Japan's Hope: If You Build It, They Will Come
By MIKI TANIKAWA
Published: February 25, 2013
TOKYO — The colorful education minister of Japan, Makiko Tanaka, riled Japanese academia last autumn when she denied accreditation to three new schools on the grounds that “there are too many universities in Japan.”
She later took it back when her decision was met with fierce resistance. (And then she lost her job when the governing party lost a parliamentary election in December.)
But her comment left a lingering question: Japan’s youth population is declining, so why do new universities and departments keep popping up?
The number of 18-year-olds in Japan peaked in 1992 at 2.05 million, dwindling to about 1.2 million by 2012. During that time, the number of four-year universities grew to 783 from 523.
Even greater energy has been poured into thinking up new departments and majors. According to the Ministry of Education, there were 207 new departments, majors and graduate programs in 2011, and an additional 236 in 2012. In 2006, a whopping 482 new departments and majors were introduced.
The boom has been happening for quite some time. Since the late 1990s, more than 2,000 new academic departments and faculties have been created in Japan, despite an aging population. Although dozens of departments are scrapped each year, that still leaves hundreds added to the pile annually.
Meanwhile, existing schools and departments are suffering. According to the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation of Private Schools in Japan, a Ministry of Education affiliate agency, 46 percent of private universities have empty spaces. The group said that nearly 40 percent of private universities were operating in the red.
Japan has been making an effort to attract more overseas students, but the relatively small number of foreigners is not enough to offset the growing number of university spaces.
To attract students, schools have taken pains to give their freshly minted departments more modern-sounding names. Tokyo universities like Hosei, Kokushikan and Seijo have created schools like the Faculty of Lifelong Learning and Career Studies, 21st-Century Asian Studies and Faculty of Social Innovation.
Provincial universities are doing the same. Utsunomiya Kyowa University in Tochigi Prefecture now has a program for City Life Studies. Konan University in Hyogo Prefecture opened a School of Creative Management, known in English as the Hirao School of Management.
Akita University in Akita Prefecture is opening Japan’s first Faculty of International Natural Resources next year. Kyoto Seika University has been expanding its Faculty of Manga and recently added a Ph.D. in manga to its roster of degree programs.
Professors and administrators affiliated with the new, nontraditional departments say that they emphasize forward-looking, interdisciplinary programs that fit the 21st century. But some experts say they are there mostly to increase enrollment.
“There is a competition to win students, and universities need to show they are doing something by tinkering with their product lineup,” said Hiroshi Kobayashi, editor of College Management magazine, published by Recruit.
As new universities and departments gushed forth in the past decade, complaints have arisen among high school counselors who advise college-bound students.
“The No. 1 complaint among high school counselors, according to our survey, is that they cannot figure out what those new university departments and majors are all about,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “If a student expressed interest in a certain future career, the counselor can say, ‘Oh, in that case, you should apply to this program or that.’ But it is hard to know what the English communication department does, as opposed to the English language department.”
The term “communication” has become a popular term, Mr. Kobayashi said, along with other fashionable words like “international,” “information,” “environment,” “health” and “life.”
According to the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation, more than 1,200 kinds of undergraduate degrees were offered by Japanese universities in 2009; about 60 percent of them are unique.
Administrators of the new departments say they are establishing programs that prepare students for new challenges facing a society in flux.
At the Faculty of Social Innovation at Seijo University in Tokyo, students study corporate innovation and the roles of social groups and individuals, said Mitsunobu Shinohara, dean of the faculty. Students are exposed to a wide range of disciplines including business, public policy and social psychology, with innovation as an important common thread, he said.
“It’s critical to learn how to approach the issue and how to resolve it,” and not just to study facts, Mr. Shinohara said. He said that a more interdisciplinary approach gained popularity in the early 2000s, when his faculty was established.
New programs typically emphasize the thinking process and not the mere acquisition of knowledge.
“Japanese students take notes and memorize, so they can do well on the tests. But here, what you learn is not as important as how you learn,” said Harumasa Sato, dean of the Hirao School of Management at Konan University.
Mr. Sato said the main purpose of education was to train students to be thinkers, capable of exploring and finding answers on their own. “Students don’t exactly take courses, but rather the goal in this program is to finish five major projects,” which include oral and thesis presentations, Mr. Sato said. His school is about to graduate its first batch of students in March, and their job placement rate “has been pretty good,” he said.
To the extent that his and other new schools are experimenting with new ways to train students, the movement represents efforts to do things that traditional schools have fallen short on, he said.
“People criticize that what we do is not entirely clear. But are other established departments of, say, economics and law doing what they should be doing? Are they creating capable young people who can compete in the globalizing world?” he asked.
“How should Japanese universities be in the age of globalization has been one of the greatest themes for us,” said Kageaki Kajiwara, dean of the School of Asia 21 — whose Japanese name is 21st-Century Asian Studies — at Kokushikan University. “In this day and age, we cannot live without having anything to do with globalization.”
Even though classes are taught in Japanese, nearly a third of the 1,700 students in the department are non-Japanese, with students from China, Iran, Myanmar, Russia and South Korea.
“What’s great about this school is that you can learn about other Asian cultures and get to know the people from those cultures, and at the same time study Japanese language and culture,” Ehsan Sheikhi, a 26-year-old Iranian student, said in fluent Japanese.
Izumi Yamanaka, 22, who is expected to graduate soon from the Faculty of Social Innovation at Seijo University, said that rather than being confusing, it was an advantage to have an intriguing department name on her résumé.
“The interviewer always asked what my major was all about, which means you get a chance to answer and explain,” she said. “That’s one question other students don’t receive.” Ms. Yamanaka just got a job working for a bank in Tokyo.
For some experts, the problem is not that new schools and departments are introduced, but that institutions with lackluster reputations are not allowed to die.
“As society changes, new universities should be created to fill new needs,” said Bruce Stronach, dean of the Japanese campus of Temple University, which is based in Philadelphia. “The problem is that Japanese society is good at building but not at scrapping. There should be greater emphasis on discontinuing universities that cannot fulfill their quotas or no longer serve their original purpose.”
A few of the new schools have failed. In 2010, five universities said they would no longer accept new students and expected to dissolve. In 2012, a Tokyo college that was founded in 2002 said it would close in 2015.
Still, closures and bankruptcies are rare, and schools tend to hang on despite low enrollments.
Most Japanese education institutions — both public and private — depend heavily on grants from the Ministry of Education, which can be suspended or removed if the ministry deems that a university has outlived its purpose, Dr. Stronach said.
Shutting down universities and departments is often difficult because it means dismissing faculty and staff members, which management is loath to do. In fact, school administrators say new departments are sometimes built to make up for lost divisions, often a junior college or a department whose subject is no longer popular.
Mr. Shinohara at the Faculty of Social Innovation at Seijo University admitted that one reason his department came into being was because the junior college division at his university closed — because of a shortage of students.