Humanities under attack


On June 8, all presidents of national universities received a notice from the education minister telling them to either abolish their undergraduate departments and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift their curricula to fields with greater utilitarian values.

The bad tradition of evaluating academic learning and sciences in terms of their utility, with private-sector enterprises meddling in higher education, is still alive in Japan.

Indeed, policies related to higher education are under the control of the Council on Industrial Competitiveness, which is made up of nine Cabinet ministers, seven corporate managers and two scholars. One of the scholars is from the field of engineering while the other comes from economics.

A member of the education ministry’s panel of learned persons even said that the humanities and social sciences departments should be allowed to remain as they are only at the seven former Imperial universities and Keio University, and that those at other universities should be transformed into vocational training schools.

This person even went so far as to assert that students majoring in the humanities and social sciences at schools other than those eight institutions should be taught the Building Lots and Building Transaction Business Law instead of the Constitution, software programming for bookkeeping and accounting in place of Paul Samuelson’s “Economics,” and the skills of orally translating between Japanese and English rather than reading Shakespeare’s works.

These are outrageous proposals and I cannot tolerate anti-intellectuals distorting the government’s policies related to higher education.

During World War II, students of the natural sciences and engineering at high schools and universities were exempt from conscription and only those who were studying the humanities and social sciences were drafted into military service.

In March 1960, the education minister in Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s Cabinet said that all departments of the humanities and social sciences at national universities should be abolished so that those schools would concentrate on the natural sciences and engineering. He also said that education in the humanities and social sciences should be placed in the hands of private universities.

A certain well-known entrepreneur predicted, meanwhile, that before long a majority of high posts in politics, the bureaucracy and business would be occupied by those with natural science and engineering backgrounds.

One of the principal features of the “income doubling plan,” which Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda announced in December 1960 as his major platform, was to promote education in the natural sciences and engineering at universities.

All of these events still remain clearly in my memory as they came while I was preparing for my university entrance examinations.

Fortunately, the prediction made by the famous entrepreneur proved to be off the mark. A majority of Japanese political, bureaucratic and business leaders today are still those who studied the humanities and social sciences. This is because those who studied these subjects have superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders. And the foundation for these faculties is a robust critical spirit.

The countries in which the famous entrepreneur’s prediction was on target were socialist. In the Soviet Union, many of those who climbed to the position of general-secretary of the Communist Party had engineering backgrounds. Mikhail Gorbachev did not. Successive Chinese presidents also had engineering backgrounds.

The foundation of democratic and liberal societies is a critical spirit, which is nurtured by knowledge of the humanities. Without exception, totalitarian states invariably reject knowledge in the humanities, and states that reject such knowledge always become totalitarian.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set an ambitious target of making 10 of the nation’s universities rank among the world’s top 100 within the next decade.

This target appears utterly impossible to achieve because at present only two universities in Japan are among the global top 100 — the University of Tokyo at 23rd and Kyoto University at 59th. Moreover, only three others — the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University — are among those ranking between 101st and 200th.

The Abe administration’s target is tantamount to demanding the impossible. Why is it then that Japanese universities rank so low? One big reason is the low levels of education and research in the humanities and social sciences. Schools like the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Stanford University and Harvard University, all of which are among the world’s top 10, are highly reputed in these fields.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which ranks sixth in the world, is often thought to be an institution devoted exclusively to engineering. But the fact is that it offers a wide variety of curricula in the humanities and social sciences, and the standards of its research in these fields are reputed to be among the highest in the world.

The University of Tokyo is the only Japanese university that is among at the global top 100 in the humanities and social sciences. Although it ranks 87th in social sciences, no Japanese universities, including the University of Tokyo, rank among the top 100 in the humanities.

Stanford University ranks first in both the humanities and social sciences, while MIT places second in social sciences. The London School of Economics and Political Science, which specializes in social sciences, ranks 34th overall, which is below the 23rd spot held by the University of Tokyo but far above Kyoto University’s rank of 59th.

I believe that I am not alone in thinking that if Japan is serious about getting 10 of its universities into the world’s top 100, it will be far more cost-effective and advantageous to promote, rather than abolish or curtail, education and research in the humanities and social sciences.

Takamitsu Sawa is the president of Shiga University.

  • Firas Kraïem

    While I mostly agree with this piece, as a student of mathematics (which is generally lumped together with the natural sciences and engineering, although the pertinence of doing so is debatable) I find this cheap blanket attack disappointingly offensive.

