As discussed last week, in June the education ministry sent a directive to all 86 national universities in Japan, apparently calling on them to abolish or reorganize their humanities and social sciences departments.

I use the word "apparently" because the wording of the letter is ambiguous. Kan Suzuki, special adviser to Japan's education minister, recently explained in Diamond magazine that the ministry failed to consult various stakeholders and admitted the new policy was not well articulated, but insists that the ministry is not moving to abolish the liberal arts. Rather, he says, the government wants the national universities to concentrate on what they do best and develop survival strategies based on market forces, budget cuts and demographic trends. But given his job, he would say that.

Fellow Japan Times contributor Takamitsu Sawa, the president of Shiga University, raised the alarm in August, asserting that liberal arts programs are being targeted due to an anti-democratic conservative ideological agenda. This view is shared by prominent Japanese academic organizations that issued statements critical of the government's directive. Since then there has been an international storm of criticism in numerous publications and Internet discussion groups decrying this assault on the humanities and social sciences and the potentially stark implications for Japanese democracy.