Japanese Education: First Class, but not World Class

In response to the question: “What changes/new ideas do you wish to see in 2017 with regards to internationalisation of education in Japan?”

It is 6pm on a Wednesday evening. Another long day of lessons is nearly over, but not quite yet. I am sat in a German grammar class, anxiously chewing my pen, racking my brain as I bury myself in endless conjugation tables – is it du hast ein or einen Wörterbuch?

‘Does anybody have any questions?’ My professor asks.


I raise my hand, feeling the looks of the other students burn through my skin.

‘Sorry for asking another question, but….’, I say.

My professor laughs. ‘You’re learning a new language. I would be worried if you didn’t’.

It is in this torturously silent weekly language lesson, where I am the only international student, that I feel the difference in Japanese education the most. Despite how terrible I am at remembering German grammar rules, I have been learning the language for many years now, and this is the first time I have been with students so silent. My German professor is right: you’re learning a new language – how can you not have questions?

In December 2016, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released it’s latest research findings into the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems by testing 540,000 students aged 15 from 72 countries in their science, reading, maths and collaborative problem-solving skills. Once again, Japan was in the top five countries. It confirmed what we already knew about Japanese students: they are beyond brilliant.

Japanese students topped the tables in all subjects and ranked globally alongside the likes of Singapore, Finland, Canada and Estonia. In science, it came second only to Singapore. Only 10 percent of Japanese students are low-performers in science, compared to the global average of 20 percent. Similarly, in mathematics, 89 percent of students are at a proficient level or above, beating the global average of 75 percent. Japan showed some of the lowest rates of student truancy, and nearly one in two disadvantaged students were ‘resilient’ – meaning that they beat the socio-economic odds against them to be in the top 25 percent of best performing students in the world. Clearly, Japanese teenagers are extremely intelligent, and primary and secondary schools have equipped them a fantastic education to take on university and the working world.

But when you look at Japan’s position in the world’s university rankings, it is hard to believe that you are even looking at the same country. In the annual Times World University Rankings, Japan’s best performing university, the University of Tokyo, enters at 39. The next Japanese university, Kyoto University, is to be found in the 91st position. This is shocking – how can Japan sink from having such an outstanding secondary school education to a relatively unexceptional university education on the global stage?

It is clear that a primary reason for this chasm in the global quality of education between high school and university is the lack of diversity from international students in Japanese universities. The University of Oxford, ranked the best university in the world, has 35 percent of it’s students from overseas. Meanwhile, there is not a single ranked university in Japan that has even over 15 percent of students from overseas.

For many people in Japanese academia, these global rankings are difficult to accept because Japanese universities are so highly regarded within Japan. For this reason, global rankings are seldom taken seriously, driving little impetus for change. The obvious solution is to attract more international students to Japan, which many people have advocated. Slowly but surely this is happening, through the successful G30 programmes and the recovery of Japan’s ‘unsafe’ image after the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Indeed, the number of international students in 2015 numbered 208,379 – an increase of 13.2 percent from the year before. This is encouraging and hopeful, but we should not stop there.

Which brings me back to my German lesson, where the pin-drop silence makes time stop for two hours every week. While I try (and often fail) to get my head around German conjugations and verb endings, I often wonder why the Japanese students around me are not asking questions.

I often ask my Japanese classmates what lessons in high school were like, and the response is unanimous – the system revolved around passing a university entrance exam. Learning meant three things: cycle textbooks, cram schools and exams. Not much else. Despite their unquestionable intellect, there was no diversity in their learning styles. Only in their English lessons at university (the first time they have ever been taught by somebody non-Japanese) have they ever had the chance to discuss and debate freely. This may be why the Japanese students in my German class are not asking questions – they grew up in an educational environment that did not allow room for them to explore their inquisitive, curious minds.

