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By Austin Zeng

In typical Todai fashion, I went for the Entrance Ceremony of Todai in April at the Nippon Budōkan. Given the prestige of the university widely considered the best in Japan, there was an almost self-congratulatory atmosphere around it. The speeches given by Todai University President Hamada amongst others however, were anything but.

Outside the Budokan, before the ceremony. Photo by author.

Outside the Budokan, before the ceremony. Photo by author.

In summary, the message was that “Todai is in danger.” More specifically, the dangers of not being diverse.

The Problems

The stated fear, and subsequently “weakness”, was that Todai is becoming an increasingly homogenous place, with a lack of diversity in gender, nationality, experiences and backgrounds. Subsequently, that it would become a cloistered institute with a very narrow range of views. President Hamada and other speakers stated the following:

  • A wide gender gap:  The male to female ratio of the undergraduate cohort is near 8 to 2
  • Low international student numbers: Out of a cohort of more than 3200 April-entry students in 2013, the number of international students was 40, or less than 2%
  • Highly limited international experience: The quoted percentage of Todai students on study abroad programs at the time of the speech was near 0.5%
  • A clear demographic slant: Disproportionate slant towards students from the Kantō (Greater Tokyo) area and from upper-middle class backgrounds

Current Efforts

President Hamada also added that Todai is currently looking for ways to solve the challenges ahead of it. The PEAK/GPEAK programs are attempts to internationalize Todai in recognition that having a degree course only in Japanese limits the number of foreign students willing and able to study in Todai.

Todai is also looking towards extending outreach to schools beyond the Kantō region to attract students from outside greater Tokyo.  Furthermore, it is also looking to revise the Semester system, reform the transfer of credits from overseas institutions etc. to allow for students to be able to go abroad more easily.

Wider Social Problems

That being said, many of the problems above are reflections of wider Japanese society with many other universities facing the same challenges.

The gender gap – which President Hamada noted was due to an unequal number of applicants and not a difference in pass rate – is somewhat a reflection of Japanese society’s unequal expectations regarding female education. As of 2011, the OECD reported that while a majority of males in Japan attend a 4 year course in a college, a majority of females choose to go for vocational training of a two year college course. Furthermore, in a college such as Todai where many students have to take a gap year to retake their examinations (rōnin), many female Todai students spoken to commented that there is a stigma towards female rōnin. This is also suggested by nationwide statistics in 2011 in which the number of females applying to universities with a gap of a year or more since their high-school graduation was a third of the number of males. These factors discourage female high school students from reapplying to Todai if they fail the first time, or aiming for a higher-tier university given the unequal stress paid towards female education. This may explain the differences in the number of applicants.

Similarly, Japan’s stagnating economy has also made it harder for families outside the greater Tokyo area to support a child living in Tokyo. Prep schools and tutoring which are largely available only to the more affluent classes also means that it is much harder for someone from a lower income group to get the extra help for the entrance examinations. This accounts for the demographic slant in Todai’s student population.

“Tough Tōdai Students”?

Ending off his speech, President Hamada also mentioned his hope for Tōdai to foster “Tough Tōdai Students” able to face the present world. He appealed to students to take gap years to explore or go overseas.

However, given the scale of the issues faced within the university such as budgetary constraints, as well as those from wider society, whether Tōdai will be able to successfully diversify itself remains to be seen.

Austin is a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. 

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