Over the past several weeks I have received many emails from all over the world asking me if reports about government plans to pull the plug on humanities and social sciences departments at Japanese national universities are accurate or just a bad joke. At this point it’s not clear exactly what the government intends.

It is mind-boggling to these overseas observers that Japan would embrace ignorance as a recipe for nurturing educational excellence, the ostensible aim of a new reform initiative announced this past June. Overseas researchers are alarmed that this hollowing-out of higher education will adversely affect their research in Japan and stifle intellectual inquiry about subjects the rest of the world still holds in high esteem.

Can Japan really catapult more of its universities into the top 100 world rankings by gutting the study of subjects that constitute the core of universities’ traditional mission? There is a risk that rather than improving Japan’s mediocre universities, the education ministry’s foray may make it the global punchline for jokes about educational reform. It is hard to imagine that scrapping the study of humanities and social sciences at Japan’s national universities will bring any tangible benefits, while the downside could well be staggering. This anti-intellectual salvo from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government fits into a larger pattern of dumbing down education, promoting patriotism and stifling dissent.

But not everyone agrees with this alarmist interpretation of the ministry’s letter sent on June 8 to all 86 national universities in Japan calling on them to abolish or reorganize humanities and social sciences departments. I contacted several national university professors and experts on higher education in Japan and elicited a range of responses, including some relatively positive assessments. Some academics explained that it is hard to predict the outcome of the reform proposals because it is not clear what the ministry intends or how universities will respond. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that 26 of 60 public universities operating humanities and social sciences departments have agreed to stop accepting students into these programs or reconstitute them. But what this means in practice remains unclear. Reshuffling, according to some, is more likely than staff reductions, but the latter is a real possibility given demographic and fiscal trends.

Following numerous denunciations of his June directive, education minister Hakubun Shimomura subsequently stated he didn’t mean to downplay the importance of humanities and social sciences and agrees that they are essential to communicating and making decisions in the global era, but this rhetorical concession has not altered the reality of looming budget cuts that will force significant changes.

Reforming Japan’s universities may indeed require bold initiatives, and almost everyone I contacted believes that much is amiss in these institutions, but many of those sources also see this as an attack on the academy and academic freedom under the guise of reform.

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University, slammed the proposed reforms: “They would be an utter disaster. Liberal arts education is what Japan needs more of, not less. … There is also something even more politically ominous about the move — that the government may be trying to silence academic opposition to its policies by threatening and undermining the subject areas that produce and hire those critical voices.”

Indeed, academics in the field represent the vast majority of signatories of a recent scholar’s petition opposing the prime minister’s security legislation and those participating in rallies across Japan.

Are reactionary forces imposing their educational agenda to target their critics? Relatively few of the roughly 300 core members of Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) who have taken to the streets to protest Abe’s security legislation, promote constitutionalism and protect liberal democratic values are students at national universities, but most are in the humanities and social sciences. They have managed to inspire similar protests all over the nation, mobilizing well over a million protesters since June, utilizing open-access placard designs that like-minded groups can print out at any convenience store across the archipelago and bring to demonstrations.

This “konbini revolution” takes advantage of social media and the extensive convenience store infrastructure to launch street protests by like-minded local citizens, finding inspiration in SEALDs to engage in politics precisely because they agree that politics is too important to be monopolized by today’s motley crew of politicians. While liberals support these students for acting as the conscience of society and highlighting the power of principles and ideals, conservatives view them as rabble-rousers.

Seeing them in action and at press conferences, however, it is striking how remarkably poised and articulate they are with the ability to initiate, improvise and motivate. Moreover, they demonstrate excellent cross-cultural communication, marketing and design skills. Surely they are exactly the kind of people Japan needs more of, embodying the virtues of a liberal arts education.

Higher education prioritizes critical thinking and prepares students to engage in an increasingly globalized workplace and operating environment, which explains why many conservatives also believe that nixing the humanities and social sciences is misguided. Interestingly, Keidanren, the Japanese business lobby, took issue with the education ministry, saying that its emphasis on science and vocational skills is “exactly the opposite” of what employers want. In its Sept. 9 statement, Keidanren emphasized the value of the humanities and social sciences, and how important liberal arts education is for future employees, imbuing them with problem-solving skills and the ability to understand other cultures and societies.

Liberal arts education is no panacea, but downplaying its role in university education will handicap students. Linda Grove, professor emeritus at Sophia University and program adviser at the U.S.-based Social Science Research Council, believes the emphasis on science is based on a “mistaken belief” that this will “fit graduates better for the job market.”

“They forget that the aim of education is not just to match people to jobs, but to educate people for a more fulfilling life and also to be responsible citizens in a democracy,” she says. “Science alone is not going to save the world. We need the social sciences and humanities to … help identify problems, and to search for solutions — some of which may be technical, but others which will be related to changing systems, organizations and institutions.”

In September the Linguistic Society of Japan also weighed in against the new reform, lamenting the utilitarian bias and failure to discern the importance of what is being lost. While acknowledging the value of scientific advances, the society points out the necessity of harnessing them for the good of society. The atomic bomb was cited as an example of how technology can threaten the existence of humanity, hence the critical importance of broadening knowledge aimed at managing such developments.

Furthermore, the society asserts that the humanities and social sciences are essential in realizing and protecting the richness of civilization. In July the Science Council of Japan, a national organization of some 2,000 scientists, also expressed “profound concern over the potentially grave impact” of the education ministry’s directive, saying that “any disparagement of the humanities and social sciences may result in higher education in Japan losing its richness.” Moreover, the council calls for maintaining liberal arts education because it promotes critical thinking, nurtures “global human resources” and promotes understanding of “the human and social, contexts within which scientific knowledge operates.”

Next week I will discuss more positive assessments of the ministry’s reforms.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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