Gregory S. Poole

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International Education Journal Vol 4, No 3, 2003

Higher Education Reform in Japan:

Amano Ikuo1 on ‘The University in Crisis’

Gregory S. Poole

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford

Japanese education has been a focus of comparative studies for the past 20 years. Many scholars have attributed the economic success of this industrialized society to a highly literate and well-educated population. Recent studies, however, have tended to be more critical of, in particular, Japanese higher education. Indeed, most universities in Japan are acutely aware of the need for change and a considerable effort at institutional change is sweeping the nation. Unfortunately most of the constructive criticism of Japanese higher education has not yet been published in English. One of the most vocal of the reformists, Professor Ikuo Amano, has published widely on various aspects of higher education in Japan. In the following paper I have translated a chapter from his book Challenges to Japanese Universities. This translation is prefaced by both an introduction to Amano and his work, as well as an explication of the socio-cultural context of higher education in Japan today.

Education, Japan, reform, translation, ethnography



Japanese education has been a focus of comparative studies for the past 20 years (e.g., Goodman & Phillips, 2003; Benjamin, 1997; Cummings, 1986; Hendry, 1986; Rohlen, 1983; White, 1987). Many of these scholars have attributed the economic success of this industrialized society to a highly literate and well-educated population. Recent studies, however, have tended to be more critical of the Japanese educational machinery, often concluding that without major reform the system of schooling in Japan will continue to be a disservice to societal needs of the 21st century.

Arguably the least regulated area of education, and therefore simultaneously both a potential starting point and the place most resistant to change, tertiary education in Japan has been targeted as lagging far behind western societies, an embarrassment to the world’s second largest economy and a potential Achilles heel in the fine-tuned engine that is the Japanese state and economy (Hall, 1995; 1998). Most universities in Japan are acutely aware of the need for change and a considerable effort at institutional change is sweeping the nation. Unfortunately most of the constructive criticism of Japanese higher education (HE) has not yet been published in English.2

The following translation will hopefully add a comparative perspective to the discussion of higher education reform that is sweeping the educational world. In particular, colleges and universities in Britain and Asia are undergoing a period of upheaval. This is especially noteworthy if the intrinsic conservative nature of such institutions is considered. These ‘discourses of reform’ are unique in the academic world of debate if only because the subject being discussed directly affects the careers of the discussants. Whether an academic is an expert in the field of education or not, all teachers at universities seem to have an opinion on this subject.3 As Roger Goodman (2001) pointed out in the introduction to a recent seminar series at the University of Oxford, these ‘lay’ opinions are not often taken seriously, or even considered, by those implementing the reforms, a point that others have made as well (see, e.g., Wisniewski, 2000). Because of Ikuo Amano’s unique viewpoint as both education researcher and university educator, in Challenges to Japanese Universities we have a volume that begins to bridge this gap between the ‘armchair reformers’ and ‘teachers in the trenches.’ Amano speaks to both audiences.

In this introductory section, I will set the stage for the translation that follows. First I offer brief biographical notes to give the reader a sense of Professor Amano’s background. In this part I also discuss in some detail the book itself, Challenges to Japanese Universities, to give context to the translated essay. The realities of Japanese higher education must be grasped in order to understand the topics that Amano discusses in both the book generally as well as in this translated essay in particular. Although I have tried to explain with footnotes certain points as they arise in the translation itself, in this introduction I have also included a general description of the Japanese university. Though I risk patronizing readers with expertise and experience in Japanese universities, for those with less background in the area this description will hopefully further elucidate Amano’s points on the crisis that higher education is now facing in Japan.

Ikuo Amano

One of the most vocal of the reformists, Professor Ikuo Amano, has published widely on various aspects of HE in Japan. Although one of the leading researcher on Japanese HE, to date only one of his innumerable books has been translated into English.4 To better disseminate his ideas, I have translated a chapter from his book, Daigaku: choosen no jidai (1999, Tokyo University Press).5 The text, “Daigaku no kiki”, is the first chapter in the book and comprises approximately 16 pages.

