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‘The ability to communicate within different contexts is crucial to the development of Japanese education’

Interview - March 22, 2018

Japan is trying to internationalize and adapt to a more globalized world, and crucial to this goal is the education system. The Worldfolio sits down with Yoshimasa Hayashi, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology to discuss Japanese higher education and how it is adapting to a more globalized world, with initiatives such as the Top Global University Project.



Historically considered as an “isolated country,” Japan has recently been labelled as one of the “troubled twins of globalization”). What is the reason behind this perceived isolation?

Communication. Thanks to innovative technologies such as AI, humanity may reach a point where language skills are unnecessary to communicate. Until then, English will remain the universal language. The misstep of Japanese education has been to excessively focus on the “content” of English-communication. I employ the word content because language is composed of two components: “content” and “skill.” We need language to communicate. However, the ability to speak and to be understood is a “skill,” not a “content.” From basic education to higher studies, the “content” and the “skill” of the English tongue should be prioritized. Knowing the content is not a problem; Japanese students know it. However, the issue is on communicating that content; on the “skill” of English communication. Allowing your interlocutor to understand the meaning of your expression is the end-objective of any successful communication. In Japan, unfortunately, we know the “content” of foreign languages but we lack the skill to make our listeners understand.

Let’s take America as a point of comparison. By essence, the USA is a multicultural nation. Naturally, when Americans discuss amongst one another, they systematically take into account their interlocutor’s socio-cultural background to ensure that communication is smoothly shared and clearly understood. When you grow up in Japanese society, these social rules are hidden and they become invisible; we are a more uniform population. Because we all belong to the same context, words do not matter excessively. One does not have to explain everything explicitly to get his idea across. There is within Japanese society a common understanding supplemented by a shared knowledge, which facilitates citizen-to-citizen communication.

I believe that we need to have that double skill. The ability to communicate within different contexts is crucial to the development of Japanese education. When we discuss with members of the global society, we must have a more neutral and precise communication flow. The skill to understand someone else’s context is missing in our education system.


How can that communication issue be solved?

The solution to solve that issue is to encourage our students to study abroad. By sending our citizens overseas, we naturally enable them to engage with the cultures of the world. We have also implemented many measures to welcome both students and teachers to Japan. Furthermore, we are advancing the start of foreign language education from 5th grade to 3rd grade. By 2020, initiation to foreign language activity will be set to begin in 3rd grade, and foreign language will become a subject of its own, with evaluations, credits and scores, in 5th grade.

To lessen our over reliance on “content,” we are also passing multiple measures that are not directly linked to globalization itself. While learning facts and knowledges are a key to creating a well-instructed population, we are encouraging the development of “skills” through “active learning.” As opposed to “passive learning,” “active learning” requires an interaction between participants. By encouraging negotiations, debates and communication, we will foster a population capable of creating processes leading to mutual understanding. The ability to communicate with ourselves and with others will serve Japan in tackling the problems that our modern world faces.


How will higher institution enable students to acquire this “context”?

Nowadays, students are extremely careful with their entrance examination to Universities. We are going to change entrance examination from a system that “checks all details and knowledge,” to one that also involves “active learning and practicality.” For example, by including more writing skills, more face-to-face interviews and by promoting interpersonal skills in entrance examinations, we will enhance the importance of practical learning.

Teachers will also have to learn that new active system. Entrance examination must be changed to enhance the activities and capacities of our students and of our teachers. We are also introducing international English examinations like the TOEFL test. As of now, Universities have their own language examinations. We are going to harmonize it all. As I said it, it is not the content that we are changing, but the “method” and the “skill.”


How will the change of entrance requirement impact foreign students?

Because they cannot write Japanese at certain times, international students receive a different treatment. However, the way of thinking, the process and the required skill will also be applied to international students; rather than checking basic knowledge.


Historically recognized for its competencies in engineering, science and design, experts have attributed the post-WWII “Japanese economic miracle” to the success of higher education. In recent years though, we have seen international experts criticize Japanese institutions for their low scores in “international outlook” criteria. What are the strength and weaknesses of Japanese higher education today?

We have been excellent at producing a “catching-up” society. Repeatedly through our modern history, the West acquired a head-start that Japan caught back shortly after. First, Japan experienced the textile revolution, and caught back on the West thanks to innovative techniques and craftsmanship. Years after, our world-famous automakers became industry leaders. More recently, we are making breakthrough advances in smart technologies, such as AI and IoT.

As a matter of fact, when talking about the 4th industrial revolution, there is no catching up to do. Japan is at the forefront of Industry 4.0., and the time for catching up is over. Together with our friends from OECD countries, we must learn to collaborate in combining our expertise. Linking back to what we previously discussed, I believe that success will not come from the “knowledge” acquired, but rather from the “application” and the “skill” to use that knowledge for the betterment of society. By communicating with the global society, we will debate and contrast divergent opinions, therefore embracing this great diversity of thoughts. Let’s agree to disagree, and let’s talk about it for the advancement of mankind.

Let me give you an example. Having extensive knowledge but no skill to communicate it is like having only one mountain. Mount Fuji is a big mountain, and it has one high top. However, the skill to communicate our knowledge will allow us to have many mountains, with many tops. If you choose this mountain, you will go up here; and if you choose this mountain, you’ll go up there. The idea is to let our citizen choose which mountain they want to climb. We will grant that liberty of thought and action to our students.


In 2012, you started the Top Global University Project, nominating 37 institutions to receive large grants in order to boost their competitiveness. Six years after, what have been the results of the reform?

We started the Top Global University Project in 2014. The numbers since then don't lie. This reform has been a major success. Students, faculties and institutions as a whole have achieved great steps towards internationalization. Through international exchanges we have created a truly multi-cultural environment, and our alumni have acquired the international communication skills they once lacked. Today in Japan, there is a generation of students who do not hesitate to move and take risks. This reform has been a success, and the results are encouraging for the future.

