Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

It's time for Japanese universities to emerge as global brands

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Last month, I had the honor of giving the address to the international student alumni on Homecoming Day at Kobe University, which I attended as a graduate student between 1993 and 2000.

As is common on these alumni occasions, I waxed lyrical about the good old days, remarking how barbaric and bare Kobe University was when I arrived there in the early 1990s —crumbling buildings, stone floors, old desks and bookcases — yet I made sure to mention how wonderful some of the professors who taught there were.

I’m an out-and-out fan of Kobe University and over the years I’ve also given talks at other institutions of higher learning around Japan — I even studied as an undergraduate at a couple of others — so the occasion of Homecoming Day inspired me to concentrate on what the characteristics of Japanese universities are and, in a globalized world, where they need to improve. Japan’s universities are, after all, one of the main portals through which the country interacts with the rest of the world.

I came to Kobe University from the University of Cambridge in England, an institution that is regularly assessed as one of the top two or three universities in the world. I found Kobe University to be every bit as intellectually challenging and rigorous as Cambridge was, however, so I’m always amazed when I scan the lists of global university rankings and find Kobe University nowhere in sight.

It’s not just Kobe University. Top schools in Japan — from Tokyo University downward — are usually situated near the bottom of such university rankings — if they appear at all — in comparison to their Western counterparts. How can this be? While there may be bias in the way rankings are measured, I believe that Japanese universities also struggle at selling themselves on the world stage.

When back at Kobe University, I was curious to learn whether the poor survey showings were of concern. I was assured they were, but alarmed to hear that, in response, certain humanities departments might be merged and science departments beefed up, as if more science and less literature opened the door to world recognition. This seems to me to be the wrong response. Instead, I have my own suggestions for how Japanese universities should reinvent themselves and establish much greater prominence on the world stage.

Unite the student body

Firstly, the way in which Japanese academic institutions handle their overseas students needs rethinking. I recalled in my speech that when I arrived at Kobe in 1993 I was sent to live in a dormitory strictly for foreign students on Port Island, surrounded by nothing but modern housing blocks. I felt like one of the Dutch merchants stationed in Dejima, an island off Nagasaki, during the 1700s, not allowed to set foot in Japan proper lest the locals and foreigners actually interact.

The deeply embedded idea in the Japanese psyche that Japanese and “foreigners” must be in some sense segregated and treated differently runs deep and is often difficult to dislodge. Since I left Kobe University, the school has built a handsome new building called the International Intercommunication Centre, dedicated to providing language and culture courses to foreign students as a symbol of the university’s attempts at internationalization.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the center is more of a “tatemae” (“front”) that masks a deeper reserve about truly integrating Japanese and overseas students. More telling, the university operates separate Homecoming Day events for both sets of students. This might make some sense if the events for overseas students were conducted in English, but as everything is conducted in Japanese — I was the first person to have ever addressed the overseas alumni in English as well as Japanese — it’s hard to see why there should be any segregation. Why should the university’s Japanese alumni not be exposed to the overseas alumni and vice versa?

That resistance to accept the idea of the fluidity of Japanese and overseas culture leads to the second chief flaw of nearly all Japanese universities — a hopeless inability to define and project a unique personality. I doubt whether you would be able to find someone outside of Japan who can tell you how one Japanese university differs from another.

Indeed, the institutions themselves seem to have little grasp of what makes them unique. This is peculiar because, as I tried to explain to my hosts at Kobe University, the physical attributes of the school — situated on a mountainside home to wild boar and with spectacular views over Kobe and Osaka Bay — define the character of the university itself: This is a place slightly removed from the world, a place where you can see things differently.

It has a completely distinct feel from the University of Tokyo, with its location near the seat of political power; Kyoto University, with its Zen-inspired philosophical traditions; and Tokyo’s Shirayuri University with its Christian heritage. Overseas students don’t want to go to just any old school, they want a place with personality.

Yet pick up the prospectus of most Japanese universities and you are likely to find reams of bland statistics, messages from stiff bureaucrats and generic pictures of club activities. Kobe University, following on from its location’s outward-looking reputation as a city, is at the forefront of efforts to create a modern, globally oriented Japanese university and do things differently. Yet even there, I don’t feel the current prospectus defines my particular pride in belonging to such a wonderful institution.

Contrast that with my Cambridge experience, in which I’m sent an annual booklet teeming with news about alumni achievements throughout the world and recalls aspects of famous personages’ interactions with the college over the ages. I could spend a long time telling you about the notable alumni of this small college, not to mention the historically important people — from Christopher Marlowe and Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin — who attended the wider university.

I recall the very first time I returned to Cambridge a couple of years after leaving. I sheepishly tried to gain entry into the university library, wondering if it was still OK as I was no longer a student.

An attendant looked at me benignly and smiled, “Once a member of the university, sir, always a member.”

Looking for a lifelong bond

I’ve profoundly appreciated that lifelong relationship with my British university. In contrast, however, Kobe University, an institution of which I have the happiest memories, is somewhere that, until I went back to give my speech the other day, I had returned to only once since leaving in 2000.

In fairness, the university leads the way among schools in Japan, opening an office in Brussels, and has fledgling alumni associations in various European and Southeast Asian countries, but it’s no exaggeration to say it and its domestic brethren still lag several country miles behind the alumni organizations of many Western universities.

I concluded my talk at Kobe University by saying that I wanted the same lifelong bond with it that I had with Cambridge. I don’t want to go back once in a blue moon and watch demonstrations of “Japanese culture,” being treated as an eternal foreigner. I want to be treated as one of the family, someone who has a deep appreciation of the uniqueness of the place, someone who understands its personality perhaps better than it understands itself.

The scholastic institutions of Japan need to understand that if they hope to climb the world rankings and establish themselves as true presences on the global stage, then the strength of their relationship with their cohort of foreign students and the links those foreign alumni forge as their ambassadors throughout the world, are likely to be crucial to the outcome.