University Politics in Japan

Japanese universities struggle to find their place in the world

Shigeru Okayama, Waseda University

Japanese universities may have been born out of European models, but they have set down their own firm foundations since the opening of the University of Tokyo in 1877.

The higher education system in Japan is a hybrid one, with public and private universities, both regulated by the state. There were 86 national universities and 603 private universities in Japan in 2014. Add to these 92 municipal universities and there were a total of 781 universities. But this national system is in crisis today: the government and the minister of education has focused on improving Japan’s place within the global system of higher education, and last year announced extra funding available for “superglobal” universities.

A political push to get ten Japanese universities into the list of the top 100 best universities in the world by 2024 is unlikely to improve the situation, with universities still suffering from financial difficulties. Tuition fees are rising year by year and scholarships act as a system of loans to cover this. For example, for the first year of politics and society at Waseda, a private university, students must pay 1,300,000 yen, or £7,275. For a national university, the price would be closer to 680,000 yen.

Troubled relationship

It’s worth looking back at where Japanese universities came from to understand the predicament they face today. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about the nobility of the Japanese state, dating back to the eighth century and stretching to the 20th century. According to him, the Meiji restoration of the 1860s was a conservative one, started by the Samorai with few resources in an effort to transform the symbol of the nobility – its bureaucratic civil service.

To understand the continuing role of nobility in Japanese higher education today, it’s important to understand the relationship between Japanese and foreign languages. Before the Meiji period, the Japanese were inspired purely by a Chinese model of written language: in the far east, the equivalent of Latin for Europeans was Chinese. In Japan, people read Chinese and pronounced it in a Japanese way, remodelling the words with a Japanese syntax.

In 1877, the University of Tokyo was created, allowing foreign professors to teach in their own language. As a prerequisite to their course, students had to learn a foreign language for three years. After their studies in the university, they were sent abroad by the state to deepen their knowledge and then became teachers on their return, this time teaching in Japanese. This was the way through which the Meiji government wanted to modernise the country and assure its independence.

With enough educated people to carry out higher education, Japan didn’t need to resort to foreign teachers. A second phase began, started by the creation of the Imperial University in 1886 in which teaching was all in Japanese and foreign language as a means of education was excluded.

Japanese writer Natsume Soseki.

The reality of this priority soon became clear to Japanese academics. Soseki Natsume, an English literature professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, was one of the first victims of this Japanese cultural system. When he was sent to England in 1901 by the state for his studies, he suffered a nervous breakdown, because he couldn’t adapt to life in London. When he returned, he quit his post of teacher and chose to become a novelist. But it’s thanks to him that modern Japanese literature became possible. After the end of the Meiji era in 1912, passing through the Taisho era, and then into the Showa in 1926, the culture of translations from European languages into Japanese blossomed. We could call this the creation of the Japanese “Bildung”, in reference to the ideal of education as a form of self-cultivation set down by German educationalist Wilhelm von Humboldt in his conception of the modern university.

Swing towards an ‘English divide’

This cultural space for Japanese people was ideologically very closed. The majority of universities and intellectuals of the time couldn’t criticise the authority of the imperial regime. After World War II, the pre-war university system was totally revised, but the Japanese space for language stayed the same. American democracy hadn’t succeeded in transforming the country. The expansion of the higher education system in Japan, built on a vague idea of a university open to everybody, has actually just multiplied the number of private universities in the country.

But since the 1990s, a third stage has started. It’s now English which has become a hegemony. If you can’t speak English, you have become a second class citizen. We speak in Japan today of an “English divide” to explain this predicament, in the same way we talk of a digital divide.

The universities where the Japanese students are taught in English are considered more excellent. Admittedly there is a chance that Japanese higher education is finally opening up to the wider world, but it also presents a great menace to Japanese culture.

It’s worth remembering that the idea of the university was founded on the basis of a Christian religion. The modern university was conceived by Humboldt to exist as a universal, secular institution, normally detached from all sort of religious symbolism. A lot has changed since then, but I’d argue that the origins for education to remain free and to offer scholarships for all students, must stay alive. If Japanese universities are now suffering the policy of “globalisation”, it’s because the country’s higher education system largely side-stepped this historic basis of its universities.


This article is part of a series on Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

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