Monte Cassim, 65, slips effortlessly from English to Japanese and back, as befits one of the few non-Japanese to have served as president of a major Japanese university. After heading Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, from 2004 to 2009, the Sri Lankan architect and engineer is now a professor at Ritsumeikan University, vice chancellor of The Ritsumeikan Trust and director of the university’s Peace Museum.

During a recent interview in his office on the university’s Kyoto campus, Cassim explained his impressive career trajectory — from a Sri Lankan government post to the University of Tokyo to the United Nations to the peaks of academia — modestly, if not quite convincingly. “I’ve never been master of my life — others have pulled me in different directions,” he says.

He was born in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, the only child of an engineer and a “liberal-minded” housewife. While studying at the University of Sri Lanka, he decided to switch his major from biology to architecture because “the faculty of architecture had all the nice-looking girls. Architecture included art, history, the sensory sciences. It allowed me to work with wealthy clients as well as people in the construction industry. I learned to think outside the box, when to conform and when not to conform. It was a fantastic discipline.”

After graduation in 1970, while working on public housing projects as an architect for the national engineering corporation, he realized that, as a 22-year-old making decisions on projects with huge social ramifications, he needed to know more about managing large-scale development. He won Japan’s education ministry scholarship to study engineering in Japan in 1972.

Before starting graduate studies, Cassim spent six months studying Japanese and hitchhiking around the country. He says he “fell in love with outlying regions of the country and local companies that had committed themselves to excellence.”

He gave as an example a company in Ishikawa Prefecture named Oriental Chain, which makes all manner of chains — strong chains for conveyer belts, huge tractor chains and miniature links just a few millimeters in length for cameras and other precision equipment. “I found myself in thrall to the spirit of Japan as expressed by these master fabricators and mold-makers,” he said, amazed at their skill and sophistication. “To do this work you also need a compassionate heart that enables you to understand your clients’ needs and difficulties. As in the martial arts or the fine arts, you need to have supreme skill, or waza, and the heart, or kokoro.”

Many of the companies he observed were 200 years old or older. According to Teikoku Databank, Japan claims 3,146 companies that are more than 200 years old, the most of any country, including the world’s oldest, a construction firm in Osaka that was founded in 578.

Cassim feels that Japan’s older companies have survived for centuries because they are incubators of innovation. Unlike many of today’s large companies, run by MBA-trained managerial elites, these companies still finance these innovations through savings, not debt, so they can allow their staff freer rein to experiment.

Japan needs to learn more from their ability to combine knowledge capital, institutional capital and the capital that comes from valued relationships, he said. For these companies, it is the relationship, rather than the market, that drives transactions.

After retiring from Ritsumeikan next year, Cassim plans to motor about Japan with his wife, visiting these small yet robust companies as research for a book he plans to write celebrating these “lesser captains of a great industrial nation,” as he calls them.

This fascination with craftsmanship comes naturally to Cassim. His paternal grandfather was a master stonemason who carved Sri Lanka’s independence monument. His wife, Julia, is a British artist and former senior research fellow at the Royal College of Art in London, whom he met when she was studying at Tokyo University of the Arts; they have two adult children now doing graduate work in Japan.

In 1974, Cassim entered the master’s program in urban engineering at the University of Tokyo, continuing on to the doctoral program. In 1985, after corporate stints as a planning consultant, he joined the Nagoya-based United Nations Center for Regional Development, which promotes sustainable regional development in developing nations. He coordinated units on industrial development (“working with the big and powerful”) and urban development and housing (“working with the destitute and down and out”).

“Thanks to having a Third World face I could talk to people in developing nations easily,” he said. “I helped to set up a business information support system to link small companies in developing economies in a global network. We also helped governments calculate their actual housing needs, working out creative solutions that linked universities, public-sector agencies and target stakeholders.” Cassim saw the experience as being of a piece with his lifelong quest to understand what can be learned from Japan that could be applied elsewhere.

He left the United Nations in 1994 to become a professor at the new International Relations faculty at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, where he mined his U.N. experience to teach about development assistance. In 2004, he was asked to become president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), a four-year-old private university in Oita Prefecture.

When asked to describe APU, he recalled the explanation he gave to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi several years ago: “APU is a place where bright young people from 80 different countries stimulate and energize their Japanese colleagues to be dynamic, entrepreneurial and fun.” About half of APU’s students are non-Japanese, he said, and more than half of them now stay in Japan after graduation, where they’re plucked by multinational corporations interested in recruiting multilingual staff. “During my last year as president in 2009, some 380 companies came to campus to recruit Asia’s and Africa’s best and brightest.”

At APU Cassim tried to avoid campus politics, spending much of his time meeting with students and responding to their requests. He felt that given the university’s remote location in Beppu, the student and faculty numbers would need to double to create a more stimulating and varied environment, so he labored to double university enrollment to nearly 6,000 by 2009.

He also sponsored visits by economist Amartya Sen, the microcredit innovator Muhammad Yunus of Grameen bank, various Nobel laureates in the sciences, and Japanese corporate leaders.

Cassim feels that Japan needs to do a better job to promote its scientific innovations in order to attract foreign students and recognition abroad. “Japan continues to be innovative, tied to the real economy and not to nebulous economies of contemporary finance, as you see in Europe and elsewhere,” he said. “Japan has influenced Asia in many areas. For example, when you visit department stores all over Asia, you can see how they’ve been affected by Japanese displays, design and fine customer service.”

He thinks that Japanese universities do a fairly good job of accepting foreign students, regarding foreign students as future leaders who need to be nurtured rather than be treated merely as a target market. “Japanese national universities are good in science and technology, but they have much to learn from private universities in how to take care of students.”

He thinks foreign students should be encouraged to join university student clubs, circles and other social activities, and that Japanese professors should make more effort to include foreign students in their labs and seminars. He spoke of the need to help Japanese faculty learn how to teach in English.

Cassim still teaches at Ritsumeikan, with a laboratory devoted to sustainability science, which “explores how to add new values and high-technology interventions in agriculture to adapt to climate change.” He is also director of the Kyoto Museum for World Peace at the Kinugasa campus, where an exhibition of winners of the World Press Photo Contest draws large crowds each year.

Coming from Sri Lanka, where “there is no one without a close friend or relative lost in the violence” from a civil war that raged 26 years, Cassim is now hopeful about prospects for peace in his native land, where hostilities finally ceased in 2009. “The violence there had to do with an environment of aspirations not being fulfilled, but now things are getting better,” he said. “As for the Peace Museum, our next step is to ask: How can we build the structures that maintain peace?”

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