PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - JANUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 5
Crafting a New Curriculum - Hands-on learning has taken Japanese engineering education by storm, gaining a cachet somewhere between motherhood and sushi. - Story & Photographs By Lucille Craft

By Lucille Craft


TOKYO—On the otherwise neat and placid campus of Monotsukuri University north of this city, a rogue builder appears to have gotten loose. In the main quad, a half-finished pedestrian walkway pauses between the first and second floors without connecting them. Color-clashing walls of sundry design gild the path to the cafeteria. Beside the bullet-train tracks tracing the college's southwest perimeter is what appears to be an archaeological dig—small chunks of split granite guarding the mound of fresh dirt. Beyond, near the artificial lake, overturned handmade kayaks lie scattered across the grass like discarded pistachio shells. A row of compact shanties, no two alike, stands like some unsung monument to the denizens of a L'il Abner comic strip. Incongruously, the frame of a jerry-built Shinto shrine sits before the patch of Dogpatch.

The roof of a half-built Shinto shrine. Abandoning the German-style chalet design used by others, Monotsukuri students elected to try their hand at building a religious shrine. The school gives its students a degree of creative freedom unheard of in traditional universities. Much as it resembles a frat house prank, the off-kilter landscape actually represents the au courant "Big Thing" in Japanese engineering education, and in fact, in Japanese education at large. Across the country, from the weathered halls of national government to the lowliest town council, officials are jostling to cultivate the centuries-old art of Japanese craftsmanship, known as "monotsukuri," (moh-noh-zu-KUH-ree) which literally means the making of things. Monotsukuri refers to precision hand-craftmanship, and proponents argue it holds the key for reviving engineering curricula and in turn, securing Japan's place in the technological firmament.

It is difficult to overstate the widespread zeal for teaching monotsukuri, a movement that seems to inspire equal parts praise and scorn. To its advocates inside and outside engineering academia, monotsukuri offers an irresistible curative for what ails Japanese engineering education: Rather than mimicking American project-based learning models wholesale, it purports to reinvigorate universities by reclaiming the Japanese tradition of hands-on wizardry and innovation.

To scandalized engineering instructors in the mainstream, however, the "monotsukuri mantra" is a misguided and overhyped fad, destined for the international junk heap of academia along with new math, open classrooms, and whole-language reading. "Monotsukuri is not engineering," declares Shuichi Fukuda, dean of engineering at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Technology. "It's about creating technicians."

The controversial and lavishly equipped Monotsukuri University makes sure students like the ones in this class on carved wall décor are never far from their Exacto knives or welding machines.Nonetheless, the monotsukuri movement has so mesmerized officialdom that not only are existing engineering schools taking up the mantle but a school completely devoted to it—Monotsukuri University—was launched with prime ministerial imprimatur in the spring of 2001. Searching for a worthy English title for their new college, the school's founders briefly considered "meister," but decided the metier was far more comprehensive than the term used for accreditating masons, pastry makers, and other skilled workers in Germany. They finally settled on business thinker Peter Drucker's vision of post-industrial knowledge workers: The school's official English name is "Institute of Technologists." A brochure for the school says it seeks to turn out students who can "exploit both intellectual and physical labor, who understand not just theory but can pair this knowledge with high-level technical acumen."

There are only two departments at the institute—manufacturing technologists and building technologists—which ambitiously attempt to cover fields of study normally considered too dense for merger. Electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, and electronic engineering are covered by the manufacturing technologist degree; with environmental design, civil engineering, and building design covered by the building technologist heading. A whopping 70 percent of class time is spent in the lab, which students begin practically from Day 1. Adults are encouraged to enter the school as continuing education students—another departure from the usual practice of colleges catering exclusively to new high school graduates. Instead of the usual cursory watch-and-learn internships, the institute's internships at local companies last as long as nine months. These freshmen start out making tables and discerning fault lines in rocks; sophomores build bridges, and the following year, go on to design and build their own houses. Seniors—the college's first class will graduate next spring—focus on research.