    “Those who studied [the humanities] have superior faculties of
    thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political,
    bureaucratic and business leaders.”

    Professor Sawa should know better than to fall into the divide-and-conquer strategy of the powers-that-be.

    • Starviking

      Agreed, and it is an extremely narrow-minded statement which could work against his goal. It reminds me of the British scientist and writer, CP Snow, who observed that whilst those in the sciences appreciated art, most in the arts did not appreciate science (a very rough wording of his observation, appologies to CP Snow in advance!)

    • zer0_0zor0

      I don’t know Firas, you’re one of the few articulate mathematicians I’ve come across.
      Just kidding!

      Well said.

    • Paine4444

      I think you are reading something into Mr. Sawa’s statement that is not there. Mr. Sawa’s argument is more for well-rounded education than it is for the superiority of humanities majors. Technicians and technocrats who have avoided any study of the humanities whatsoever do typically lack critical thinking skills because they exist in an ahistorical world with little appreciation for the complexities of the real and emotional world. Mr. Sawa did not say that one had to *major* in the humanities, but merely that all students should study them to one degree or another and on this point he is absolutely correct (as was CP Snow from the other side). The point is if you eliminate the study of history, politics, art, etc., and promote only technical education, you will create a society in which no right-minded person would live.

      • Sam Gilman

        I think you’re overstating the case as Sawa does. There are certain domains in which humanities graduates should do better, but to write that the science-trained “lack critical thinking skills because they exist in an ahistorical world with little appreciation for the complexities of the real and emotional world”, you just come across as being snobbish about science. Scientists lack critical thinking skills? Really?

        Perhaps, if I may nudge you heavily, you need to engage in critical thinking yourself about how you come across and how many allies in the science field you’re going to create expressing such sentiments.

      • Paine4444

        Decontextualizing the comment as you have by omitting the introductory phrase would render the statement “snobbish.” That’s not what I said, so you come off as something rather like that yourself. I was a science major who also has extensive education in the humanities, for the record. The thought of anyone tackling this complex world while lacking in one field or the other is monstrous. Had you read a bit more in the humanities, Technocrat, you might not have used such a cheap and fallacious mode of attack.

      • Yumashish Subba

        I smell copious amount of salt from you. With or without the “contextualization” your statement can be boiled down to [context: techocrats choose to ignore studies in SS/Humanities, therefore] they are lacking in critical thinking.

        What exactly is this “critical thinking” that the sciences is so utterly bereft of? Is it the ability to think about problems outside the box? Problem solving comes squarely under the competencies of the sciences (and one could say with the rise of the current western liberal academia, in problem finding, we see the natural competancies of humanities).

        While it is true is that many introverted people take up the sciences, the claim that the STEM stream cannot have extroverted people or those inclined appreciate the “complexities of the real and emotion world” is something you have provided zero substantiation for.

        “The point is if you eliminate the study of history, politics, art, etc.,
        and promote only technical education, you will create a society in
        which no right-minded person would live.”

        You are arguing against a strawman essentially. The article clearly states that these studies would still be carried out – albiet by private universities.

        To add my own opinions here, the general universities rankings being skewed towards having humanities schools is a shortcoming of the ranking system themselves. But even today, the subject ranking of universities are far more relevant in both jobs and academia. In the subject-wise rankings, you will find TIT and Osaka to be in the top 100. Similarly you’ll find Waseda in the top 100 for Business in some lists.

        So if Japan wants to focus [govt involvement] on fields of study that maximize the financial position of their citizenry while allowing those who want to actualize their inclinations to the humanities at private universities: good for them.

      • dfikgjdflk .

        humanities is a completely worthless field, filled with emotions rather than empiricism

      • Paine4444

        Thanks for that brilliantly insightful comment, Shinzo. You revisionists make so much noise these days. Genocide-denier.

      • dfikgjdflk .

        you’re racist, what can i say

      • Paine4444

        So there really is no end to your profound stupidity. Go get a job. Oh right, no one would ever hire you. Go get welfare then.

    • Sam Gilman

      From me as a non-scientist: Well said.

      I am tired of this pretentious and destructive defence of humanities as the creators of superior human beings. It’s wrong and it’s pointless.

      Instead, the direct economic value of humanities education to business needs to be stated. Companies don’t just make stuff in labs and factories and bung it out on shelves for drones to buy. They need experts in communication, in social and market analysis, in law, people who are trained to deal in ambiguous information, multi-level explanation and nuance, people trained in argument and persuasion.

