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Kiyoshi Kurokawa

Anti-Status Quo

An outspoken academic issues a wake-up

call to Japanese educators.

By Lucille Craft

For 30 years, the gravelly voice of educator Kiyoshi Kurokawa has been grating on Japan’s establishment. His most recent broadside landed during a parliamentary probe into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. Besides the familiar culprits of government-industry collusion, lax regulation, and gross corporate mismanagement, Kurokawa fingered his own society. “Our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; and our insularity,” he ticked off. “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’”

It was a familiar cri de coeur for the former Tokyo University medical professor and president of Japan’s Science Council—one he’s been leveling for years at Japanese higher education. In 1983, he returned from a distinguished teaching career in the United States to find Japanese universities had stagnated. Since then, Kurokawa has been the status quo’s worst foe. “Students are bright, but not forced to study hard,” he says, calling the typical Japanese college experience a “four-year moratorium” from education. At many of Japan’s 700 colleges and universities, Kurokawa contends, “the teacher is not using his brain and the student is just taking notes. Both are not thinking!”

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology apparently agrees. Statistics it released this summer show that while roughly two thirds of American freshmen spend at least 11 hours a week on homework, most Japanese study five hours or less. The slacker existence of Japanese undergraduates is so widely acknowledged and even accepted that 10 percent of Japanese freshmen surveyed confessed to not studying at all. The findings were consistent across all majors, even disciplines like engineering and science. A ministry document entitled “Why Don’t Japanese Students Study as Hard as Students in the West?” portrays Japanese universities as isolated, rigid, and closed, where performance by both students and their professors seems almost incidental to the larger purpose of awarding diplomas in exchange for tuition.

Sensitive to the power of the sound bite, Kurokawa famously urged schools to take a page from the world of sumo, Japan’s supersize wrestling, which has been forced by scandal and a waning pool of Japanese recruits to globalize its talent search. Mandating quotas of foreign students at Japanese universities, Kurokawa has long argued, would breathe new life into Japanese universities. (At 3.4 percent, Japan’s proportion of international students is growing, but it remains far below the OECD average of 8 percent and America’s 16.6 percent.) “Japanese science and technology is strong,” he says, but of his country’s 10 Nobel science laureates this century, “three of them were [working] in the United States, so our return on investment has been less than effective.”

Humiliated by Japan’s sliding rank among the world’s universities, Japan’s education ministry is in the midst of a campaign to upgrade and internationalize a core group of 13 institutions, an initiative spurred by critics like Kurokawa. And a graduate-level research institute has opened on Okinawa.

But change has been painfully slow, and Corporate Japan is complicit. Recruiters often ignore a student’s GPA in favor of sports or other extracurricular activities to gauge whether the job candidate is a “team player.” Academics further suffer from the custom of job hunting during junior year, which has effectively turned a four-year education into three. A generation after passage of equal opportunity laws, Japanese women still suffer discrimination in hiring.

At 76, Kurokawa says he’s resigned to the glacial pace of change. The iconoclastic academic is focused now on promoting international student exchange programs, although study abroad programs are a tough sell to Japanese students in an era of job insecurity and global economic weakness. “Parents and kids are scared,” he acknowledges. But only by getting more Japanese to study overseas can Japan foster the innovation needed to rescue electronics and other foundering industries. “If you go up the same ladder at the same university with the same peers, you get no stimulation,” he notes. “That is the weakness of Japanese companies and universities.”

Kurokawa believes that educating Japanese to be more global and competitive, to think independently instead of bowing to hierarchy, represents Japan’s best chance to produce new sources of growth – and its best defense against the next Fukushima.


Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.



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