"It will be 10 or 20 years before we figure out what we're doing," says Masanori Yoshikawa, a mechanical engineer and alumnus of the engineering establishment, Tokyo Kogyo University, and now dean of Monotsukuri Daigaku. "Conventional engineering schools are too theory-heavy. Real monotsukuri is about using machines." Yoshikawa proudly escorted a visitor around what is billed as the most lavishly appointed engineering lab in the country, past state-of-the-art Amada laser-cutting machines, a Nissei injection molding machine, a Fanuc Robodrill. "We can make literally anything here," he boasted. In fact, students are required to fashion just about every component themselves from scratch, down to their own steel bolts.

Yoshikawa wandered over and picked up a hand-welded steel cube about the size of a jack-in-the-box. In a typical class exercise, the box had been injected with air until it ruptured. "Simulation is based on experience," he said. "Why and when is steel weak? You need to try different shapes, or accidents happen. We rely on computer simulation too much." Yoshikawa spoke to Prism at a time when two Mitsubishi Motors executives were being tried on charges of negligence in the case of a pedestrian killed by a wheel that dislodged itself from a truck. For years the vehiclemaker had been plagued by recalls involving faulty clutches, doors, and other key components.

The scandal is one litmus test in the monotsukuri debate: Anti-monotsukuri professors say computer-simulated crash testing remains preferable to real crash-tests because it is cheaper and the results are easier to analyze; flawed results simply meant the software needed tweaking. The monotsukuri faction, meanwhile, says the Mitsubishi debacle demonstrates how manufacturing has strayed dangerously far from hands-on, practical testing. Computer simulation "isn't useful in testing new models," Yoshikawa argues. "That's why," he adds, grinning, "I never buy new-model cars."

But perhaps the most ardent proponent of monotsukuri is a spotlight-hogging engineering school tucked away in western Japan. Kanazawa Institute of Technology (KIT), located in an area better known for its medieval castle and plum trees, has elbowed its way to No. 5 in national university popularity surveys conducted this year by the Asahi Shimbun, a leading daily.

KIT won the honor largely on the strength of its crown jewel—the Factory for Dreams and Ideas, set up in July 1993. The "factory" is actually two warehouse-like buildings on campus—kind of like Home Depots generously outfitted with wood- and metal-working machinery and supplies, as well as materials for hobbyists and for making presentations. The philosophy behind the Factory was simple, according to Masafumi Masuda, author of What Can Universities Do for Students, an account of KIT's reform efforts. School is in session for only a total of 150 days, with breaks and vacations lasting the remaining 215 days. "This degree of freedom often ends up robbing students of the enthusiasm for self-discovery," Masuda wrote, observing that many students frittered away their downtime flipping burgers, goofing off, or just spacing out in their dorms.

Open early mornings, late nights, and weekends, the Factory offers no college credit but instead allows students to drop in and simply noodle around with a wide array of machine tools and devices while being supervised by a trained student supervisor and faculty members. Students are encouraged to stop by for chores as prosaic as fixing punctured bike tires and building furniture for their dorms. But the real value of the Factory is as a springboard for designing and executing grander schemes, such as robots, solar cars, boats, self-propelled airplanes, racing cars, a wheelchair designed for handicapped marathoners, and "the world's first seaborne windmill." The university has netted a slew of awards for student-designed contraptions.

Teams of students are encouraged to submit proposals for projects. If approved, they receive generous funding and then are left alone to plan, budget, and execute on their own, with faculty supervision kept to a minimum. While the Factory has become a marquee recruiting tool for the university, school administrators concede, however, that once on campus, students aren't rushing to pull all-nighters hammering a solar car together: Although nearly all of the school's 6,851 students filter in to print up posters for an event or to fix a tire, only about 300 end up joining a full-fledged project each year.

But the school credits the Factory and other innovations such as a full-time tutoring center for achieving the university's impressive 99 percent job-placement rate. "Conventional [Japanese] universities don't exist for the sake of students," argues KIT's president, Kenichi Ishikawa, voicing the college's heavily American-influenced, market-driven approach to teaching. Japanese universities are "primarily for the benefit of faculty and staff." The motivating ideas behind KIT is that "universities are not just educational institutions—they're education service institutions, and students are the customers. They want value for their money." Ishikawa sees his brief as infusing the entire university with the student-driven creative energy of the Factory.


