Professor Andrew Hamilton gently declined the invitation to tell Japanese universities how they should meet the challenges of the 21st century; but then over the course of a speech, a small discussion group, an interview and two hours of drinks and snacks with a few Oxford alumni he showed why his university — Oxford — is a world leader and Japanese universities are lagging.

His lessons are that a world-leading university needs an international outlook; dedication to quality research and excellence; a spirit of enterprise and invention with the surrounding community; competition and cooperation with other leading universities; the warm support of benefactors and alumni; and an independent spirit ready to stand up to government.

It is a useful checklist that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as the University of Tokyo's new president, Makoto Gonokami and other Japanese university heads should ponder to see where their institutions are failing. Hamilton was too modest to add that it needs someone like Hamilton himself to be the leader orchestrating the excellence.