This article first appeared in a truncated version at on the Komaba Times Website, the blog for the Journalistic Writing class at the University of Tokyo

Anyone living in Japan can tell you that the words internationalization (国際化›) or globalization (グロバール化) are popular catchphrases now. Schools, companies and wider society are all caught up in this great wave called “Go Global”.

As a foreign student in Japan though, I can’t help but wonder – for a term that has gained such traction, no one has actually defined what  “internationalization” means. At first glance, it may seem like there are many credible attempts at increasing the international input in Japan but the inside story is far more mixed.

In essence, does my presence make my university make it a global institution? Does a good TOEFL score make someone a more global person? Do companies with many foreign employees automatically become global enterprises?

The Background


Right Outside the United Nations University in Tokyo

Let’s start at the background first. The current wave of  internationalization started a few years ago and has been first and foremost driven by economic reasons.

While Japanese car makers have still been doing relatively well, electronics makers have been doing very poorly. Sharp, Sony, Panasonic and Fujitsu have all been facing losses in recent years. The problem is even clearer when contrasted to the successes of Apple, Google and other silicon valley enterprises in the US and Samsung in Korea. After all, while Japanese phones used to be considered as the best – now the the best selling phone in Japan is the iPhone.

Other economic reasons include increasing moves towards free trade (like for example the Trans-Pacific Partnership) which Japan is negotiating about. In addition, a shrinking population has increased the need to increase overseas business for many Japanese firms.

Outside economics, Prime Minister Abe has also stated that it is his aim to put at least 10 Japanese universities in the global top 100 rankings by the end of the decade. The lack of international faculty and a sizable international student body hampers this. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are also another reason for the sense of urgency in internationalization.

So What’s Being Done?


Mikitani Hiroshi, CEO of Rakuten

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.

Some parts of the business world have also been expanding their operations overseas – and I don’t mean just shifting manufacturing to where it is cheaper. Rakuten’s buying of Viber, Softbank acquiring Sprint Corporation and LIXIL acquiring multiple overseas companies are all examples for a recent trend where Japanese companies purchase foreign ones.

Rakuten in particular deserves special attention because they have made their company language English. As Japan Times reported, even internal meetings are to be held in English. Both praise and criticism have been directed at it though – Honda’s (yes the car maker’s) president once called the plan “stupid”.

Universities have also come under pressure to develop  global leaders and “internationally capable manpower”. Many have for example, made taking the TOEFL (an English proficiency tests) compulsory for all enrolled students – even to the extent that my American friend studying in Nagoya had to take it.

Some universities have also implemented degree programs in English to increase the international study body. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has also been supporting these programs with their Global 30 program.

Similarly, there have been increasing attempts to increase the number of Japanese students going abroad for their studies – which is at the moment far fewer than the number that South Korea and China send. Including for example, this video produced by AKB48 in conjunction with the MEXT to encourage people to go overseas to study. (My school makes an appearance too!)

In addition, MEXT also announced that they would be revamping the much criticized English education system in Japan – because if you can’t communicate with the world, you can’t possibly internationalize. Proposed measures include reforming the English syllabus, lowering the age at which students start having English classes and even implementing the TOEFL as a component of university entrance examinations.

But Is It Enough?


Photo by JD

But first my own definition. As I said before, while everybody is talking about “globalization” and “internationalization”, no one has actually defined it properly. By “internationalization” here I mean gaining the ability to operate – and compete – on an international stage. It also means being actively engaged in the world, and accepting of the wider world as opposed to looking inwards. Regardless of the actual definition of what internationalization is etc., it’s often more clear what it is not.

Back to the question. The efforts above are pointing in the correct direction and I don’t mean to say otherwise. Increasing the numbers of foreigners in Japanese companies and schools is certainly important because without foreigners there can be no foreign input.

However, a lot more needs to be done and there are deeper issues that have to be resolved. Consider Japan’s immigration system for example. Japan remains one of the hardest countries around to gain permanent citizenship for without marriage to a Japanese person. One acquaintance of mine has been living in Japan for more than 10 years and did his professorship in a Japanese university. He was denied permanent residency last year.

Many companies may also be open to hiring foreigners but utilizing them after they enter the company is an entirely different question. After all, the one thing that I keep hearing from other foreigners working in Japan is that they are treated “like Japanese who just speak another language”.