I witness this in my university classes as well – often, professors lecture for every lesson in the semester, expecting students to absorb everything and question nothing. Some of my classmates even told me that they hold their professors in such high regard that they do not think their questions are even worthy of asking. In fact, some of the classrooms in the University of Tokyo actually have rows and rows of chairs and tables that are literally nailed to floor so that you can only face the front. You cannot move around, let alone swivel your chair to talk to the people next to you – it truly is as if group discussions are actively being discouraged. While every international student I know hates it, the Japanese students are somewhat indifferent to it – it has been that way all their lives. This is not to say that lectures are pointless – they are extremely valuable as professors have so much expertise and knowledge to impart on us that a two hour time slot once a week is often never enough. However, it is not in the Japanese students’ best interest to be taught like this all the time. Even when it comes to English studies, it was only last year that the University of Tokyo allowed undergraduate international students to hold English conversational lunchtime tutoring sessions on campus to help build the confidence of the Japanese students in their spoken English. Until then, there was a unquestioned and ungrounded belief that students could not teach other students.

In this way, Japanese universities are not internationalising at the same rate as the rest of the world because they are not diversifying or experimenting in learning styles. After all, there is no point in bringing in international students to Japanese universities if the Japanese students do not become accustomed to learning with them. The mathematician and scientist Seymour Papert once famously said that a teacher from the 19th century could feel at home in a modern day classroom because the style of learning in some places has changed so little. Thus, it is no surprise that many of my discussion-based classes have halved in size since the beginning of the semester: many Japanese students were intimidated by weekly debates and they also thought that they would not learn as much because the professor would not always be the one speaking. The sad reality is that they do not realise how valuable their opinions are, nor have they been shown how they can truly enhance the collective learning experience by sharing their thoughts.

A critical reflection and rethinking of the way that Japanese students are being taught is required not only for the merit of Japan’s universities, but for the students themselves. It will prepare them for work in a globalised world, in companies and organisations that will focus solely on Japan less and less. For Japan’s bright youth, the world is their oyster. But if things do not change in the classroom, their world is limited only to Japan.

Sources used: 

Japan Student Services Organization. (2016). International Students in Japan 2015. [online] Available at: http://www.jasso.go.jp/en/about/statistics/intl_student/data2015.html [Accessed 16 Dec. 2016].

OECD, (2016). PISA: Results in Focus. [online] Available at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf

Times Higher Education. (2016). World University Rankings. [online] Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2017/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats 

Julia Carvell, University of Tokyo

Originally published in the spring special issue of The Sentinel.

The Admission of Women : Time Travel – Tohoku University

In August 1913, Tohoku University permitted the admission of women. Women were accepted into an Imperial University for the first time in Japan. How did they enter Tohoku University?

At the beginning of 1913, Tohoku University informed all the schools about its policy of opening its doors to women. After receiving that news, some women decided to take the entrance exam, following the recommendations of their teachers. Ms. Ume Tange, Ms. Chika Kuroda and Ms. Raku Makita passed these tests and entered the College of Science along with thirty-five male students. Before that, they were teaching in Girl’s High Schools. In other words, they all held a teaching license which, was a qualification to enter this university.

However, their admission was not smooth. During the exam, there was an inquiry from the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education recognized it as an extremely major affair that has not happened before that is, they opposed the admission of women. However, Tohoku University had already decided to admit women. Tohoku University thought that they simply applied expanding entrance qualifications to women so as to get more students. This decision was not based on progressive thinking.

After their graduation, Ms. Chika Kuroda and Ms. Raku Makita became professors at their old school, Tokyo Women’s Teacher Training School. Ms. Ume Tange also became a professor at Japan Women’s University. They later fostered female researchers. In the long run, the admission of women to an Imperial University was a ground-breaking event, not only for opening doors to women but even for the history of the university.

Columnist Manabu NAKAGAWA is an Associate professor at IEHE, Tohoku University

Chemistry Division 2nd Graduation Ceremony (1915)  Ms. Kuroda is in the 2nd row.

