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By Austin Zeng

Anyone living in Japan can tell you that the word “internationalization”, or “kokusai-ka” in Japanese, is a popular catchphrase now.  The whole of Japan is currently swept up in a wave called “Go Global”. But as a foreign student in Japan, I can’t help but wonder – for a term that has gained such traction, no one has actually defined what “internationalization” means.

Image by Stephan Kühn.

Image by Stephan Kühn.

Basically, employers are hoping to employ more foreign employees and are demanding a good TOEFL score for Japanese job-seekers. Schools are trying to increase the number of foreign students with Todai’s PEAK being one of the programs with such an aim. Rakuten, one of the largest Japanese shopping portal sites, has even made their company operating language English to both praise and derision.

At first glance these are credible attempts at increasing the international input in Japan but the inside story is more mixed. Does my presence in Todai make it a global institution? Does a good TOEFL score make someone a global person? Does making its employees use their non-native (albeit “global”) language make Rakuten a global enterprise?

Let’s start at the background first. The current wave of “internationalization” started a few years ago when many Japanese companies started facing fierce competition from neighboring South Korea and China. Former electronics industry leaders such as Sharp and Panasonic are currently facing heavy losses. In addition, the Wall Street Journal has reported that the best selling phone in Japan is the iPhone, outclassing the Japanese phones which used to be considered extremely technology advanced.

Japan as a country has realized (belatedly) that a long reliance on a large domestic market, the homogeneity in the workforce and poor language skills have been reasons for stagnation and poor competitiveness. It is because of this that many Japanese firms are increasing their attempts at hiring non-Japanese employees.

Similarly, universities have come under pressure to develop “global leaders” and “internationally capable manpower”. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has also unveiled its Global 30 program, where students can do a full degree course in English at thirteen listed universities in Japan.

The problem is that these efforts in themselves do not guarantee “internationalization” and within Japan a range of successes and failures at “internationalization” exists. There are companies which eschew the typical suit and tie and where hierarchy is not so strict – these are environments which foreigners are generally able to thrive in. But at the same time there are companies where unspoken social rules dictate absolute obedience to your superiors.

The same thing applies to schools. There are schools where student life is very integrated between foreign students and Japanese students but there are also schools where international students are isolated and tend to clump together.

The situation at the University of Tokyo is slightly mixed. Individual differences exist but international students studying in Japanese tend to be integrated into mainstream student life. However, international students studying in English largely tend to socialize with each other to a degree – though this is perhaps inevitable given language barriers and how such students tend to share many common classes. However, as students studying in Japanese are also able to take English courses, most of these have some Japanese-course students participating in them. In addition, there are multiple international interaction student circles such as TGIF, Chabashira, KIC etc. Thus, there are links between the main student body and English language students, and students who wish to socialize beyond their coursemates have avenues to do so.

It seems to me that Japanese attempts to “internationalize” by bringing in more foreigners, enforcing standards of English etc. are simply fulfilling the prerequisites of internationalization – and not necessarily internationalization itself. Because yes, without foreigners, there can be no foreign input. And without a degree of English, global communication is often difficult. But there are deeper problems such as homogeneity which need to be addressed too. To me at least, how global Japan will become will largely rest on efforts to tackle the deeper problems and not just those on the surface.

Austin is a 1st-year student at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo. 

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2 thoughts on “Does My Presence make Todai International?

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts – And Doubts – About Japan’s Internationalization

  2. If Japan’s “internationalization” is driven by the need to empower its economy, they cannot achieve it simply by learning a foreign language (particularly, English). Acquisition of other language(s) certainly allows the Japanese to communicate with non-Japanese speakers, but the true internationalization happens when the person also understands cultural and social differences that non-Japanese bring.
    I’m a Japanese living in the United States. I moved here about 20 years ago. What allows me to truly communicate with Americans is achieved through my ability to speak English but also my level of understanding of Americans and what’s considered a social norm. An example may be in an elevator – if I’m in the US, I’ll strike a casual conversation with others in the elevator, though I’d never do this if I was in Japan. Knowing this type of cultural/social behavior allows one to succeed in society as well as in business. I don’t see how a business person can be successful in foreign market unless s/he understands what is socially/culturally acceptable, popular, or in demand.
    In this regard, having foreign students at Todai does serve a method (though limited) for Japanese students to experience something outside of their cultural norm. I have to emphasize the word “limited” here, because interaction with foreign students alone will not make a Japanese person expert at foreign culture, but it’s a start. Interaction with foreign students may drive some Japanese students wanting to get more exposure to other culture(s), creating passage to more “internationalization”.

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