By Yijiang Zhong

Globalization of Japanese Higher Education

Nov. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments

It has become common for public media and scholars to refer to the period after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in 1990 as “the lost two decades.” What was lost was of course the high economic growth that had characterized postwar Japan for over three decades (1950s-1980s). That sense of loss at the same time has been aggravated by the decreasing school-age youth population and the aging of the society. On the other hand, the post-Cold-War period, coinciding with Japan’s “lost decades,” has been understood on a world historical scale as the period of globalization when formerly dominant modernization theory increasingly gave way to the advocates, policies, and practices of transnational capitalism. It is perhaps only natural then that the Japanese government since the 2000s sped up efforts to globalize the country’s higher education system in order to overcome what it perceives as the long-term crisis resulting from the decline of Japan’s international competitiveness in the age of globalization — the age of increasing interconnectedness of the world as well as intense cross-border competition. The government’s efforts at transforming the higher education system in recent years (especially 2009, 2012 and 2014) are unprecedented and remarkable. With these reform efforts, Japan is responding to the trend of globalization by becoming part of it.


To improve the competitiveness of Japanese higher education and attract more foreign students to Japanese universities, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences (JSPS), the fund-distributing organization for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) of Japan, announced in 2009 the Project for Establishing University Network for Internationalization. The project set out to sponsor the globalization of 30 selected universities by providing each of them an annual support of up to 400 million yen for five years.1 As such, it is more widely known as the G30 project. Eventually, however, only 13 universities, both public and private, met the requirement and were selected to receive the funding for implementing this project. In 2012, JSPS followed up with the Project for Promotion of Global Human Resource Development.2 42 schools were selected to receive annual funding of between 120-260 million yen for up to five years. Most recently in 2014, JSPS invited universities to compete for the Top Global University Project.3 37 universities were successful in their bids and were each awarded 200-500 million yen each year for up to ten years to implement structural reforms to increase international compatibility and strengthen global competitiveness.


Major structural reforms demanded by these JSPS projects include: increasing courses and programs taught in English across the disciplines to attract international students, hiring foreign faculty to increase diversity as well as the numbers of English-speaking teachers, building up collaborative relationships with overseas universities, and conducting regular international research and education activities. There has been resistance and opposition to these efforts. Many have criticized the emphasis on English as “English imperialism” and that many globalization programs lack substance.


Despite these criticisms, Japanese universities — in particular the major private ones — met the government initiative with enthusiasm and created many new programs, because private schools, which depend primarily on tuition fees for their operations and expansion, see globalization as the way to go. For example, the private Doshisha University in Kyoto has created no less than four academic units with an explicit global orientation: the Faculty of Global Communication, the Faculty of Global and Regional Studies, the Graduate School of Global Studies, and the Center for Global Education. These programs were preceded by the Institute of the Liberal Arts, established in 2011, which Doshisha promotes as “the springboard for internationalization.”4 Likewise, national and other public universities overall look at globalization as a positive change. The most prestigious national university, the University of Tokyo, established an undergraduate program taught entirely in English in 2012, followed by a series of graduate programs in natural and social sciences as well as the humanities where no Japanese language is required for graduation. In terms of transnational exchange and collaboration, the University of Tokyo has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with major overseas universities including Princeton University and Peking University. As a whole, Japan may be described as joining a world-wide trend in the formation of a transnational academia and education institution.5 All these efforts look promising.  

Change, however, is not easy because even if universities want to globalize, the government still retains much control in how that should happen.

It is, however, worth noting that the push for the globalization of higher education in Japan originates a large extent from the state. Not all universities share the same amount of enthusiasm in their response to government initiatives. This is particularly the case with national and prefectural universities. Many reasons can be identified but one major reason is the gap between the goals for research and education identified by the government and those by universities. The Japanese government wants to strengthen the competitive strength of Japan in the age of neo-liberal economic globalization and it wants to dictate how universities should be globalized by attaching strings to the funding it provides. This gives rise to the criticism that universities in Japan are simply a means for the state to realize its own political purposes rather than helping higher education fulfill the education and research goals that are particular to it and which should be independent from political intervention.6 This criticism points to the fundamental question as to what the globalization of Japanese higher education ultimately amounts to. To understand this basic issue, it is useful to place Japanese higher education in its historical context.


