In an Oct. 2 article, Kevin Rafferty discussed the decline in world rankings of Japanese universities, noting that only two placed in the top 100, with the University of Tokyo dropping from 23rd in 2014 to 39th in 2016. He outlined reasons for the present state of universities in this country and steps that should be taken to improve their quality and move them into a “global 21st century.”

From a Western perspective, he is correct to focus on the problem of the bureaucracy and the quality of the teaching and research. Other solutions he gave included more qualified people for the executive jobs, reducing government funding, paying professors more, promoting women, bringing in more foreigners, and creating a more vibrant university community.

Having taught in Japanese universities for over 35 years, I understand Rafferty’s attitude concerning many universities in Japan, even though similar problems are seen worldwide. And while his article focuses on the structure and the problems created by the bureaucracy, philosophical issues related to the philosophy of education and epistemology also lie at the heart of the present condition of these educational institutions. In Japan, however, the bureaucracy is paramount to any reform or improvement.

Edward T. Hall wrote about cultural extensions, education being one of these, and the fact that the institutions these extensions create often take on a life of their own, which too often end up losing sight of their original purpose. Unfortunately, this is what has happened to many of our educational systems that are run as companies rather than as centers of learning and where bureaucrats decide educational policies and not the educators. In fact, some universities in Tokyo have in recent years changed their names from that of a university to a corporation.

One of the consequences of this company structure is the creation and standardization of an over-regulated system that tends to drive out creativity and freedom of thought, which should be at the very heart of teaching and education. Too often Japanese (and I might add some foreigners) become more interested in gaining power, position, and a title in this corporate structure rather than focusing on education. Another problem is that Japanese teachers are saddled with too many bureaucratic duties, which take up time that should be spent on academic work.

When this is combined with the standards used in hiring; the tendency to not employ people more qualified than those doing the hiring; and the lack of substantive interest in curriculum development or methodology, the end result can be an entrenched mediocrity that is stifling and counterproductive to the very idea of a university and education. This corporate mentality is further promoted in some universities by the practice of hiring former students as teachers, therefore reinforcing the senpai/kohai relationship between professors and former students, resulting in an inability of the system to accept new ideas, approaches, or any thinking other than that of the institutional hierarchy.

Rafferty also suggested that they hire chief executives who have run a complex company with international operations. The problem, unfortunately, is not the person at the top or whether this person is a CEO of experience, which again reinforces the idea that the university is a company. What is needed are people throughout the university who understand education and who understand the role and importance of teachers in a classroom. The reality is that one person at the top will have little effect on the bureaucracy or the quality of a university as long as the educational standards and decisions are made by this company mindset and by the bureaucracy from the top down.

One of the fundamental errors that many foreigners make is believing that most universities in Asia somehow resemble Western educational institutions solely because they are called universities, and this is not necessarily the case, especially when you look at the traditional role of universities in Japan,

In the 1980s and 1990s, the primary function of Japanese universities was cultural socialization rather than education — a role they continue to play to varying degrees. The clubs were more important than the classes, and it was in these clubs that students were expected to learn the senpai/kohai relationship that would help prepare them for the structure of the company — what they studied was not important because once employed, they would be trained according to the needs of the particular company. The most important thing was not their major but what university they attended and the club they belonged to. Universities have, however, now been forced to focus more on the educational content in order to draw foreign students, and this is reflected in the number of international programs that some universities have created.

If there is going to be any substantive improvement in universities, the responsibility lies with the Japanese. The rankings of these universities will only go up when the Japanese are better trained as teachers; are dedicated to the profession; know the difference between working for a company and an educational institution; the quality of the teaching and research improves; and the rigidity of the bureaucracy changes. And while these ranking organizations are using Western standards or “biased” criteria in the view of some, the fact remains that these are the current worldwide criteria, and if Japan wants higher rankings or more universities in the top 100, then it must understand these requirements and meet these qualifications.

Universities must also recognize that teaching is fundamentally a process and that methodology makes the difference between real learning and simply being a company with a logo, a hierarchical structure, or an institution of standardized testing. Unlike a corporation, the quality of an educational institution is determined by the skills and abilities of the teachers and their educational philosophy. Only when the money is spent on improving these, along with a change in the function of the bureaucracy, will there by any hope of increasing the quality or the worldwide ranking of Japanese universities. If form takes precedence over content and appearance constitutes the fundamental reality, then one can assume that these rankings will continue to fall.

Jerry Larson taught philosophy, literature, and language at two major universities in Tokyo for more than 35 years.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.