Like thousands of foreigners, Tony Black recently made the agonizing decision to leave Japan, wife and baby child in tow. Unlike many, he has no concrete plans to return.

“I’ve been in Japan for 19 years and feel a lot of loyalty, so it’s very hard for me to make the decision, but we’re worried about the food chain, drinking water, fish, vegetables, even rain,” says the American, who has quit his job teaching English at Tokyo’s Komazawa University.

As the dust settles from Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, administrators are still trying to grasp the impact on the country’s universities. Roughly five percent of 353,000 full-time professors in this country are non-Japanese; 140,000 foreign students were studying here before the Pacific plates shifted on March 11. Most agree that a government target to more than double that figure to 300,000 by the end of the decade has now slipped further away — if it was ever viable in the first place.

Japan’s ministry of education has yet to publish post-3/11 figures, though it is naturally keen to play down the impact of the disaster.

“From our point of view, most universities are functioning normally,” insists the ministry’s Yoshikazu Tagashira. But aftershocks, the fear of another major earthquake and the now daily, routine discharge of low-level radioactivity from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, 250 km up the coast from the capital, are taking their toll.

Looming power cuts in the sweltering summer months are another headache: Some universities, including the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and Tokyo Women’s Medical University, are already asking for exemptions, arguing that their work is too vital to close down. Others such as Tokyo University of Technology (a leading supplier of graduates to the nuclear power industry) have worked through the Golden Week holiday and will shut early for the summer to avoid using air conditioners.

Dozens of international student exchange programs and research projects have been postponed or cancelled.

“The delay is mainly due to the fact that it would be impossible to conduct interviews at Japanese companies at this time,” said Caroline Benton, a professor at the University of Tsukuba’s Graduate School of Business Sciences, explaining why a project involving research companies in 13 different countries has been postponed.

Spooked by the radiation, thousands of foreign students evacuated in March, a potentially crushing blow to a higher education system already reeling from a domestic demographic crisis. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, home to 2,800 foreign students, mostly from China and South Korea, has fielded about 300 calls from abroad on safety issues since March 11. “The reality is that we will have to make a great effort not to lose some of those students,” said spokesperson Emi Ninomiya.

“All of the Chinese students are gone,” laments Xiaoye Wang, a third-year liberal arts student at the private Waseda University in Tokyo. “I’m the last one. I don’t think it’s that dangerous. And in any case the plane tickets are too expensive.”

Levels of radiation in Tokyo are now little higher than they are in New York or London. If engineers succeed in bringing the Fukushima plant under control, most of the nuclear refugees will return, predicts Nori Morita, dean of the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University, which has about 1,000 foreign students. “I am sure that this ‘crisis’ will have an impact on the recruitment of students from China, Korea and Taiwan. (But) I am sure that they will come back to us next year or the year after next and the negative impact will be not permanent.”

Observers are also quick to note that the disaster struck the mainly rural and coastal northeast — responsible for about 7 percent of the country’s entire gross domestic product. The west and south are untouched. Tohoku and Tsukuba universities are the only two institutions of global note in or near the disaster zone. Greater Tokyo, where over 40 percent of the economy and a third of its population is concentrated, escaped largely unscathed.

“When all is said and done, the story could be how little the quake really affected higher education and research in the region,” points out Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

That upbeat message is echoed by Sophia University, one of Japan’s top private universities. “We’ve had some withdrawals of students, probably in single digits,” explains John Tokarz, chair of the institution’s Faculty of Liberal Arts. “Students have called and said ‘My family is concerned for my safety.’ But most have come back.”

But what about the long-term fallout from the disasters unleashed by the Tohoku earthquake? Before 3/11, a third of the country’s private colleges faced bankruptcy or merger as they struggle with plummeting enrollment. Even Japan’s best universities are still considered insular and lagging behind their foreign contemporaries; the government’s attempts at internationalizing the higher education system are a spluttering affair, at best.

It seems very likely that the disaster will tighten finances and force a wave of college mergers. “We’re predicting the government will cut subsidies to public universities,” says Motohisa Kaneko, senior researcher at the Center for National University Finance and Management and an adviser to the government and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on education issues. He predicts that tuition fees will rise, accelerating competition and curriculum reform. “I think we’ll also see the introduction of more professional, not academic management.”

That’s the sort of creative if painful destruction that has long been called for in Japan, where dozens of what are disparagingly called “zombie colleges” are kept alive on government life support equivalent to about 20 percent of their budgets.

“Japan is resourceful when up against a wall,” points out Paul Snowden, a former dean of Waseda’s liberal studies school. “It might well have a positive impact on those institutions that can survive upheavals that are bound to come — and were probably bound to come anyway, but might now be accelerated.”

Japan has a striking, perhaps unique history of almost biblical destruction and rebirth. The country engineered probably the most remarkable feat of economic regeneration in history, climbing from a humiliated postwar wreck to the world’s second-largest economy in just three decades. That growth, however, incubated chronic structural problems.

The half-century reign of the Liberal Democratic Party, which finally fell from power in 2009, bred corruption and cronyism. National policy is dominated by competing factional interests that have left the country rudderless, and the bureaucracy has grown far too powerful. For most of the postwar period, Japan has stood aloof from its Asian neighbors, its relations with China and South Korea in particular badly wounded by its wartime occupation of those countries.

Longtime Japan-watchers say last month’s quake and tsunami could help the nation overcome some of those problems. One possible outcome is rejuvenated government and a renewed sense of national purpose, after two decades of ennui and drift. Gerard A. Postiglione, a director of research at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education, predicts the disaster may accelerate cross-national cooperation and moves toward regional capacity-building.

“It’s happening in other sectors, but higher education systems across the region have been slow to deepen collaboration. Japan has what the rest of the region and most developing countries need: quality higher education on a large scale.”

Shrinking government budgets and the sense of profound national crisis could generate a new round of innovation at the nation’s companies and universities, say observers. Prime Minister Naoto Kan set the tone for the future, promising that new research into clean energy such as solar and biomass would lead the nation’s “resurrection.”

Perhaps, but that will entail confronting what one analyst calls Japan’s “power elite” — the bureaucrats, utilities and corporations, such as Hitachi and Toshiba, that dominate and supply the nuclear industry. Dismantling that powerful triangle, and their influence inside academe, will not be easy, forecasts Andrew DeWitt, a researcher at the School of Policy Studies in Tokyo’s Rikkyo University. “Shifting those interests is not going to happen suddenly.”

Is there room for optimism? Yes, says William Saito, an advisor to Japan’s ministries of education and industry. “All the great innovations happen in crisis. It’s not about money, it’s about the personal imperative to do something. In the medium to long term you’ll see many innovative companies coming out of this because there has never been anything like it. I think given Japan’s history, it can only look up.”

This is a modified version of an article than ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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