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Japan has long had a reputation for impenetrability and separation from the outside world. However, this is changing rapidly in a number of ways. One example is the university system, which is quickly shifting to a globalized footing, becoming home to emerging international powerhouses in academia.

For the last six years, the Top Global University Project has served as a showcase for Japanese higher education’s increased presence on the international stage. A bellwether of change, this unique initiative is bringing Japan and the rest of the world closer together.

Japan’s global heritage

It is increasingly recognized by scholars that Japan’s historical reputation as a small, insular nation ignores much intellectual and cultural interaction with other Asian nations and, later, the Western world. The Japanese word for university, daigaku, was applied in the early medieval period to a government-sponsored institution teaching Chinese texts and linguistics. Even during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), when the country was officially closed to the outside world, specialists in Western learning in contact with the Dutch gathered a great deal of information in fields ranging from medicine to astronomy.

A modern Western-influenced system of Japanese colleges and universities began to appear and flourish in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although not as seemingly global as universities in some other countries to many observers, a number of these schools have had a proud tradition of international engagement for many decades, with alumni from around the world, including influential names in politics and international business. In 2009, the government started the Global 30 Project to boost foreign enrollment in Japanese universities. Soon after this program was concluded, the Top Global University Project began.

No time like the present

The Top Global University Project was initiated in 2014 by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology during the administration of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that had positioned the globalization of education as a major priority. A total of 37 universities were chosen to receive a decade of annual subsidies under the program, with the aim of assisting them in making critical reforms.

The chosen universities were divided into Type A (Top Type) and Type B (Global Traction Type). Type A schools are highly ranked within Japan and conduct education and research at a level considered to make them competitive on a global scale. Type B schools were chosen for track records showing the presence of pioneering programs that have the potential to impact the globalization of Japan itself as a society.

A key to the quest for true internationalization under the project is a dual model that hinges on developing both global competitiveness and compatibility. That is, the schools involved should seek higher positions in global university rankings, and they should also focus on making their students more competitive worldwide. At the same time, they should develop cooperation through programs for more profound involvement and partnership with non-Japanese institutions, while also preparing their charges to work together with other groups and persons across borders of all types. The project thus works at both the institutional and individual levels.

As benchmarks to judge actual performance, the Top Global University Project has three sets of goals: those relating to internationalization, those relating to governance and those relating to educational reform. It is particularly notable that the project takes a two-pronged approach to some of these goals, such as by focusing the numbers and experiences of both Japanese and non-Japanese students, at home and abroad. Attention is also given to faculty and administrative issues, with salary, tenure-track requirements and administrative capacity under the microscope. An increased focus on foreign languages (especially English) and the role of tests such as TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) in admissions can be noted.

Is the program working? Signs are very encouraging. The government reached its goal of enrolling 300,000 foreign students in Japan a year ahead of the original 2020 deadline, with a record-breaking 312,214 as of May 2019. Another aspiration has been to have 10 Japanese universities ranked among the top 100 such institutions worldwide by the year 2023. While various global ranking systems exist, the country did particularly well according to the QS World University Rankings 2021, with five Japanese schools making the list. These achievements are doubtless due to many different factors, but there can be no question that the Top Global University Project has played a strong role in both accomplishments.

Facing the future today

As the world reels from the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, universities around the world have been turned upside down, as have institutions of all sorts. Needless to say, this is as true in Japan as it is elsewhere, making the near future of higher education harder to predict. Measures being taken at Top Global Universities include full in-person resumption of certain classes (especially seminars and labs requiring physical presence), keeping large classes online to maintain appropriate social distancing and alternating between online and in-person formats for other courses. At at least one Top Global University, international students currently unable to return to Japan are generally not required to do so, and in addition to live online courses, lecture videos that can be watched at the convenience of students in different time zones are being made available. In Japan and elsewhere, many universities remain cautious and flexible, keeping all options open as they wait to see how the coronavirus pandemic will develop.

Despite the pall that the coronavirus has cast over many aspects of education and society, the widespread use of remote learning does point to potential uses of information technology that could be deployed in the future to reach students and other stakeholders in far-flung locations. Already in the pre-coronavirus era, a number of schools had been experimenting with distance learning through videos, social media and live communication technology. Could further refinements in this direction point to a new type of global learning even after the heavy cloud of the pandemic lifts? Might hybrid or online-only classes come to hold an important place in reaching out and competing internationally? And if so, to what extent? Could new communications means be used in innovative research by the Top Global Universities? These remain intriguing questions.

Whatever the impact of new technology, the success of the Top Global University Project points to the momentum necessary for an even brighter future.

For Japan and the world

The globalization of the Japanese university system will benefit both Japan and the world as a whole, and the Top Global Universities will continue to play leading roles in this respect.

Japanese companies are facing declining domestic demand as the population shrinks, and they are looking to expand abroad. Foreign graduates from Top Global Universities are increasingly prized by Japanese corporations not only for their Japanese linguistic skills, but also for the familiarity with Japanese culture that they pick up while studying in this country.

Meanwhile, global interest in Japan is booming, both culturally and in business terms. The number of foreign tourists coming to Japan in recent years (before the coronavirus pandemic setback of 2020) has exploded. A global fascination with Japanese cuisine, pop culture and the nation’s unique society has been building for over a decade. The Top Global Universities can serve as bridges to both traditional and contemporary Japan, which the rest of the world seems eager to learn about. This has profound long-term implications, as respect and affection for foreign cultures can smooth diplomatic tensions and create general goodwill among nations.

The number of foreign companies in Japan has grown. Over 50 years ago, the Japanese government began a survey of the business activity trends of foreign companies, targeting 600 firms. In 2019, a total of 5,701 foreign affiliates were sent the survey, and it seems that many of these companies are just as enthusiastic about Top Global University graduates as their Japanese counterparts. A Japanese education shows foreign affiliates that potential candidates are committed to the country, and they value the social skills and networks built on campus that graduates bring.

Help is never far away

Japanese culture and society may seem to present daunting challenges, but the Top Global Universities are reaching out with a variety of initiatives to help students and others feel more at home in Japan. The plethora of special scholarships, administrative help and all-English courses and classes offered by these schools continues to be attractive. Moreover, a growing commitment to diversity is in evidence everywhere one looks. A recent and growing trend is a focus on gender, LGBTQ issues and disabilities, proving that more people are realizing diversity goes beyond place of origin.

The signs all point to a stronger future for the Top Global Universities, which are also branching out with initiatives of their own. It is an exciting moment as they take their place in a wider world, which will help Japanese business and society. It will also bring fresh ideas from Japan to the world as a whole.

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