: Collection of Tohoku University Archives 

Discovery of Another World of Japanese Culture

“The 65th Tohoku University Festival”, held on October 28th-30th, 2016, has greatly ended. In this festival, Tohoku University students organized exhibition, performances and food stalls for their own clubs or circles. Thus, not only visitors can enjoy activities, shows and foods they served us, but also it was a great chance to survey which clubs or circles they are interested in, and, perhaps, decide to join in the next semester. I guess many of you have already experienced this fantastic event; by the way, I would like to gather information and re-display impressive moments in the 65th Tohoku University Festival which is one of the most unique festivals I’ve ever seen. Let’s explore  another world of Japanese culture together.

In this festival, students from a huge number of clubs and circles organized their own exhibition showing what they have done throughout a year. Also, relevant information and pieces of works were provided. Although you did not have any information which clubs were being exhibited and where it was, it was still fine since there existed brochures sticked on the wall everywhere. All of classrooms of A, B and C building at Kawauchi Campus were used for exhibition. Accordingly, if you go through a walkway in the building, it would seem like you have teleported to another world, the world of clubs’ exhibition as you can see them from both sides of your sightseeing. There were several clubs and circles I would like to introduce. The first one is Photography circle. Here, the exhibition of photos, gathered from members,  was organized. The interesting point was that some photos were taken by just only a mobile phone. Thus, for this circle, just good ideas, content, emotion and components can bring out a good photo without using expensive cameras. Next is Model club; Gundams, tanks and figures were formed and exhibited here. If you are a fan of figures, you would know that constructing a figure takes a very long time (sometimes more than 10 hours). And, you know, a number of figures was displayed; it showed how much effort that members  have paid for these things. The last club I would like to talk about is Train club. In this club, they research about Japanese trains: types, routes, environments and station construction etc. According to those information, they created a model of local train station as well as its route, and it can realistically move using battery—that was fantastic! Apart from these clubs and circles, there were still a lot of exhibition there, for example, Astronomy club, Card circle, Robot club, Social outreach club, Cartoon painting circle and Chess circle etc.

Another major group exhibited in this festival was music  and street dance circles. Actually, there are many ways to categorize these clubs. If the criteria is types of music, there were Jazz, Classic, Pop and Japanese folk song etc. Also, if the criteria is types of musical instrument, there were mandolin, brass instrument and woodwind instrument etc. You can see there was a large number of music circles here. Generally, many music circles here opened cafes and showed their performances inside. Visitors can pay money (just a little amount) for drinks, sitting and listening to music inside. Because types of music circles were very various, visitors can choose what kind of music they like or what type of   music instrument they prefer, and then relaxed there. There were some bands performing on the central stage, too. Apart from these music shows, there was a dance performance by street dance circle, which was one of highlights of this event. This circle is composed of many lines of dancing: jazz, house, hiphop, lock and pop. I had watched it on the first day which was held on a stage near the bicycle parking; it was so awesome actually.

University festival would not be complete if there is no food stalls. Food stalls here were also organized by students. Some club and circles that did not make exhibition would do food stalls as  another way of their clubs’ income. The food was various until you may not be able to try them all, for example, yakisoba (Japanese stir fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake), sausages, crepes and grilled chicken etc. Moreover, the price was not expensive at all, just around 200-500 yen per serving which allowed you to try many kind of traditional Japanese street food. Because of this perfect food stalls, this event was able to attract visitors to stay for all day—when they felt tired from exhibition, they bought foods, recharged the energy, and  then continued to visit other clubs and circles more. It was such a perfect loop!

In conclusion, the 65th Tohoku University festival was very exciting and full of great components: attractive clubs’ exhibition, awesome performances and nice foods as everyone devoted themselves and heartily organized this event. In fact, I have never seen any university festivals that can showed students’ effort on what they are interested in as much as Japan’s. I bet this kind of culture is exotic and attractive for foreign students including me. Thus, anyone who have not join this event yet, please come again in the next year “the 66th Tohoku University Festival” and discover another world of Japanese culture together.