To complement the achievements of the Top Global University Project and to foster the next generation of students, the transformation of our entrance examination comes as a perfect combination. These two reforms combined will drive Japanese higher education towards achieving the highest international standards.


What other reforms do you have in the pipelines to boost the competitiveness of Japanese higher education?

Along with a hike from 8 to 10%, Prime Minister Abe has decided to alter the allocation of Japan’s consumption tax. In December 2017, we decided to allocate a 2 trillion JPY package to educational institutions. The objective is to grant more scholarships that will not have to be paid back, therefore creating an inclusive education.

To nurture the fruits of these investments, we must have a concrete University reform to enhance the quality of our institutions. We are therefore designing a new repartition system for national universities based on different groups.

The first group includes the universities we have selected as “Designated National Universities,” like the University of Tokyo, Tohoku University or Kyoto University. These institutions are to receive large grants in order to be pushed amongst the world’s top 100 universities. The second group consists of speciliazed universities. These organizations do not necessarily aim to become the global top, but are to specialize in the niche fields they are strong in. The universities in the third group are expected to become centers for regional revitalization, and have the potential to effectively connect with local communities and industries.

By dividing our resource allocation according to these groups, we are able to personalize to each institution the grant and the assistance they require. As education and R&D are very closely intertwined for the universities in the first group (Designated National Universities), we must pay a particular attention to their requirements when designing funding strategies.

We will also ameliorate our Universities’ networking capabilities.

I recently had a drink with a University Professor, and he felt that the potential of the alumni network was not fully utilized.

In Japan, we used to have industry-academia collaborations on a project by project basis. For example, Hitachi Corp and the University of Tokyo used to collaborate in terms of department. Hitachi’s legal departments would collaborate with the University of Tokyo’s law students. Their technology department with the University of Tokyo’s technology graduates. We are trying to change that by enforcing a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach to collaboration. By doing so, companies will know exactly what Universities are teaching and what their future human resources will be like. We want Universities to understand exactly what kind of workers the private sector requires. Furthermore, by talking together, they can find new areas and they can create together; which is what I really expect.


What is the role of education in the economic revitalization of Japan’s regions?

I think that is really related to “recurrent education.”  In present times, the pace of social and technological developments has dramatically increased, and education has struggled to keep on top of these changes.

Today, it takes 16 years to go from primary-school to college. Can you imagine the amount of changes and technological developments that happen over a sixteen-year period? For example, sixteen years ago, smartphones did not exist. So, the key to success is to allow people to come back to re-educate from time to time, even after joining a company or the workforce. As a government, we are trying to enhance that life shift.

I am  House Minister and Vice-Chairman of the Council for Designing 100-year Life Society , Lynda Gratton, now teaching at LBS, used to say that life was composed of 3 stages: “education, work, retirement.” But if one lives to 100 years old, one will have lived more of his life as a retired person than as a worker. Therefore, it is not three stages anymore, but just two or even one. First, you study. Then, you work, but you keep going back to education until you are 80 years old. That is what she argued.

Consequently, local Universities have to be focused on teaching up-to-date and practical skills in order to create a capable workforce. To achieve this goal, teachers should not have to come from an academic background only. There should be more corporate workers that teach. This will benefit young students as well as experienced employees. Our role as the Government will be to assist in the creation of this diversified education, both in terms of students and staff, in the regions of Japan. Universities must become a cluster and a melting pot for regional towns.


Amongst the OECD nations, Japan has one of the lowest rates of PhD graduates. How do you explain this situation?

When you see the amount of people with PhDs amongst OECD nations, Japan is amongst the lowest. Furthermore, when you analyse the percentage of people over 25 years old who join university Bachelor degees, we are almost at the bottom. What does this mean? It is a three staged mind set.  If you go to PhD right after your studies, it means that you will start working at 28 or 29 years old. In comparison, a Japanese Masters-graduate student of that same age will already enjoy a high salary. Why would you choose to pursue a PhD if you can make the same amount of money but earlier on? In Japan, there simply aren’t enough high paying salaries to justify PhD education. So, industry has to think about it too. Why would you have to pursue a PhD straight from 18 years old, right? As I said it, education must be recurrent.  First, go to college, then, join the workforce. After that you can go back to pursuing a masters before joining the workforce again, or maybe an NPO. Then, if you will feel that it’s justified for your future career path, the next investment for yourself is a PhD. Before pursuing further studies, one must have some image of his next career. So if you see all these competent companies offering great jobs for PhD graduates, perphaps that is your path. Therefore, it is not only education’s role to decide. We also have to talk with the industry and the private sector too.  However, they already know it and are trying to change.


How would you convince an international student or faculty member to come and study here?

Besides for the amazing culture, the delicious raw fish and the succulent sake? (laughs)

More seriously, Japan is at the forefront of Society 5.0. AI, IoT, Automation, Robotics…Researching in laboratories these kinds of ideas and technologies into society requires social stability and acceptance, which we both have. With our ageing population and our shrinking labour force, the innovative technologies of Society 5.0 come as a perfect match.

Furthermore, when we look at the demographic trend of international countries, we notice that many nations are also ageing (in terms of population). As this phenomenon intensifies, we will be the ones teaching others about the technologies required to cope with structural issues. We have great technology, a stable society, and a well-coordinated government.  By combining all of these advantages, Japan will become the “solution number one country.” And this time, we will be the ones with a head start.

Therefore, I want to invite international students and faculty to come here and to learn from the frontrunners of Industry 4.0. Come study in Japan! and together, let’s build the society of the future!