BEPPU, Oita Pref. — “A friend of mine began using some hair cream and perfume after he was asked for directions by a young lady. He is too old to attract coeds, though,” chuckled Kiminori Kumada, in a leisurely local dialect.
Kumada, 59, is chairman of the Kamekawa Shopping Center Union of Beppu, Oita Prefecture. Born in this city, famous for its hot springs, he has watched its ups and downs for decades.
“I hope the university kids will stimulate our old communities. . . . Like any other spa-resort municipality, Beppu has been stuck in an economic slump. Visitors here are on the decline and several stores have gone bankrupt recently,” Kumada said.
The new Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University kicked off this April. Comprising two colleges, APU was established here jointly by Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, the Oita Prefectural Government and Beppu to promote exchanges within the Asia-Pacific region.
The prefecture has contributed 15 billion yen to APU while Beppu has given 4.2 billion yen and a 41.6-hectare plot of land since building began in 1997.
APU boasts an international curriculum and an atmosphere that is unique among Japanese-run institutions. About 250 of the students — more than half the total — are from overseas, mainly Asia, including China, South Korea, Taiwan and India. It plans to continue recruiting students from other nations, whose number is expected to rise to 2,000 in four years.
Half of the roughly 70 faculty members of the university are non-Japanese as well, teaching courses both in English and in Japanese.
“Come the 21st century, the Asia-Pacific region will hold more power in the world economy and in international politics,” APU President Kazutoshi Sakamoto said. “It is indispensable for Japan to open its doors and let aspiring youth study here, fostering ties with Japanese youngsters.”
Sakamoto says APU has made aggressive efforts to recruit foreign students. To enroll diligent students from countries whose currencies are weak, the university set up a scholarship program — funded by 253 companies and individuals — that covers 70 percent of foreign students’ tuition and cost of living.
APU has also explored links with other educational institutions in the region. Besides sending pamphlets, APU staff visited over 1,000 schools and institutions all over Asia and the Pacific, offering arrangements for admissions on recommendations. As a result, APU succeeded in signing admission agreements with 300 schools.
“Our staff went as far as inland China, where nobody knows any Japanese colleges,” Sakamoto said. “To our surprise, some Australian and American universities had already visited those places for recruitment. I thought, then, that we should act rather than just complain about the declining population of Japanese teenagers.”
The city hopes the opening of APU will boost its stagnant economy. Mayor Nobuyuki Inoue said, “As the total number of students, professors and other staff could reach up to 5,000, we expect APU to contribute 5 billion yen a year to the local economy.”
To help lure APU, Inoue had to lobby the city assembly and persuade residents to support the 4.2 billion yen contribution.
“At the beginning, one-third of the assembly members opposed the plan,” he recalled. “But they eventually gave it a green light. Beppu doesn’t have any large companies or factories. Tourism has been the main revenue source, which is on the decrease.
“I suppose people are well aware of the situation,” he said.
Yet some expressed concern over emerging friction between APU and the local community.
APU may attract a sudden influx of foreigners into the city of 126,000.
“I cannot speak any English,” said Jungo Ito, 72, a liquor shop owner. “It is good if customers increase, but I am worried about whether I can deal with those from abroad.”
A 50-year-old taxi driver said: “Those students are brought up in a totally different culture, and, unfortunately, Beppu residents tend to be conservative in nature. I would not be surprised if some troubles occur.”
In April, the city established an international affairs division, distributing 9,000 pamphlets to both citizens and students. The pamphlets are written in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, giving the students basic information about life in Japan.
It also cooperated with the city’s fire department to teach firefighters basic English in case of emergencies.
“Generally speaking, local residents are interested in foreign students,” said Yoshiyuki Nakano, a chief of the division. “When we ran advertisements during Golden Week seeking 60 families to accommodate the students, we got more than 100 applications.
“We are considering organizing a city-backed sports event or festivals where people can come to a mutual understanding,” he said.
APU is also making an effort to mix in with the community. In a rare move for a private institution, the school’s library, tennis courts and conference rooms have been opened to Beppu residents. Its cafeteria, where many kinds of Asian dishes are served, is also available.
The university also plans to send students to local elementary schools to help local children get to know foreigners.
For the students at APU, studying in a small city such as Beppu seems to have its good and bad points.
“I am happy I could study here because Japan has been my main interest,” Kim Yong Chan, 19, from South Korea, said in fluent Japanese. “Some of my friends wonder why I didn’t choose school in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. But Beppu’s calm, relaxing environment is perfect for me to study in and I am going to those big cities after I begin working anyway.” Sumudu Chamikara Perera, 21, from Sri Lanka, said, “I came here to study marketing. So far, I am quite content with lectures and school facilities. But sometimes it is inconvenient (to live here) because there aren’t many stores to get commodities cheaply.”