Even as Japan was praised for its English presentations during the bidding process to host the 2020 Olympic Games in September, it is no secret that Japanese are still said to be poor at communicating in English.

It partly stems from Japanese youth’s growing introversive tendencies. To counter, high schools, universities and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology are stepping up efforts to encourage students to develop a global mind-set.

Especially, science and technology students have reason to learn English because they at least read research papers and listen to speeches at international academic conferences.

But their ambitions are to write papers and make presentations in English on their research in front of foreign scientists, media and the public. Also, it is a norm that international research teams contain scientists from many different countries and the common language is English. So, English communication is a must to be a successful scientist.

To discuss how to improve English communication skills for science and technology students, The Japan Times earlier this month brought together three experts — Masahiro Takeda, principal of Kyoto Municipal Murasakino High School, Tomoyuki Terai, an associate professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Osaka University, and Osamu Aruga, director, Office for International Planning, Higher Education Bureau, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Ko Yamaguchi, special advisor, Global Strategy Headquarters, Management & Planning Office, Kyodo News, moderated the discussion, excerpts of which follow.

Current situation

Moderator: Will you tell us what is going on in classrooms in terms of education for English communication?

Terai: Generally, English classes in universities in Japan are merely a continuation of high school English. There is hardly any education for scientific English. Thus Osaka University began a program specifically to teach English that would be useful for science students. We made it available online so that students can participate anywhere, anytime, but it’s not enough. They need real experience in participating in international academic conferences.

Another point that tends to be overlooked is that our counterparts are, probably, also not so good at English. So, there is no point in being afraid. What they have and Japanese do not have is experience in speaking English in front of many people.

Takeda: I feel things have improved, but not enough. Studying for entrance exams keeps students from studying anything but the kind of English that will help them to pass the exam, which is reading comprehension and vocabulary.

High schools should divide students in terms of English proficiency levels and create English classes accordingly. Also, in science classes, students build a hypothesis and analyze it in Japanese, but doing that in English is currently impossible. Students are too busy studying for entrance exams.

Aruga: Thinking back to how it was when I was a student, English education was just about reading and translating into Japanese. Now, it has become more practical as students learn scientific English. Some universities require students to write their thesis in English. Tokyo Institute of Technology has made a certain TOEIC score a prerequisite for graduation.

Now that Japanese manufacturers need to sell their products outside Japan because of the shrinking domestic market, they need new hires who are internationally minded. If universities and companies move in such a direction, students will learn more English.

Discussion skills

Moderator: Japanese seem not to be good at discussion even in Japanese.

Terai: That’s right. We need to force them to be involved in class discussions. I think students nowadays are shyer than they used to be.

Aruga: We should get used to participating in group discussions from a young age. Japanese tend to want to find the right answers even though there are no right answers in many discussion subjects. Americans discuss many subjects that do not have answers. We should build an education system in which students can learn the ability to find and solve problems, and accept different opinions.

Moderator: On e-learning, for example, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) streams its classes on the Internet in real time. This means that the infrastructure is in place for Japanese universities and students to do similar things. How do Japanese universities take advantage of this?

Terai: It’s a matter of each student’s mind-set. Students with high awareness are far better than teachers in making use of such learning opportunities. For other students, teachers must force them.

How to be global

Moderator: How do we train students to be globally successful scientists?

Aruga: The government is taking lots of measures to achieve the goal of increasing the number of foreign students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020.

The education ministry is spending billions of yen to fund various projects to internationalize Japanese universities. Such projects include creating more courses whose instruction language is only English, increasing the number of non-Japanese teachers, funding scholarships for students to study abroad, helping universities and companies to collaborate in research that may have commercial potential, promoting exchanges with universities overseas and funding scholarships for academically excellent foreign students to study in Japan.

Terai: Osaka University’s goal is have more than 10 percent of its students foreign students as soon as possible and let 10 percent of its students be long-term foreign students by 2020. Its students’ English skills have certainly improved since 10 years ago. Exchange programs with University of California, Davis and inviting foreign researchers for several months are very helpful.