This may sound good but it is not. For one, this means that many Japanese companies expect compliance to Japanese hierarchy and unquestioning top-down company culture even towards their foreign employees. And if you can’t question and voice your opinions, what internationalization can there be?

What About Schools Then?


Photo by Taiyo FUJII

Cherry Blossoms at the International Christian University in Tokyo

Schools (I am more familiar with this subject) present an entirely different set of problems. For one, there are some schools which offer “English courses” – taught by Japanese professors with an inadequate command of English. Being able to read and write papers in English does not automatically qualify someone to teach in it.

Furthermore, foreign student integration is an issue. Now, this does not apply to all schools – some are quite successful in integrating the foreign and local student bodies. Furthermore, if the student is studying in Japanese this isn’t that big a problem.

However, it is not uncommon for foreign students to be living in entirely separate dormitories from Japanese students. The classes that foreign students take may be entirely closed to Japanese students. Alternatively, even if they are open to enrollment by Japanese students, the fact that they are in English puts off most Japanese students such that only a small, select bunch participate in them.

What this leads to is foreign students living in a virtually separate world from their Japanese classmates. This does not just tend to socially isolate foreign students and alienate them, but this also adds zilch to the “internationalization” of the education of Japanese students.

There Is A Lot More To Be Done


Photo by i nao

Narita Airport

This topic is far more complex than can be summarized in a single article and there are many factors mixed and scrambled around here. For example, there are problems in the systems (eg. the permanent residency system and school class systems), the numbers of foreigners (even Tokyo has only 3% foreign population) and deeper cultural problems (eg. Japanese company culture).

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. This does not necessarily mean 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.

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  • Dickson Yeo

    Dude, how did you get your PhD funding?


    “If you want to do it right, look to (Northern) Europe.” Haha…But seriously Scandinavians speak amazingly fluent English.

  • Kristen

    According to what I know from Psych class, bilinguals tend to be at a slight disadvantage for both languages in terms of depth, so insofar as culture = language they might suffer a little bit. But there’s ample opportunity in out 80~ years of life to catch up, and they’ll have two languages!

    Bilinguals also have benefits over monolinguals in terms of control over their thinking and attention (because they have to suppress one language while speaking the other) amongst other executive functions, especially if they started learning the second language at an early age :)

    Furthermore, language is always evolving and taking influences from other languages. I’m not sure I would value traditional culture over modern culture, and the modern culture of a country could be deeply tied to the many influential languages spoken in it, such as Québécois French!

    Finally, in the spirit of tolerance and understanding, I think it’s great to be exposed to more cultures than just your own. I’m a native English speaker who learned Japanese as well as Mandarin and French and I think they’ve all really enriched my life. To understand the nuances, you can’t help but learn about a country’s history and practices, and I find that in learning about how things are different elsewhere, you also appreciate/understand your own culture a lot more.

    And if kids decide that they don’t like particular aspects of their own culture as a result, well, they have the opportunity to try and make positive changes where they are. Whereas sheltering them from all knowledge of other cultures will not allow them that freedom of choice. I think it’s much more beautiful to know other choices exist and still choose the prescribed path of your own culture, than to never know and walk that path as a matter of course.

  • JapanSupreme

    The big problem with internationalization in Japan is that, while the elites in government and business pay lip service to learning English and joining the world community, they are really only interested in doing so in order to dominate the world and prove once and for all how superior Japanese people are at doing everything.

    This is subtly but consistently present in Japanese TV – you’ll notice how rarely they bring on, say, a white sushi chef, or a black taiko master – yet, there is a constant parade of Japanese people on TV who are referred to as masters or experts in foreign things, such as French or Italian cooking. The Japanese are loath to admit that a foreigner can master any of their traditional crafts – and will pop a serious gasket oohing and aahing over someone who has – yet they have no problem whatsoever with a Japanese person mastering a foreign art. Even if they do go overseas to present a non-Japanese person doing a Japanese art, it is always, always, always presented as that person deeply respecting Japan – yet, Italian chefs on Japanese TV never, ever spend time going on and on about how beautiful and wonderful Italian culture is.

