Commentary / Japan

Unique universities can rescue rural areas

by Haruaki Deguchi

Japan’s population is already declining with fewer births and a rapidly graying society, but the decline is not evenly distributed across the country. While the more rural parts of the country have witnessed a massive exodus of young people, the large population inflow into Tokyo continues unabated. Concerned with this demographic trend, the government hopes to rectify the concentration in Tokyo to maintain the vitality of rural areas.

Compared with other advanced economies, Japan has historically had an extremely high concentration of its population. The greater Tokyo area is the world’s most populated megalopolis. The three big metropolitan areas — Tokyo, Kansai roughly 500 km away and the area around Nagoya lying in between — are home to half the nation’s citizens. The population of the Tokyo megalopolis that includes neighboring prefectures tops 38 million, and the Kansai and Nagoya areas have 17 million and 10 million, respectively. A belt region like this, with a densely concentrated population of 65 million souls, cannot be found anywhere in the world.

Any further influx into Tokyo is deemed undesirable from the viewpoint of risk management in the face of major earthquakes and other disasters.

What policies then should be taken to stop the population concentration in Tokyo? In the past, moving manufacturing plants out of Tokyo was deemed an effective solution. In view of personnel expenses, however, factories have been relocated overseas instead of to the rural parts of Japan. In addition, the manufacturing industry’s share of gross domestic product is already down to around 25 percent and continues to decline. Ironically, the service industry — expected to underpin Japan’s economy in the future — requires a concentration of residents.

One possible solution would be to establish universities with unique characteristics. Let me discuss the case of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), where I serve as president, as an example. APU has about 6,000 students, but those from Kyushu, where it is located, account for less than 20 percent. More than 80 percent of the student body comes from the rest of the world to study at a campus on a mountaintop in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

At the University of Tokyo and Keio University, both located in Tokyo and representative of Japan’s higher education, more than 60 percent of students come from the Tokyo area. APU by contrast attracts most of its students from outside its area.

Why so? A fairly new institution that opened in 2000, APU has had distinct characteristics from the beginning. It aims to create a unique education environment rich in diversity, with at least half of its teaching staff and students hailing from outside Japan. Classes are conducted in English and Japanese. Most of the Japanese students take entrance exams given in Japanese and join the university in spring, and learn English as a required subject. Most foreign students apply and interview in English and enter the university in the fall, and learn Japanese as a required subject. First-year students in principle live in campus housing, with a Japanese and non-Japanese student sharing each room — so they can learn each other’s culture and traditions.

Both of APU’s two colleges have received recognition from international organizations. The undergraduate and graduate business programs are accredited by AACSB International (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business); currently only three other schools in Japan have this accreditation. The College of Asia Pacific Studies’ Hospitality and Tourism cluster is one of only two programs in Japan to gain TedQual certification from the United Nations World Tourism Organization. With accreditation or certification like this, students come from around the world assured that the quality of their education is guaranteed.

A unique university with a high quality of education can attract students from all over the world, even if it is located at an inconvenient site on a mountaintop in rural Japan. Getting to the campus takes a 40- to 50-minute bus ride up a mountain road from the center of Beppu.

How do such universities contribute to their local economy? APU was opened with ¥25 billion in investment from Oita Prefecture and the Beppu Municipal Government. Since it has succeeded in enrolling large numbers of students from overseas, it is estimated that the university’s spin-off benefits to the local economy top ¥20 billion every year — meaning that the initial investment was recouped within two years.

APU students account for 5 percent of Beppu’s population of 120,000. One out of every two youths in the city is an APU student because the local population of people age 18 to 23 is just about 10,000. A university can play an important role in sustaining the vitality of a local community. In fact, it is said that local festivals in Beppu can no longer be held without the participation of APU students.

APU’s example shows how establishing a university with unique characteristics can be effective in alleviating the population concentration in Tokyo. University students are at a most impressionable age, and they will come to feel a strong attachment to the area and the campus where they spend their formative years. A news article I read recently showed how an APU graduate who created a startup company in Tokyo has launched a new business operation base in Oita Prefecture.

It used to be said in the past that population density is a prime factor in choosing a site for opening a university. Today, the development and widespread use of the internet has greatly shortened distances both in time and space. As long as you can use the internet, it no longer makes much difference where a university is located.

Besides APU, universities with unique features like Akita International University and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology have been established in areas outside of big metropolitan areas. Regional universities should not be taken lightly anymore; now is the time for them to shine.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, Deguchi worked at Nippon Life Insurance Co. for almost 35 years before founding Lifenet Insurance in 2008.