Kokusaika (internationalization) is a keyword commonly found in discussions of Japan, particularly in higher education reform. It is considered a ‘multivocal symbol’ by scholars because of its varying interpretations. Some view it as a key factor to face the challenges of globalization, while others view it as a challenge to the preservation of Japanese identity. This dichotomy presents challenges to the successful implementation of education reforms, which tends to focus more on accepting foreign students rather than sending Japanese students abroad. Increasing the number of international students and professors, and providing English-content courses may make Japanese universities appear more ‘international’, but also creates additional barriers.

Internationalization of Higher Education in Japan

As the world becomes more globalized, countries around the world are embracing the importance of internationalizing the education sector. Governments are reforming the education system, while universities are changing their curriculum and administrative system in order to fulfill the demand of more globally minded graduates. In Japan, internationalization of higher education has become widely accepted as a key factor to face the challenges of globalization. Since the 1980s, the Japanese government has pushed to improve the quality of education in Japan by hosting more international students and developing student exchange programs. Nonetheless, the cultural attitudes and paradigms that exist continue to constrain pedagogical practices and learning outcomes, and illustrate the real significance of internationalization of higher education in Japan.

As Roger Goodman mentions, the Japanese term kokusaika or ‘internationalization’ has become one of the most fashionable concepts in educational discourse in Japan since the mid-1980s, after Prime Minister Nakasone’s 1984 pledge to to transform Japan into an ‘international country’ (kokusai kokka nihon) (Burgess et al., 2010). Japanese dictionaries often refer to the term as a process of ‘self-change’ or ‘self-reform’, but in terms of higher education in Japan, internationalization generally implies the process of change to meet international needs (Horie, 2002). In his work, Goodman cites the anthropologist Victor Turner who refers to the concept as a ‘multivocal symbol’ that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different actors, thereby allowing the freedom for each actor to pursue their own agenda.

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The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme provides a great example of the practical implication of internationalization as a ‘multivocal symbol’. The JET program was established 1987 with the main purpose of rectifying the imbalance in the flow of people and goods from Japan to the US and Europe. However, each of the three ministries in charge had its own interpretation and agenda. The Ministry of Homeland Affairs saw the program as a chance to internationalize communities by putting Japanese people in contact with foreigners, while the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture looked at it as a chance to radically reform English teaching in Japanese schools, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thought of it as an opportunity to cultivate future leaders with Japan’s influential partners (Goodman). Yet despite the different motivations, all three interpretations of internationalization are complementary and the JET Programme is considered to have had overall success in promoting grassroots international exchange.

While internationalization initiatives were carried out in Japan from as early as 1950, major policies were not implemented until 1980. Since then, the Japanese government has carried out ambitious policies to promote international exchange, focusing on the improved quality and efficiency of university education including instruction and administration in global perspective, and the openness to students from other countries. One of the most important national policies was started in 1983, when the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture released a plan to host 100,000 international students by the year 2000. The plan emphasized raising the quality of education and research, responding to international student needs, and providing funding for academic projects based on international cooperation (Horie, 2002).

Despite the fact that the plan failed to reach its goal, government funding encouraged institutions to improve their quality of education and research through the establishment of new international programs and academic projects based on international cooperation. From 1978 to 1992, over 140 researchers received financial support to get their degree by completing a dissertation under the supervision of faculty members at a Japanese institution (Umakoshi, 1997). In addition to funds for foreign students, increased funding was provided for Japanese students going abroad on study abroad programs including summer, junior year abroad, holiday, and intensive short-term language study programs.

Undergraduate and graduate programs also started focusing on international studies due to an increase in demand for personnel with international perspectives. Six private ‘international universities’ were established during the 1980s, as well as 31 new faculties and 55 new departments with international course offering (Umakoshi, 1997). Since all newly formed international departments were required to have international students, Japanese language and culture programs, as well as programs with coursework in English were created so that international students would not need to spend additional time for Japanese language acquisition. From 1981 to 1991, a total of 14 graduate programs with all coursework in English were created (Umakoshi, 1997), and now there are 33 such programs available (Horie, 2002).

In response to the growing number of international students, national universities hired more international education professionals such as foreign student advisers and Japanese language teachers. They also created Centers for International Students on their campus to offer educational services such as orientation programs, housing assistance, and coordination of campus events. During the 1990s, 31 national universities opened Centers for International Students (Horie, 2002). The centers assisted international students to comply with new government policies. In 2000, the Japanese government decided to change college visa regulations and international student part-time job employment, and the centers were given a bigger role in the management of international student eligibility (Horie, 2002).

As education becomes increasingly commodified in the global market, Japan has taken measures to enhance its global competitiveness by turning state and public universities into independent legal entities. Under the pressure to benchmark with international standards, the Japanese government has taken the Western business corporation model and implemented deregulation by introducing a free-market approach towards its universities. As funding for education and research are being cut across the board, universities are now required to be more proactive in looking for their own funding by selling their education through marketing. Many universities have come to realize that international opportunities for study abroad, foreign language learning, and interaction with foreigners attracts more prospective students.

The Akita International University (AIU) and Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University provide two examples of private universities in Japan recently established with a primary focus on internationalization. AIU was created in 2004 financed largely by Akita Prefecture with the mission to produce internationally minded thinkers. Out of the current student body of 834, 14% of the students are international, and come from one of the 130 overseas universities with which AIU has a partnership. In addition, half of the faculty is non-Japanese and all classes are taught in English (Tanikawa, 2012).  Similarly, the Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University was founded in 2000, and now has 2,692 students from 81 countries, the highest ratio (43%) of foreign students working toward a degree in Japan (Tanikawa, 2012).