Professor Amano holds a degree in Economics from Hitotsubashi University, a prestigious national university in Tokyo, and a doctorate in Education from the University of Tokyo. He was formerly on the staff of the National Institute of Educational Research and an associate professor of Comparative Education at Nagoya University. Presently he is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tokyo, honorary visiting professor at Tamagawa University and professor at the Center for National University Finance.6

Amano’s prolific career has been spent researching the sociology and history of Japanese education. The number of articles he has published and papers that he has presented are too numerous to mention. As for books, at last count he has written 25, co-authored and edited another 12, and translated eight into Japanese. His research spans numerous educational issues ranging from the entrance examination system (Amano, 1982, 1983, 1986; Amano, 1990), the ‘credentialization’ of Japanese society (Amano, 1986, 1992a), job placement after university, and specialized tertiary institutions (Amano, 1978, 1993), to more general explanations of the Japanese education system (Amano, 1984, 1989, 1992b, 1997a, 1997b). Most of his recent research, including Challenges to Japanese Universities, focuses on higher education and university reform (Amano, 1980, 1985, 1988a, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001). Though at times his writing could be characterized as critical, this is always a constructive and objective criticism. Although he himself has been a university professor for over thirty years, he has the unique ability to step back from this role when analyzing the issues surrounding university reform in Japan today. By outlining below the points he covers in this text, one of his most recent works, Amano’s position vis à vis HE reform becomes apparent.

Challenges to Japanese Universities

Amano’s book entitled Challenges to Japanese Universities is a collection of 18 different essays. “The Japanese University in Crisis” is the first of these essays.

The first part of the book is a collection of papers that deal with macro-level problems at universities, including the changes in higher education policy. Amano purports that the greatest challenge to universities in the past ten to twenty years has been ‘marketization.’ As ‘deregulation’ efforts in Japan started in the 1980's and 1990's, for the world of higher education as well, under the simultaneous control and protection of the government, ‘liberalization,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘individualization’ became the slogans of university reform. Amano has pointed out elsewhere that behind such catchwords— koseika (individualization), tayooka (diversification), and ikiru chikara (‘zest for living’)— is this central ideology of kisei kanwa (‘deregulation’). This reform was designed to “get rid of controls or weaken [the Japanese Ministry of Education]”, liberalization that, of course, the Ministry initially opposed (Hood, 2001b, p. 106).

Included in this problem— university reform accelerated by the low position of (Japanese) higher education in the eyes of the world— was an assertion previously voiced since the 1970s, that in order to activate research into education as well as to measure the rise in standards, regulations must be relaxed and a principle of competition should be adopted for the allocation of resources. A crisis in the universities and a structural change in higher education was brought about not only by the development of a mass education symbolized by tremendous increase in the number of university-bound students, but this sudden start of politicization was a result of Japanese society and the economy itself facing difficult times. Amano points out that the severity of the challenge facing universities bespeaks just how high the expectation is for these institutions.

Amano feels that the educational research activities and administration modus operandi of universities are distinct from for-profit enterprises and they cannot be expected to completely adopt competition and market principles. That being said he also asserts that universities are not immune from marketization forces. As for the national universities, Amano suggests that these institutions have begun to be regarded as a sort of Orwellian ‘Big Brother Japan.’ Voices calling for their independent administration and privatization are getting louder. After all, the trend towards adopting market and competition principles and the demand for the self-government of the university’s management bodies is a worldwide one, observes Amano. “It can be said that the ‘contemporary’ universities that were founded at the beginning of the 19th century are now being confronted with an era of deep-rooted reform and change” (Amano, 1999, p. ii).