Monotsukuri has achieved a kind of folkloric status in a country in sore need of an ego boost. The monotsukuri movement gained traction in the 1990s, which saw the start of a recession that would hamstring the Japanese economy for over 10 years. As Japanese manufacturing moved offshore to China and other cheaper locations, leaving "hollowed out" factory towns in their wake, a profound sense of uneasiness fell over the land.

"Up until about 1990, it was ‘learn from Japan,' but now it's the reverse—why ‘are we getting beat by the U.S.?'" explains Masayuki Nakao, professor of the Institute of Engineering Innovation at the elite University of Tokyo and an avowed skeptic of the monotsukuri movement. "In reality, we weren't getting beat, except in CAD," which was unsurprising because Japan—unlike the United States—has no military-industrial complex from which to spin off envelope-pushing commercial applications. Japan has since closed the gap in manufacturing efficiency, Nakao says, but not before policymakers, short on remedies, decided to plow funding into spreading the gospel of monotsukuri. "As policy, it's nonsense," he bristles. But as monotsukuri gains a cachet somewhere between motherhood and sushi, professors even at the elite engineering schools have decided it's easier to simply ride the tide and label their funding requests with the magic word. "It's an easy way to get money, so everyone's using it," he says bluntly.

In their search for a new destiny, many Japanese are looking backward, to Japan's long and proud history of precision handiwork and gadget-building. This trait manifested itself even during the country's long period of seclusion, which started in 1600 and ended 250 years later when U.S. gunboats forced Japan open to trade and modernization. Two hundred years before Toyota began churning out Lexuses, for instance, the same area of central Japan was manufacturing Noh mask-faced puppets fitted with ingenious self-propelling mechanisms, probably adapted from European clock-making technology brought to Japan by Jesuit missionaries.

It is part and parcel of the national mythology that Japan's ability to quickly rebuild after World War II was credited to its knack for borrowing and refining technology from abroad. The apogee of skilled, hands-on craftsmanship is typified, in the monotsukuri canon, by devices such as Mazda's rotary engine, fashioned by grizzled technicians who probably couldn't write a word of a textbook but who could divine whether a piece of welding was microns off kilter without the benefit of any measuring device. The monotsukuri myth, however, does not account for the fact that other countries like Taiwan and South Korea have also cultivated a manufacturing base following the Japanese model.

Nakao, who worked for three years developing hardware in Silicon Valley, regards the monotsukuri mania with unmitigated disdain. "Now that we have lasers and thermal cameras, we don't need meisters anymore," he says. He grudgingly concedes Japanese universities need to adopt a more project-based learning (PBL) style, though in practice, heavy-handed Japanese teaching habits can end up draining many PBL sessions of their value.

While foes deride monotsukuri education as, at best, American project-based learning by a Japanese name, and at worst, little more than vocational training, the effort is clearly an attempt to address some of Japanese engineering education's worst sins: Uninspired lectures, too much note-taking, too little self-driven creativity, and graduates whose skills don't suit the needs of the workplace. If it's heresy to throw out the old templates for engineering education in order to breathe new life into campuses, say the monotsukuri forces, then so be it.

Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.


Lending a Hand - By Margaret Loftus
Crafting a New Curriculum - By Lucille Craft
Measure for Measure - By Alvin P. Sanoff
horizontal line
Tech View - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
THE SCIENCE OF FUN: Entertainment engineering programs are sprouting up. - By Linda L. Creighton
TEACHING: The Voice of Experience
FACULTY'S FINEST: Marcus D. Ashford
ON CAMPUS: A River Runs Through It
LAST WORD: 2020: It's Sooner Than You Think - By Stephen W. Director

3rd Nano Training Bootcamp - July 12 - 15, 2005 - Washington D.C.


ASEE logo