Some Thoughts About Japan's Internationalization And some doubts too

    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

    UN information center Tokyo Japan
    Right Outside the United Nations University in Tokyo
    Source: specialoperations

    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 Rakuten
    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?

    Tokyo aerial view at night
    Source: 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?

    ICU Tokyo cherry blossoms
    Cherry Blossoms at the International Christian University in Tokyo
    Source: Taiyo FUJII

    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

    narita airport
    Narita Airport
    Source: i nao

    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.