    More than that, actors and actresses who have major Hollywood debuts (Rinko Kikuchi, or Ashida Mana-chan, for example, or Hiroyuki Sanada) get absolutely zero play on TV. Yet any time a Japanese person wins a “best” award for a movie, it is on the news 24/7. Any Japanese person who dominates a sport overseas is constantly paraded on TV; heck, even the Japanese guy who won “America’s Got Talent” was paraded on TV constantly. The tiniest, pettiest little thing – anything at all – if Japan somehow defeats foreigners at it, it’s huge f-ing news.

    Bottom line: the Japanese are uninterested in seeing what foreigners think of Japan – unless it is unqualified, unrelenting praise. And the Japanese media is uninterested in any achievements of Japanese people that can’t be qualitatively presented as “Japan beats everyone.”

    Until Japan gets over their little inferiority complex, spending all their time trying to prove just how superior and mighty they are as a race, they will never truly globalize or join the international community. All the discussion of it is just window dressing to hide the Japan-supremacist agenda.

    ALL that said – let me be clear: this is referring to the elite who control the government and media. Abe is a right-wing Japan supremacist, as is Momii, the man running NHK – and Hyakuta, another man running the company. They are all racist, Japan supremacists – but Japanese people in general aren’t necessarily on the same page. Still, with the massive power of propaganda people like Hyakuta and Abe wield, their ideas seep into every aspect of Japan, and it’s not uncommon to hear children talk of wanting to dominate the world with their Japanese superiority.

  • Bryan

    Go for it…time waits for no man Chris

  • zglar

    That’s what happen in Indonesia too! We already learn English from the first grade but without any additional learning like courses and self learning, most of us can’t speak English well!

  • demonstrable

    Thanks for writing such an interesting post. I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion but I definitely found this article and the subsequent comments to be very interesting.

  • JLR

    Perhaps if the host country was more welcoming the immigrants would not be in their own communities. Instead of demanding they assimilate and complain about them not being fluent in the native language perhaps a softer approach of helping them understand norms and helping by providing free language classes would be better.

    Japan promoting culture and heritage won’t get them far these days (Cool Japan?). If Japan wants to attract the best and brightest they need to do better than relying on culture and heritage.

  • JLR

    So assimilate or leave are the only options? Why do they have to go home if they can’t integrate themselves and act more Japanese?

    I lived in Japan for 4 years (and enjoyed it) but I feel far more welcomed in my new country (Thailand) within the first year than I did in the 4 years in Japan. Again this is just my experience.

  • JLR

    1.) India has a caste system (and corruption) so of course India will never be a world leader.

    2.) Japanese culture is no longer as attractive as it used to be. The whole Fukushima mess is not helping either. When Japan has to make it easier for Thais to get tourists visas (to get more tourists) it is not a good sign.

    3.) Japan has a graying society and eventually with less workers something is gong to have to give.

  • JLR

    I think one concern that was missed in the article was the treatment of women in Japan. Unless Japan starts closing the gender gap, and have more women in positions of power, they are not going to attract female workers from other countries.

    The percentage of white males in Japan far outnumbers the percentage of females in Japan and this will not change anytime soon. I can’t see how alienating an entire gender will help Japan advance in the decades to come.

  • JapanSupreme

    Let me clarify my second point:

    The bottom line is that Japanese people are only interested in INTERACTING with foreigners (not “seeing what foreigners think) if it somehow demonstrates the Japanese superiority. If it’s sports, they only care if Japan wins. If it’s movies, they only care if Japanese actors are showered with praise and awards.

    If Japanese people are simply talking to foreigners (seeing what we think), they only want to do so if that foreigner gives unqualified praise of Japan. Again, this is talking about the political and media (esp. TV) elites. Common people love to study and learn foreign things – Japanese culture is DROWNING in foreign influence (Japan is not and never has been “homogenous” in any way shape or form, and the mere idea is deeply racist). In fact, most common people will open up some pretty harsh criticism of Japan if you ask them honestly.

    But the elite? The people on TV? The public, and “official” narrative? They only want to interact with you if they can somehow use that interaction to prove their superiority as Japanese. That public narrative, the “official” story is what’s holding Japan back. The deep racism at the upper echelons of the society, and the monopolistic stranglehold those elites have on the media and culture is what’s holding Japan back.