In a survey published by The Nikkei Shimbun in June 2012, AIU, the University of Tokyo, and Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University were the top three universities where leading Japanese firms were recruiting multicultural and multilingual students (Tanikawa, 2012). Japanese employers are now looking for bilingual foreign graduates capable of helping them compete in the global market, and new schools such as AIU and Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University are beating the bigger, older schools at nurturing talent and drawing the attention of corporate recruiters.

New universities are an exception in Japan, and their success reverses the preconceived notion that institutions have to be large, well established, and urban in order to thrive. In fact, the reason why AIU President Mineo Nakajima established his school was because of the resistance he met when he tried to redesign the English language program at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. As he expressed, “Japan is still an intellectually closed shop and changing an existing university system is difficult” (Tanikawa, 2012). It is difficult to quickly transform the Japanese higher education system founded on values from before WWII to meet the global standard.

Higher education reform in Japan has been rather slow to take form, especially because of the strict regulations and lack of support for transnational higher education. Since branch campuses of foreign institutions and international schools were defined as ‘corporation’ instead of ‘corporate school’ until 2005, foreign institution graduates in Japan could not apply for admission to Japanese public universities, and the value of branch campuses and international schools were often questioned by Japanese parents and students (Huang, 2007).

In Japan, all national universities and more than 250 public and private universities still refuse to accept graduates from high schools serving ethnic minorities including Korean and Chinese nationals (Horie, 2002). According to the School Education Act, these schools are not qualified as regular schools because the curriculum is based on ethnic identity and cultural needs. There are approximately 140 Korean schools (North and South Korean), 10 Chinese schools, as well as international schools in Japan, and in 1997, there were more than 20,000 students enrolled in such schools (Horie, 2002). Even though the openness of education to students with diverse backgrounds is one of the main goals of internationalization, domestic diversity is clearly left out of the discussion. This stark contrast between support for international students and ethnic school graduates demonstrates the contradiction of internationalization in Japan.

While Koreans and Chinese nationals face discrimination in Japan, 93.5% or almost 130,000 international students come from Asia (in descending order from China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia) (Agawa, 2011). On the other hand, only 2.7% of international students are from Europe, and 1.3% from the US (Japan Association for Student Support Organization, 2011). The disproportionate ratio of Asian students reflects Japan’s inner mindedness and highlights the lack of outreach to regions beyond Asia.


Places of Origin of International Students in Japan
Source: JASSO (2011)

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Source: JASSO (2012)

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Source: JASSO (2012)

On top of the imbalance of students from certain regions, there exists a discrepancy between the import and export of students. At Japan’s top universities like Keio University, roughly 3% of students are from overseas, while only 0.4% of the student body goes overseas (Tanikawa, 2012). Out of 700 colleges and universities in Japan, only 8 universities sent more than 100 students abroad (Tanikawa, 2012). Even though Japan has taken steps towards receiving more international students, more steps need to be taken for Japanese students to go overseas so that student exchange will become two-way.

Foreign students have been a key focus of internationalization strategy in Japan, and continues to be a central component as can be seen in the Prime Minister’s 2007 campaign to attract another 300,000 high-quality students by 2020 (Ninomiya, Knight, & Watanabe, 2009). Meanwhile, the contribution of foreign teachers has been largely ignored. At top US universities like UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale, international professors and researchers make up 30% of the faculty, while in Japan, the average international staff size is a mere 5% at leading universities (Agawa, 2011). Part of the reason behind the lagging number of professors and researchers from overseas are the strict regulations on foreign faculty members. Until 1982, it was impossible for foreign nationals to be full-time employees at national universities. Even now, contracts only last up to 3 years and foreigners are denied the right to apply for top administrative positions like the dean or president (Umakoshi, 1997).

As Whitsed and Wright (2011) explain in their research, there is a significant gap between the government rhetoric concerning internationalization and the place and function of English on the one hand, and how foreign professors experience and understand it on the other. Generally, interaction with foreign professors provides students with the opportunity to develop communication competencies, intercultural awareness, and global perspectives. Yet in Japan, internationalization actually serves as a form of resistance to cultural homogenization and a process of reaffirming Japanese-ness. Consequently, English is taught in a de-contextualized way by focusing on grammar and translation more so than cross-cultural communication skills in order to preserve Japanese values, traditions, and cultural independence (Whitsed & Wright, 2011).

As the government finalizes its plan to host even more foreign students, it is important for universities to continue to raise the quality of education in Japan to meet global standards. Through its focus on international students, Japan has clearly demonstrated its belief that a university will not attain global competitiveness without an active foreign student population. Yet, Japan has focused so much on bringing international students into the country that it has failed to look beyond English education and study abroad programs as internationalization. As a result, Japan is falling behind in producing competitive global citizens. There is no doubt of the need for Japan to balance the number of students from and going to foreign countries and provide equal treatment to ethnic minorities and foreign professors.

While public and private universities in Japan have implemented a variety of internationalization projects since the 1980s, there has been very little research done on the impact of government policies and the degree to which objectives have been realized. Compared to the field of international education in the US, the value, nature, purpose, and function of internationalization of higher education in Japan has not been fully investigated and there is a general consensus on the lack of meaningful contribution by Japanese scholars. For Japan to be more competitive in the global market, further research on higher education must be done to develop a better strategy that includes methods other than increasing the number of foreign students. As Whitsed and Volet (2011) suggest, perhaps there is need of creating new metaphors that promote reciprocal intercultural understanding and inclusive social practices for the term kokusaika in Japan.


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