      All of these complement the skills of those with science training. They’re not in competition with them.

      • dfikgjdflk .


        this isn’t humanities

        “experts in communication”

        that’s called a computer scientists , not a feminist

        “social and market analysis”

        that’s mathematics, statistics to be precise

        “people who are trained to deal in ambiguous information”

        once again, computer scientists deal with this in the field of big data
        not humanities

  • montaigne1

    I think the LDP’s plan is diabolically brilliant. Make universities into job and business training centers to produce good little workers who won’t question their bosses, or God forbid, their government. Plus, students and faculty in the Humanities tend to be more liberal, so by cutting these departments the LDP (one of the most mis-named political parties around) can at the same time try to limit their number and limit potential opposition. It’s brilliant.

    • Carlos Fontes

      Because humanities students are the ones who are going to create world changing businesses in technology (e.g. startups), instead of being just workers who don’t question their boss, right?

      • Paine4444

        Crikey, big enough chip on your shoulder? The dichotomy in education is false and montaigne1 is correct: this course is intentional and there is a very definite goal in mind which has nothing to do with strengthening democracy. It’s all about fascism, Carlos. Read your history, and you might learn something, or maybe you do know it and you are sympathetic to Satan.

      • Carlos Fontes

        I see the use of big words like “fascism” and advice on me reading more history, but I fail to understand the argument. Perhaps there isn’t enough time and space here for all the words you want to say, which I can understand. Furthermore, I cannot comment about Japanese policies because I’m not Japanese.

      • Paine4444

        You did comment on Japanese policies, so no cop out at this point. Being Japanese is not a prerequisite to concern with global politics and a resurgence of fascism in several countries (not just Japan). Furthermore, the problem transcends Japan’s borders as montaigne1’s original comment indicates. I have all the words in my arsenal I need to explain, but you lack what it takes to understand, so moving on. Have a good day, Carlos, and don’t forget to read some history.

      • Carlos Fontes

        I didn’t comment on Japanese policy. I just replied to a comment that was implying that other areas that are not Humanities are “training centers to produce good little workers who won’t question their bosses”. I don’t want to meddle in other country’s affairs and I don’t think it influences my life. Maybe I don’t want to because I don’t have enough knowledge like you. Please do it if you want, and I wont criticize you either.

      • Vorteksio3 .

        And you were completely wrong. Science areas indeed are ”training centres to produce good little workers who won’t question their bosses.” And this IS pure fascism, even for a mindless, collective conformist hell which is Japanese society.

        They are creating a cadre of drones, too reliant on the guidance of their bosses, with absolutely 0 critical thinking skills. This is not just a Japanese thing, it’s an Asian thing. I’ve found most Japanese people who have been to university, including the women, unable to distinguish where Mongolia is on a map or where China is.

        Most Japanese I meet, aged 25 and over,and have gone through the complete Japanese education system, up to post-graduate level, have the research, discussion and intellectual skills of someone studying their GCSE O levels in the UK (16 years of age).

        Companies don’t just make stuff in labs and factories and bung it out on shelves for drones to buy. They need experts in communication, in social and market analysis, in law, people who are trained to deal in ambiguous information, multi-level explanation and nuance, people trained in argument and persuasion.

        To finish on a few earthly anecdotes of many. 2007, 70% science course students at a very reputable Japanese university were shocked to discover that African Americans have the vote in the US (the question was whether Obama stood any chance of being elected?) they were also asked who did Japan fight in WW2. While 100% got the US right, (Hiroshima and Nagasaki!!!), 70% also placed Germany as an enemy because the logic was that Germany under Hitler was a bad state, therefore Japan, always being good, could have never been allied with something bad.

      • dfikgjdflk .

        “Science areas indeed are ”training centres to produce good little workers who won’t question their bosses.'”

        you have absolutely no proof to back that argument up

        you’re just spewing this because you’re jealous of the people going to actual scientific fields, capable of starting businesses without your useless humanities degree

      • dfikgjdflk .

        who are the real fascists? the ones trying to silence dissent, like the leftists are doing now, or people concerned with the future of the country and the well being of the family unit in general?

      • doninjapan

        Erm… this absolutely is facism. Can you imagine the outcry world-wide if China cancelled their Humanities/Social Science departments?

