could be an increase in the tax on bars or increased train fares during the night. There’s two ideas for free and Mondays aren’t really my thing.

    I respect your opinion and analysis of of the educational situation in the case of special zones. However, when you say, “… it would be all but impossible to squeeze necessary funds out of the nation’s budget for higher education, which is small to start with.” This seems to be a bit fatalistic. Earlier you mentioned that the Singaporean government bore the cost of construction for it’s new university buildings. In theory there is no reason Japan cannot do the same, although if you are predicting the voting behavior of Japanese and politicians in the near-term, I would probably agree that the chance that Japan would undertake such a project in the near-term is unlikely.

    As a current student in Japan, one of the problems I see is actually in the Japanese corporate culture effecting the quality of education. All the corporations start recruiting students in university and master’s programs too early. Students spend too much time attending pointless orientations and filling out applications instead of studying and doing research, and universities accept the situation. No one questions strategies like this even as many companies continue to post losses and university rankings start to slip. Instead the majority of people vote for monetary easing, which should be a fun experiment. Whatever, no one listens to me.

  • horse60

    I agree that their is little hope for Japan as a destination for medical tourism. However, individual general care clinics within “special medical zones” will be a boon to many of the 2.2 million foreigners who currently receive sub-standard health services due to language and cultural barriers, and lack of trained primary care and preventive health physicians.