  • 川チャリ




    読んだらあなたの意見が本当に残念です。私達の世がそのうち結束する必要があるのです。日本も。あなたそう書かれたでしょう?「In other words there are always
    losers and winners in these situations, and the aliens, the newcomers tend to
    be the former not the latter. Also, don’t we forget that people with the same
    cultural background in a foreign/strange environment tend to build their own
    closed neighbourhoods where they can live comfortably and they feel safe」


  • japanesehamantashen

    While I don’t entirely agree with Fogetti, he really does have a point that immigrants tend to live with other immigrants from the same place. I live in the D.C. region, one of the most welcoming places in the U.S. for immigrants. In fact, even my parents are immigrants from Israel, and many of my friends are also from immigrant families. Yet, somehow a huge percentage of Israelis that immigrate to this region settle in one zip code in Rockville (20852), attend the same public schools (e.g. Farmland Elementary), and even live in and around the same apartment building (I live several miles away, and I’m not really a part of that community). There are similar communities for Russians, Chinese, Koreans, etc. in this area as well. Immigrants from the same region clump together regardless of how welcoming the country is, because it’s simply just that much easier when you have people around you who share your language and culture.

  • kooriyuki

    “Being able to read and write papers in English does not automatically qualify someone to teach in it.”<— I find myself nodding at this, because I know of Japanese university students (from medicine school no less) who tutor English at the juku, but can't speak a word of it. Heck, writing in English is a chore to them too. MEXT should recognise that learning how to speak in English is of a higher priority than comprehension/writing.

  • MisunderstoodShark

    Cultural ‘clumping’ is not a failure of multiculturalism. People move into these areas because they often know someone there or have friends there or relatives living there, little markets with familiar (kosher or halal) foods are there, or for special dietary reasons, or they want their child to also know their home language so they send them to the preschool there, or so they get connections for a job despite language barriers, etc. I would also like to remind Fogetti that no EU country without borders has been destroyed. The UK hasn’t withered to Shariah law nor has the language changed to Polish nor has the whole of Bulgaria and Romania flooded into the UK since the restrictions lifted January 1st. I would also like to add that Fogetti used Chomsky’s quote out of context. Chomsky was referring to Japan’s political role on the international realm, urging Japan to be more independent and not be America’s puppet so to speak.

  • Flora

    1) You lost credence with me the moment you held up the EU as multicultural. It’s not. Just because you can go from “German-Speaking White Country” to “French-Speaking White Country” freely does not make you a multicultural vista of widespread acceptance. That’s why Europe has taken ACTUAL multiculturalism so badly – you’ve convinced yourselves over the years that you’re not homogenous because France and Italy are different countries with not-all-that-similar traditions, while at the same time restricting (if not eliminating) as much contact with non-White countries as possible.

    Now that those tides are turning and you have to struggle to blend with cultures that truly are different, there’s no end to European pundits crying “multiculturalism has failed/isn’t the answer”. It’s essentially the same as screaming “I changed my mind! I take it back!” the moment you go from the sandbox to the battlefield.

    The reason for those enclaves isn’t just because of a sense of safety and a way to bring “the old country” with you – it’s also because many new immigrants feel it’s the only place where practicing their traditions isn’t taboo in some way. They’re not constantly told to assimilate. On that note….

    2) Any country that tries to globalize but refuses to accept any changes on their part & instead orders everyone else to turn into them, is going to fail. Miserably. Globalization is just another word for integration – over time, both parties take on the color of the other & change into something else completely. That’s what makes multiculturalism such a slow & painful process – most people’s initial reaction once they realize this is fear, and they lash out at what they feel like is destroying all that they know. It’s an exercise in futility (it’s inevitably either integration or death, for all cultures) but they still try. If you manage to accept this, it eases the process.

    America & Canada had to learn this the hard way over the past century; if they want to, Japan can learn from our mistakes, but it will mean humbling themselves to accept that the traditional Japanese methods aren’t perfect and will eventually hurt them more than anything else. To be completely honest, I’m not sure they can. If they don’t panic & attempt to shut down their borders to non-Asians completely, then they’ll end up repeating all our (recent) racial mistakes. Watts Riots 2.0, basically.