How can Japanese Universities become Leading Universities in the World?

Japanese top universities are at last coming of age and visualizing themselves to rank among the world’s top universities. I believe that this can happen, although, not without some major changes both in infrastructure as well as in educators’ and students’ consciousness.

One thing that is already beginning to happen now in Japanese top leading universities is for certain subjects to be taught directly in English. In order for students to be successful, they will need to increase their ability to understand English. Also they will need to increase their reading skills in English, as many of the best and most up-to-date, new textbooks in all subjects are written in English. I feel that bright students at elite universities in Japan will be able to overcome these obstacles in a relatively short amount of time.

There is, however, another very crucial aspect of the classroom experience that students will have much more difficult overcoming in order to become real world leaders of the future. At the crux of this is a big black box of CAN’T DO and CAN’T SPEAK that is very difficult to explain in words, although I experienced it daily with my students.

One student presented a paper titled “Japanese nature.” He listed four major aspects that he felt characterized Japanese nature: 1. Japanese are negative, 2. Japanese don’t like difference [I think he meant to use the word ‘diversity’]. 3. They themselves don’t want to stand out as different, and  4. They also shun others who are different.

Because I have been living and working with students in Japan for so long, I have learned various techniques that work well to get passive, reticent Japanese students to speak out in English, even if their language proficiency is very low, and also even if they are very withdrawn and shy. I can even do this quite well with large classes of 45 or more students. For example, I might call on a student by name, ask them a direct question, and then guide them with a few prompts. If they just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, further prompt them with, “because . . .”.  I usually go down the attendance list (in a random fashion) and call on each student during every class at least once, or I go down a list of their names on a seating chart and use eye contact to encourage them. There is peer pressure to answer correctly. Elite students reflect deeply on themselves when they are not able to answer well. They also look to their fellow students who can answer well as models that they strive to emulate. Techniques like this and peer pressure help to stimulate learning in the classroom.

However, this is not getting anywhere near to the problem of the black box. What is that thing that is so different in a Japanese classroom among the Japanese students compared to, for example, most of the foreign students in the same class? What is different that I see in the Korean, Indian or Bangladeshi foreign students in that English class from the Japanese? Could it be their worldview perhaps? What is it that holds back even the brightest of Japanese students? And how can this problem be overcome? Do Japanese people hope to ‘overcome’ this ‘problem’? Do they see this as a problem for themselves? Are they even conscious of what this is? I am not sure, but what I am sure of is that if they can overcome this inability to come out of themselves, so speak up, to rally themselves that they will greatly benefit in the end.

As expressed by Prof. Laurel Kamada. She worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth from 2009 until she retired in 2016.

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