“…From my perspective, the festival is probably the best chance you could have to observe the talents and interests of Tohoku University students. All over Kawauchi campus, everyone can take part in enjoying the local food made by students, and watching shows and exhibitions that can only be seen in the festival. I personally enjoyed watching the WHO dancing circle’s street dance performance. If you happen to have a chance to join, please make sure to go to their shows…”

Ratthanan Ratthanasupapornsak

Faculty of Engineering (IMAC-U)


“…I think the Tohoku University Festival is a very good opportunity to experience the interest and talent of Tohoku University Students through various performances. Furthermore, there are a lot of freshly made food and drinks for sale which you can enjoy in the festival. It also benefit those who intended to join a club or circle to be able to choose from their interest accordingly…”

Chayapol Beokhaimook

Faculty of Engineering (IMAC-U)


“…In this university event, I had a chance to perform a jazz song at one of the classroom which my club occupy as a club room. I am a guitarist, and I start to practice a month before the event, but unfortunately, me and my band only had practice together one time because of our schedule were not match. I was a little bit nervous before the show, but it turned out really fun and my friends came to watch me on that day which made me really happy. This event gave me the chance to show my potential and also good memories, I really looking forward to next year gakusai…”

Pathomchat Piriyakulkij

Faculty of Engineering (IMAC-U)


“…I’ve had a chance to perform in the university festival with WHO street dance circle. We practiced for around 2 months before the event. I heard that the circle is not very serious but to be honest, this is not the case at all. Around 2 weeks before the event, we practiced 5 days a week 6-8 hours a day. However, no matter how hard the practice was, I still enjoyed it. In this event, I participate in 3 stage, including 1st year 1st stage, House stage and Hip hop stage. I was very nervous since this is my first time going on stage. Fortunately, I didn’t make mistake during the show so I was quite relieved. I really feel my hard work is paying off in term of my dancing skill and really looking forward to improve myself even more!…”

Kanbodin Kechacoop

Faculty of Engineering (IMAC-U)



Tanach Rojrungsasithorn

A Night of Broken Walls and Rising Stars

September 9th 2016, was the date set for the 3rd edition of the ‘Falling Walls Sendai’. The event is built around the concept of innovation through young minds and eradicating, if possible, any existing preconceptions in the academia and the world.

From environmental programs to new technologies, 12 young entrepreneurs from 7 different countries were welcomed by the president of Tohoku University, Dr. Susumu Satomi and Mr. Shigenori Oyama, President of the NEC TOKIN Corporation who, would later serve as the master of ceremonies.

Filled with enthusiasm, hope and a noticeable amount of stress, the participants made their voices echo throughout the Tokyo Electron House of creativity in Katahira. Once concluded, every presentation was followed by a Q&A section that could last up to 6 minutes and was intended to scrutinise each and every aspect of the idea presented and some questions were even answered with silence. However, the toughest work of the night, judging the projects and research proposals, was reserved to distinguished jury consisting of professors, consultants, and executives from all over the world.

After the presentations were completed, the tortuous waiting for the results began. What seemed to be an endless wait for the speakers, which was about 50 min, every member of the jury gave a small motivational speech and encouraged every participant to work hard for bringing down the walls that need to be broken in the current world.  The winners, Dr. Natt Leelawat, Post-Doctoral student at the International research Institute of Disaster Science of Tohoku University had presented the idea of a new mobile phone app to coordinate evacuation plans in the event of a tsunami. For the second place,  Mr. Delta Putra, undergraduate student at the School of Agriculture of Tohoku University came up with a bioluminescent solution to the public lighting challenge of the current big cities and for the third place it was Ms. Maryamsadat Hosseini, graduate student at the School of Engineering of Tohoku University with a novel, patented technology for electronic devices. These 3 rising stars shall be travelling to Berlin this November 8th to represent their countries, their laboratories and Tohoku University at the world competition of the Falling Walls.

For further information about future editions and the application process, please refer to the official webpage (http://www.tfc.tohoku.ac.jp/fwls/).

Manuel Campos