        Yet this has largely passed under the radar…

      • dfikgjdflk .

        no one would care, to be honest, because humanities is completely worthless

      • dfikgjdflk .

        people who go to humanities to learn how to better whine on twitter are not the ones becoming bosses and business owners

        you ideologues are completely lost

    • dfikgjdflk .

      you have no idea what you’re talking about
      universities aren’t for hippies or so called “open minded” leftists who can’t take an opposing opinion

      universities are for professional training, not emotional bs

  • zer0_0zor0

    This policy pogrom is a glimpse of what those promoting neoliberalism are really after.

    It would effectively reduce tertiary education to job training, and relegate anything having to do with human culture and history to the exclusive purview of the “investor class” overlords for whom elected politicians like GW Bush, Barack Obama, and Shinzo Abe are mere front men.

    • Paine4444

      Yep. Met a “brilliant” young systems engineering professor at a US university whose whole goal is to out-Taylor Taylor and figure out how to parse work down into discrete units such that people can truly be cogs in a large machine the purpose of which they will never know. Take your soma, do your job, and let the rich do what they will to you, and we know all too well what they will do…

  • Ron Lane

    We in Japan seem to be living in a parallel universe. Another editorial [currently on the same on-line page], “Much Potential in New Courses,” comments on the education ministry’s new proposals for primary and secondary education “pushing the concept of active learning and stressing ‘openness to society’ in educating children.”

    It’s wonderful that Japanese children will — at long last — receive experiences in independent thinking. At least through high school, that is. Upon entering university, however, many students may be disappointed to discover that no humanities courses exist — courses of study that would further improve their independent thinking skills.

    • dfikgjdflk .

      it doesn’t matter, because in humanities courses, dissent is not allowed

      • Paine4444

        You dropped out of elementary school, so you don’t know.

  • Ahojanen

    While I’m by education from humanities background, the faculty of humanities at many schools are overvalued and over-budgeted. Thanks to ICT, They will need no laboratory or even campus classroom.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    But if they axe the Humanities, who’s gunna’ paint all those fabulous paintings for the 1% to spend a small nation’s G.D.P. on and show off?

  • Liars N. Fools

    Thanks to the author for warning the Japanese people of the educational and business establishment for only emphasizing the practical and the utilitarian. He has been sounding this warning for a long time.

    For example, in 2013, he wrote:

    “In his speech launching the iPad 2 tablet computer in March 2011, Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., famously said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” On Oct. 6 that same year, a reporter for The Economist said of this comment: “It was an unusual statement for the head of a technology firm, but it was vintage Steve Jobs.”

    Japanese should consider Sawa’s words then and now.

  • That Scottish Guy

    Seems to me that it was economists and politicians were the ones driving the global economy over a cliff just a few short years ago. It also seems like the lack of progress made on climate change also seems to be a result of the “superior thinking and judgement” of politicians and economists.
    Maybe putting a few of us shallow, practical types in charge might not be such a bad thing.

    Sawa is the Donald Trump of university presidents. Fittingly, Trump also has an economics degree.

  • John L. Odom

    This is EXACTLY wrong! The humanities, and studies of them are what civilizes us. We already have too many engineers who know how to build anything, but do not understand or care about the effects on society.

    • dfikgjdflk .

      humanities is not what makes us civilized, it’s morality, and strong family values, that does

      • Paine4444

        And where do those come from loser? How do human beings transmit morals and values? In code? In blueprints? That Holy Bible I bet you are super-duper fond of but have never read and couldn’t understand if you tried is a subject of Humanities curricula, not science. But let’s do away with all discussions of literature, morality, art and history, because illiterate, bitter, loser technocrats working drone jobs for $10 a hour think humanities suck. You’re like the Barbie doll who complained “Math is hard.” For you, it’s just reading. But you can add 2 and 2 and make it 5 if your bosses want it to, I bet, you unhappy, whiny, wage-slave loser.

    • Starviking

      Know any engineers?

  • Mark Flanigan

    All the more reason to attend a genuinely liberal arts-focused Japanese university like ICU. It’s been celebrating the humanities and social sciences since it was founded in the aftermath of WWII.

    • dfikgjdflk .

      funny how liberal arts students mostly end up working at mcdonals and what not

      stop trying to value your degree, it’s useless

  • Dan Lever

    I hope this doesn’t happen in Canada. We need Humanities, who else is going to serve me my burger when I’m too busy to cook?

  • dfikgjdflk .

    this is good, we don’t need more feminists

    • Vorteksio3 .

      No, this is NOT good. And Japan is a country that DESPERATELY needs feminism, unlike west.

      • dfikgjdflk .

        lol, man you’re funny

        let the feminists have real debates instead of monologues like in the west, see how long they fare, lol