Postwar Japanese economic development followed a catch-up model with primarily the US as the goal. It involved mobilizing all resources by the central government to enlarge and strengthen Japan as a whole before wealth could be distributed among the individual citizens. Higher education was part of this state-led national system of mobilization and planning in service of national economic growth and social development. The catch-up model gave rise to a higher education system that was largely internal to Japan and integrated into national economic planning and development: high school graduates across the country participate in the uniform college entrance exam, and then attend college or vocational schools to receive technical training. Then upon graduation they enter the stable but highly regulated labor force. Female graduates would work for several years before quitting to get married and become housewives.


In this process, studying outside Japan was hardly considered necessary because it does not help an education geared toward the national goal of catch-up economic growth. University curriculums were designed for transmitting knowledge rather than fostering creativity and critical thinking because these qualities did not contribute to the realization of that overarching goal. Classes were largely lectures rather than seminars. In this uniform scheme of education, one’s life trajectory was marked by successive stages in the education and employment process. When the economy was growing and population increasing in number, there were enough school-age young people to sustain this system. Furthermore, because of the sufficient number of students, the government did not spend large amount of its budget on education. When it provided financial support to students, that support mostly came as loans rather than scholarships. Of course, not everybody went to college and that was considered actually not bad for the catch-up economy because productivity-wise, four years spent in the labor force is more productive than four years spent in college!


This model of higher education, closely shaped by government policies and imperatives, worked relatively well until the 2000s when the effects of the youth population decline became palpable. The population of 18-year-olds started to decrease from 1992. According to the calculations of the aforementioned MEXT, in 2007 the shrinking number of high school graduates equaled the enrollment capacity of all higher education institutions in Japan put together. In other words, if students did not choose, everybody was able to go to college by 2007.7 In actuality, local and less known private schools have been suffering from insufficient enrollment and have run into serious financial difficulties, while national universities, enjoying a higher level of prestige, are still competitive and are not yet directly threatened. But sensing the impending crisis, the government in 2004 corporatized all 86 national universities to let universities have some independence, and to also reduce its own financial burden. This was significant move. It meant the old catch-up model has started to change. Although the 86 national universities accommodate only about 20 percent of the total student population,8 they enjoy high prestige and their tuition fees are low compared to private universities so they are popular among students. The corporatization of national universities is thus a substantial move. Following this step was the government’s policy of encouraging universities to globalize by funding a series of projects introduced at the beginning of the essay.


Change, however, is not easy because even if universities want to globalize, the government still retains much control in how that should happen. Much of the old model is still in place. National universities still depend primarily on government funding for their operations and the government has set up a lot of rules for using the money including those for globalization. In this sense, the aforementioned criticism of the government controlling higher education for political goals remains pertinent. If the old model suppressed the question of what the goals of higher education should be by integrating it into the overarching national goal of economic and social development, these globalization efforts bring to the fore this long suppressed question: should higher education serve the nation-state or pursue goals that are independent of or even beyond the nation-state? In this sense, where the globalization process will lead Japan remains an open question. It remains to be seen whether the old catch-up model will eventually be dissolved and replaced by a new type of higher education that aims to develop whole human beings who can think critically and creatively and thrive in the diverse, complex, globalized world rather than continuing to produce persons whose life makes sense only as a component of the system of national development.




1. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. (n.d.). Project for establishing university network for internationalization. Retrieved from


2. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. (n.d.). Project for promotion of global human resource development.” Retrieved from


3. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. (n.d.). Top global university project. Retrieved from


4. Doshisha University. (n.d.). The Institute for the Liberal Arts. Retrieved from


5. Zhong, Y. (2016). Nihon kenkyū no mirai: gurōbaruna chishiki seisan taikei he no sannyū [The future of Japanese studies: Participation in global knowledge production]. Nihon Kenkyū (Japanese Studies), 53, 51-62.


6. Vickers, E. & Rappleye, J. (2015). Gaikokujin kyōin kara mita Nihon no daigaku no kimyōna gurōbaruka [Curious globalization of Japanese universities as seen from the perspective of foreign faculty]. Chūō kōron, July.


7. Asahi Shimbun sha. (2015). Chie zō 2015. Retrieved from


8. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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