Universities in Japan, however, are not merely standing by passively. One after another, four-year institutions have appeared that are boldly challenging themselves to keep abreast of the changing times. In Part Two of Amano’s volume he presents case studies of such examples of university ‘experimentation’. As with most audacious experiments, reforms, and innovations, changes start not with the traditional established part of a system but rather with the periphery. The case of higher education in Japan is no exception. Specifically, within an environment of both intensified competition from a relaxation of regulations and a steady long-term decrease in the population of 18 year-olds, newly established universities looking to add a fresh approach to ‘the system’ can not survive and prosper without challenging the established universities and offering a noticeable difference.

The six ‘experiments’ that Amano describes in this book are examples of such challenge and differentiation: Tohoku University of Art and Design, Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, University of Aizu, Miyazaki International College, Hokkaido Information University, and Aomori Public College. These universities engage in unique approaches to higher education not commonly found in Japan such as American-style liberal arts courses in English, education focused on strictly graduate-level education, greater accountability in teaching, innovatively designed campuses, and faculty-student collaborative research.

Interestingly though, the author rightly points out that new players on the field of higher education are not alone in setting out on this course of experimentation and reform. Even in the more ‘Ivied’ universities new faculties and research departments are being established, in addition to the restructuring, change and various other efforts at reforms that are taking place. Since the changes that are taking place at such pillars of tradition as Tokyo and Keio Universities are widely publicized in the national media, Amano chooses to describe the six universities listed above, smaller in scale and less well known, to exemplify the diversity of university and tertiary education.

In the third part of Challenges to Japanese Universities, Amano presents the specific issues that presently challenge universities in Japan. The university reforms now underway have as their impetus the revision of the standards for university facilities as put forth in the 1991 report of the Daigaku Shingikai.7 However Amano claims that “the revision most aspired toward in this report was no less than an innovation of ‘education’ itself”(Amano, 1999, p. iii). He believes in particular that the liberalization of the content of the education curriculum has achieved a considerable change in the make up of the four-year university education. The removal of the division between the ‘General’ education and ‘Specialized’ education courses has resulted in the disappearance of liberal arts and ‘General’ education curricula at many universities.

The question remains, however, to what degree such reforms have succeeded in changing the quality of a university education. Although he admits that to assess the results at this stage may be premature, Amano questions whether by international standards the quality of education that students are receiving has actually improved. The relaxation in entrance examination competition due to the decline in the population of eighteen-year olds,8 the diversification in the selection process of applicants, and a curriculum reform that has lowered the standards of elementary and junior high school have all raised new issues about the content of education at universities. Furthermore, Amano feels that a university attendance rate of 50 per cent (approaching the level of ‘universal’9) combined with the development of the ‘information age’ means that new issues, such as the admission of adult learners and more involvement in the global community, are forcing universities to confront very new and challenging issues. The issues discussed in this section are only a very few of such reform problems that challenge universities.

Amano admits that because of the timing of its publication, he was forced to compromise the discussion in the book. In particular, while editing the collection of papers, in October of 1998 the Daigaku Shingikai issued a report entitled "On the 21st Century Image of Universities and the Future Direction of Reform." This report, while indicating the importance and necessity of the topics dealt with so far, discussed many of the reform issues that had not yet been addressed and presented a detailed plan regarding these problems. The report was filled with reform issues that must be addressed at universities across the country— the overhaul of university management, the establishment of vocational graduate schools, the formation of a system for outside assessment, the institution of module credit-hour courses, and the creation of stricter standards of grading. Amano feels that the way in which university and tertiary education in Japan tackle these issues are of great concern to both the observers of and actors in universities across the country.

Amano warns that from the standpoint of both university practitioners and education researchers these problems are more than ever before issues of such a new character that the heretofore accumulated experience, information, and research is inadequate. In the last chapter of Part 3, the author explains that with the recent establishment of an official organization, researchers into higher education have only just taken the first step to legitimize their findings. He doubts that amongst researchers such as himself there is enough competence to theoretically, practically, and accurately answer the new challenges and in this way it is not only the universities that are in a conundrum. Academics working on research into higher education are finding that they have few answers.

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