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Boosting Japanese innovation

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There is no denying that the international competitiveness of Japan’s industries has drastically fallen from its peak. Especially conspicuous is the decline of the electronics sector. The global rankings of Japanese universities have also steadily fallen. In the 2016 World University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education, the University of Tokyo ranked 39th (up from 43rd last year) and Kyoto University 91st (down from 88th), but Tohoku University, Osaka University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which had all ranked among the top 200 last year, barely managed to place between 200th and 300th.

A country-by-country breakdown of academic papers published in top journals shows a dramatic advance by China in contrast to the gradual decline in Japan’s global share. True, the number of Japanese Nobel laureates has increased in recent years, but with the exception of professor Shinya Yamanaka, who won the 2012 prize in physiology or medicine for his study of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, the Japanese winners were recognized for research they did more than 20 or 30 years ago. So it’s wrong to say that the rising number of Japanese Nobel laureates is a sign of the resurrection of academic and scientific research in Japan.

The government’s Council on Industrial Competitiveness blames the declining competitive edge of Japanese businesses on their stagnating power of innovation — which it says stems from the “old-fashioned” ways of running national universities, which are charged with nurturing the people who go on to play leading roles in promoting innovation — and called for a radical overhaul of their operations.

Following up on that, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has advocated coordinated reforms of high school and university education. In the ministry’s view, too much emphasis is placed on knowledge and skills in both high school curriculums and university entrance exams, and as a result a large number of university students have a poor ability to think, make judgments and express themselves. The ministry believes this is behind industries and universities’ stagnant innovation. Therefore, it says greater emphasis should be placed on evaluating applicants’ abilities in these three areas than on their knowledge and skills in screening them for entrance into institutions of higher education.

It does seem undeniable that Japanese university students in general fall behind their counterparts in overseas institutions in their abilities to think, make judgments and express themselves, and that this is the true cause of innovation stagnation in industries and universities. To enable students to acquire these abilities, it is crucial to foster in them three types of literacy.

The first is linguistic literacy. Nothing is more important than the ability to read, write and speak in one’s own language. And it is essential to foster the skills to read, write and speak in English as well, as it’s an international language.

In my view, university students in Japan have far less opportunity to read than those in other advanced and emerging countries. In France, students taking the “baccaraureat” academic examination as a prerequisite for entering universities faced a philosophy question this year in which they were asked to read and analyze excerpts from writings by Hannah Arendt, Rene Descartes and Nicolo Machiavelli. There would be very few, if any, high school students in Japan capable of reading and understanding such high level philosophical works.

Much emphasis is placed on liberal arts education at universities in the United States, where the curriculums at many schools require students to read classical works of Western civilization in philosophy, ethics, literature, history of ideas and economics. Undergraduate programs concentrate on liberal arts and basics in specialized fields, while highly specialized education that directly relates to future jobs is left to postgraduate programs.

Not only in France and the U.S. but in other advanced Western countries as well, high school and undergraduate students are given advanced liberal arts educations before they move on to a specialized curriculum. Japan also once had a system in which university students were obligated to go through an initial two years of “liberal education,” selecting three subjects each from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. But under a general rule on university education enforced in 1991, barriers between liberal education and specialized education were eliminated, reducing liberal education to nothing but a name and leading students, especially those majoring in natural sciences, to take up highly specialized curriculums in their first year. Neglecting liberal arts education obviously weakens students’ abilities to think, judge and express themselves.

The second is mathematical literacy. Studying mathematics is the fastest and most effective means of acquiring the ability to think logically. As a boy, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer who became the 16th U.S. president, was said to have been fond of reading the Bible, “Aesop’s Fables” and books on the principles of Euclidean geometry. Studying plane geometry may appear unrelated to nurturing the ability to think logically — a prerequisite for becoming a lawyer or any other kind of professional. But it was through studying geometry that Lincoln developed that ability.

The third is data literacy. A presentation based on data has overwhelming persuasive force. In a debate, nobody would dare dispute an opinion that is substantiated by data. To let data speak for itself, one needs to be well-versed in the method of processing data so that the information hidden in it becomes visible. Skillfully utilizing data is indispensable as a means of improving the ability of expression.

It will not be an easy task for high school teachers in Japan to educate students in the above-mentioned three types of literacy. To implement sustainable education reforms, it is essential that elementary, junior and senior high schools keep concentrating on teaching knowledge and skills, that university undergraduate curriculums provide liberal arts education for attaining the three types of literacy as well as basics in specialized fields, and that postgraduate students pursue highly specialized curriculums. It is no exaggeration to say that there will be no innovation without such education reforms.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.