Takeda: I strongly support the education ministry’s initiative to nurture globally minded high school students. Murasakino High School wants to be accredited as a Super Global High School by the education ministry.

There is currently an argument on increasing the number of high schools using the International Baccalaureate method so as to make it easier for Japanese high school students to go to overseas universities.

But it’s difficult in public high schools. How many teachers can teach how to make English presentations? The level of teachers’ English is too low. It’s not enough for English teachers to have Eiken Grade Pre-1 and a TOEIC score of 750. Math and science teachers must have those.

Aruga: Japan is now developing Japanese Diploma Program under the collaboration with the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) to increase the number of IB schools in Japan.

Moderator: I follow the Davos conference (an international conference with many politicians, company presidents and other important people discussing global agendas) as I was once the bureau chief in Geneva. I feel Japanese are less and less at the center of discussions. I still remember clearly Sony Corp.’s former President Akio Morita appearing at the Davos conference in 1992 and making a speech in very simple English. I don’t think we have such Japanese who can make presentations like that now.

Terai: The problem is not having something to discuss in your own words. For that reason, going abroad and having people from abroad come to Japan is important. Living outside Japan for even a month makes a difference.

Takeda: Knowing about your country is also important. When you are asked your identity, you should know about your country and be able to explain it.

Aruga: Going abroad often makes you realize you don’t know Japan very well. That realization is also important. So, broken English is OK. Youngsters should hunger for the experience of going abroad.

Lack of qualified teachers

Moderator: Let’s talk about challenges. In our discussion we’ve heard we don’t have enough qualified teachers, and students are too busy preparing for entrance exams and job hunting.

Terai: Yes, we can achieve a numerical goal. We can say the number of foreign students has increased. Then what? What will happen to those students? How do we take advantage of such situations? I don’t know because there is no system to follow up on the project of increasing the number of foreign students.

Aruga: Reviewing the project is definitely necessary.

Moderator: Amazon.com Inc. founder and CEO Jeff Bezos prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in the company. Instead, he makes employees bring printouts to a meeting, have meeting members read them and discuss them. I found that interesting.

Takeda: I agree. Human communication is important. PowerPoint is one-way communication.

Moderator: How do we make students join in discussions?

Terai: The quickest way is to reduce the number of students in a classroom and force them to talk. Another way is to make them realize the importance of discussion ability. Graduate students and undergraduate seniors know.

Aruga: Also, teachers should create an atmosphere in which students can say what they want to. When my family lived in the U.S., a kindergarten my child went to asked kids to bring items they like to school and explain why. Perhaps, Americans are trained to discuss things from an early age.

Why not go abroad?

Moderator: Fewer Japanese students study abroad now. What do you think is blocking their way?

Takeda: Partly conservative parents. There may be financial issues, too. Some students in my school cannot study abroad because they don’t have the money.

Terai: There is definitely a wealth divide among students. Some give up studying abroad, others work many hours in part-time jobs to save money.

Japanese companies tend to see a challenging spirit in students who have gone to foreign universities. The same can be said of foreign students in Japan. In fact, foreign students at Osaka University have a challenging spirit. I get the feeling from them that they will do whatever job they find because that is why they came to Japan in the first place.

Aruga: The actual number of students studying abroad has decreased, while the population of 18-year-olds also has been declining.

Another noticeable thing is that universities nowadays have better exchange programs and thus Japanese students can study abroad on these programs without much of a risk.

It has been said that going to universities without an internationalizing strategy is a risk for students.

Moderator: How do China and South Korea assess Japan’s move to internationalize universities?

Aruga: The government began the “CAMPUS (Collective Action for Mobility Program of University Students) Asia” project, which promotes exchanges among universities in Japan, China and South Korea. During a committee meeting for CAMPUS Asia in August, we heard reports that Chinese and South Koreans appreciate the program. Universities in China and South Korea support Japanese students very well.

In the CAMPUS Asia project, students can transfer credits among designated universities, about 10 universities each in the three countries. Thus students can obtain multiple degrees relatively quickly by attending more than one university.

