By Lucille Craft
HANDS-ON LEARNING HAS TAKEN JAPANESE
ENGINEERING EDUCATION BY STORM, GAINING A CACHET SOMEWHERE
BETWEEN MOTHERHOOD AND SUSHI.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.