First in a two-part series

In his opening address to the Diet in January 2008, then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced a proposal to increase the number of foreign students studying in Japan to 300,000 by 2020. The plan, presented under the heading “an open Japan,” aims to bring in “top-class talent” from overseas to Japan’s graduate schools and industries.

Moves to bring in more foreign students have long been a key engine driving higher education reform in Japan. Yasuhiro Nakasone’s ambitious 1983 goal of bringing 100,000 foreign students to Japan — a target that took 20 years to attain (see graph) — was the first step in his plan to “internationalize” Japanese education. Nakasone himself was largely responsible for popularizing the term kokusaika (internationalization), as evidenced by his 1984 pledge to transform Japan into an “international country” (kokusai kokka nihon).

The 300,000-student goal is the driving force behind the the Global 30 Project, or, to give it its full title, the Kokusaika Kyoten Seibi Jigyo (literally, Kokusaika Hub Consolidation Project), a ¥15 billion plan to select and “internationalize” 30 core universities. Here “internationalization” is mainly interpreted as meaning the recruitment and education of international students in Japan, though the possibility of two-way exchanges, such as Japanese students studying abroad, is also mentioned.

Two terms which stand out in the Global 30 rhetoric are “competitiveness” and “human resources.” The importance of the former was underlined by Fukuda’s successor, Taro Aso, in his January 2009 policy speech, just a year after Fukuda announced his 300,000-student target.

“We will also be reinforcing our universities’ international competitiveness (kokusai kyosoryoku) by promoting courses of study in which all degree requirements can be completed in English only, as well as programs for research centers of excellence at the global level,” he told the Diet.

Aso’s statement mentioned the first of four “action plans” aimed at creating an attractive educational and research environment for international students: the expansion of courses in which degrees can be earned through English-only classes. Whereas as of 2006, only six departments at five universities and 101 courses at 57 graduate schools allowed students to graduate after attending classes taught only in English, the Global 30 calls for an extra 33 undergraduate and 124 graduate courses to be taught entirely in the language.

A second pillar of the plan seeks to enhance facilities for receiving and hosting foreign students, such as specialist support staff, internship programs and flexible semester start dates. A third pillar aims to provide international students with opportunities to learn about Japanese language and culture. The fourth and final pillar concerns the setting up of overseas offices to provide a “one-stop service” for local recruitment and examination as well as furthering cooperation with local universities.

In July 2009, an initial 13 universities — seven national and six private — were selected from 22 applicants to receive Global 30 funding over the next five years. Their obligations include the recruitment of between 3,000 and 8,000 international students each. For example, Ritsumeikan University, a private university of 36,000 students in Kyoto, aims to increase the percentage of international students from its current (2008) 3.1 percent to 11.3, and the proportion of foreign faculty members from 9.9 to 15 percent by 2020.

At first glance, the Global 30 project would seem to be an example of Japan’s “opening up.” Certainly, the falling birth rate means Japanese universities need to attract more international students if they are to survive. The emphasis on lectures taught in English — the “global standard” — is consistent with the goal of turning Japanese higher education institutions into “international centers of learning” that can compete with universities in other countries for students.

But despite the rhetoric, kokusaika is not as straightforward a term as it first appears. First, the fact that Nakasone, a staunch nationalist, was largely responsible for making kokusaika official policy suggests that the term, at least in its dominant form, is rather different from English “internationalization.” In fact, as government policy, kokusaika is best seen as a kind of defensive reaction to foreign pressure, a process in which Japan attempts to promote and maintain Japanese identity and national unity. In other words, kokusaika, at least in its dominant conservative manifestation, is less about transcending cultural barriers and more about protecting them.

Since the bursting of the bubble in 1990 and the ensuing “lost decade” — with its accompanying loss of national self-confidence — the term kokusaika, while continuing to enjoy a positive image, has become less popular. In recent years the term gurobaruka (globalization) — a word that only came into common currency in Japan in the late 1990s — has tended to feature more in the media. Unlike kokusaika, gurobaruka corresponds closely to the English meaning of a growing interconnectedness, unprecedented in its intensity. This encapsulates the crucial difference between kokusaika and gurobaruka: Globalization is an external process over which Japan has little or no influence or control.

While both kokusaika and gurobaruka involve coping with and responding to outside challenges and criticism, the latter demands passive compliance with external norms that Japan is unable to control, whereas the former actively pushes back against perceived threats to Japanese identity. Put differently, both kokusaika and gurobaruka describe something that surrounds Japan and that requires appropriate measures; however, kokusaika, unlike gurobaruka, also describes an activity the Japanese themselves engage in.

Educational reform in Japan in general, and the Global 30 in particular, demonstrate elements of both kokusaika and gurobaruka. A good example is the compromise that accompanied the education ministry’s 2003 “action plan” to cultivate “Japanese who can use English.” The plan, which will see English become compulsory for 5th- and 6th-grade elementary school students from 2011, came in for much criticism from those who argued that it was more important for youngsters to first learn Japanese properly before tackling English. Thus, in order to appease the critics, the ministry took pains to stress that the study of a foreign language would lead to a deeper understanding of Japanese language and culture.

The 300,000-foreign-student plan itself provides another example: Soon after the plan was presented, it was also announced that the government would expand the number of overseas Japanese-language facilities 10-fold, a move the Foreign Ministry portrayed as “fundamental for international understanding.”

And in the Global 30, the English- content courses sit uncomfortably with the plan to provide “high-quality” instruction in Japanese language and culture, something Asian students in particular may find a little too ideological for their liking. Thus, at the same time as arguing that classes in English have a vital role to play in attracting foreign students, the education ministry also asks whether it is meaningful to graduate from a Japanese university without having studied Japanese at all. After all, they argue, isn’t study in Japan an opportunity to learn about the country and its language, something that is necessary for both daily life and future career prospects? The rhetorical contortions and contradictions are painfully apparent.

Historically, Japan has attempted to defend and protect itself from “dangerous” foreign influences while at the same time accumulating goods, knowledge and resources that would make Japan more competitive internationally. Contemporary higher education reform reflects a similar push and pull: a desire to protect and strengthen Japanese national identity in the face of foreign pressure while at the same time acknowledging the necessity of embracing global trends, currents and standards. The result, as the case of the Global 30 suggests, is that a “closing in” occurs at the same time as an “opening up.”

It is still too early to judge whether the Global 30 will be a success, but the initial signs are not promising. The new administration has already marked the Global 30 for budget cuts, and there are strong suggestions that the second selection stage may be indefinitely postponed, reducing the Global 30 to a “Global 13.”

Certainly, the contradictory nature of the project’s goals suggests successful implementation will be problematic. In the end, the need to compromise between the desire to maintain Japan’s cultural independence and the need to promote English as an indispensable tool for international market competitiveness means Fukuda’s target of 300,000 foreign students will be difficult to achieve.

For more on the specifics of the Global 30, see next week’s Zeit Gist article by Jay Klaphake. Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. For more on kokusaika, see www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/Burgess.html. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp

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