Terai: Having such a program is great. But more importantly, we should have good people who are engaged in the program. Teachers who do that sacrifice their research time. In short, only teachers who have a high awareness of the necessity of such programs do that and doing that does not count toward their evaluation from the universities they work for. We need a system to train teachers who train their students.

Fluency doesn’t matter

Moderator: What kind of English education do we need to nurture scientists who can succeed on the global stage?

Aruga: Japan is a homogenous country and comfortable for Japanese, but globalization is inevitable. We need to accept various opinions and send various messages to the world, and we need to do so from the time we are young.

In making presentations, fluent English is not essential, but you need to make sure listeners understand you and that you are really answering questions.

Takeda: For high school students, qualified teachers and the studying environment, such as classes divided according to different proficiency levels, are necessary. I feel that all-English courses enjoy some acceptance from the public, who now think globalization is a must. Now we want science and math teachers to have an international mind-set.

Terai: I also think qualified teachers are essential. Plus, when we implement measures to internationalize universities, we should continue to do so. The government usually sets a five-year period for such measures. That’s short.

Moderator: In the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912) when Japanese were learning things from Europe and the U.S., Japan translated everything, such as scientific terminologies in English and medical terminologies in German, into Japanese. Other countries did not do this and people there had to learn with foreign languages. Maybe Japanese can also learn some specific fields in English, if English is the dominant language in the fields.

Terai: That is probably impossible.

Takeda: I think students should be able to choose to learn in whatever language they want to.

This page has been produced with the support of the Ogasawara Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Engineering, which was founded by Toshiaki Ogasawara, the chairman and publisher of The Japan Times and the chairman of Nifco Inc.

Education ministry takes measures to internationalize universities

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is taking various measures to internationalize universities in Japan to nurture future human resources who can be successful on the global stage.

Roughly dividing the measures into three categories, the ministry is working on 1) internationalizing Japanese universities, 2) establishing systems to help universities encourage students to study abroad and 3) accepting academically excellent foreign students in Japan.

In its budget request for fiscal 2014, the ministry has asked for ¥23 billion for helping the internationalization of universities, ¥14.5 billion for encouraging studying abroad and ¥32.8 billion for accepting foreign students.

In internationalizing Japanese universities, the ministry plans to start next fiscal year a project called “Initiative for Emerging Global University,” for which it asked for ¥15.6 billion, roughly two-thirds of the entire budget of the “internationalization” category.

In the project, the ministry is planning to select 30 public and private universities in Japan that have excellent plans to become international. The 30 universities will be divided into Type A and Type B categories. Type A will have 10 top universities that have the potential of being ranked within the top 100 universities in the world, while Type B will have 20 universities that will lead Japan’s globalization.

The 30 universities must increase the number of classes whose instruction language is foreign language, and the ratio of foreign students and teachers. They also must disclose information transparently and have a flexible academic calendar so as to make it easy for foreign students to enter and Japanese students to go abroad.

Also in the “internationalization” project, the ministry has asked for ¥3.1 billion for the next fiscal year for an existing project to help universities to form alliances with other universities in the world.

In one of measures in the project, the CAMPUS (Collective Action for Mobility Program of University Students) Asia program lets designated Japanese, Chinese and South Korean universities use a system to make it easy for them to exchange students, transfer credits and allow students to obtain multiple diplomas from multiple different universities without wasting time.

Each country designates about 10 such universities. Japanese universities include the University of Tokyo, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Hitotsubashi University, Kyushu University and Ritsumeikan University.

The ministry also earmarks part of the budget to help Japanese universities have similar alliances with other universities in the world, namely the U.S., Russia, India and ASEAN countries.

In the “study abroad” project, the ministry will expand its scholarship programs to increase the number of Japanese students studying abroad. It will also collaborate with universities and companies on the scholarship programs.

In the “foreign student” project, the ministry is taking various measures, including setting up a system to issue university entrance permits to students in their home countries, to boost the number of foreign students to 300,000 by 2020.

The ministry will also help foreign students to land a job in Japan.

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