By Lucille Craft
JAPAN IS WORKING TO IMPROVE THE
QUALITY OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION, WHICH HAS SLIPPED IN RECENT
YEARS SO THAT GRADS ARE NO LONGER GUARANTEED JOBS.
TOKYO—Japan's ivory towers are being shaken to
their foundations by plunging budgets, dwindling enrollments,
and soul-searching about the value of what's taught
in college classrooms. At the epicenter of this education
earthquake rumbling through the world's second-largest
economy are the nation's nearly 300 public and private
Once the pride of a country that rebuilt itself from the
ashes of World War II using its technological prowess, Japanese
engineering schools are now forced to justify their very existence.
The problem, professors say, is that Japan's engineering
colleges have never evolved from their post-World War II role
as mass training bases for the soldiers of an emerging industrial
"When Japan was in its development phase, it needed
lots of engineers," says Hiroshi Fukusaki, executive
director of the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering
Education, which is only five years old. "We don't
need so many engineers anymore," he adds. "What
we need now is quality, not quantity."
With Japanese engineering schools churning out a whopping
110,000 undergraduate degrees a year, Japan trains four times
as many engineers as it did back in the 1960s, when the Japanese
economy was clocking growth of over 10 percent a year. And
despite having a population half that of the United States,
Japan manages to produce one and a half times as many engineers.
In the past decade, however, GDP growth has barely risen
above 1 percent annually, prompting calls on evening news
shows and chat boards to shutter excess universities. With
the birthrate sliding, colleges are chasing a shrinking pool
of bodies to fill lecture seats. Almost one third of all Japanese
private universities failed to fill their freshmen classes
in fiscal 2003, according to Japan Times.
In the fierce battle to woo students, many schools have been
forced to lower the bar to entry. There's no solid evidence
a degree is worth less than it used to be, concedes Itsuo
Ohnaka, formerly chairperson of the department of adaptive
machine systems in the engineering department of the elite
Osaka University, and now with Osaka Sangyo University. But
he and other engineering professors are certain their suspicions
are well founded. "The quality of university graduates
is slipping," he insists.
The fault, professors maintain, lies only partly with them.
Throughout the halls of academe there is universal distress
about a new "disease" running rampant through
the student body: terminal ennui. "Every professor complains
students are running out of motivation," says Shuichi
Fukuda, dean of engineering, school of intelligent systems,
at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Technology. "The
biggest difference between Japanese and U.S. students is [ours]
lack ambition and vitality."
The country's 89 public universities have historically
dominated the field of engineering and science, largely because
the hefty cost of funding such programs has been beyond reach
for all but a handful of private schools. And it is here,
at public universities, where some of the most dramatic reforms
are unfolding. On April 1, 2004, public universities were
spun off from under the wing of the Education, Culture, Sports,
Science, and Technology Ministry and are now independent nonprofit
institutions with private-sector-style management. Over the
next few years, the nearly 123,000 professors and support
staff of all public universities will cease being civil servants
and become regular employees, subject to performance-based
pay if the schools choose. The taxpayer-funded subsidy that
covers two thirds of every public university's operating
expenses is no longer assured. Schools must now submit six-year
plans and pass regular evaluations in order to secure funds.
Japan Times calls the streamlining movement "the most
significant change to Japan's higher education system
in more than a century."
Accreditation chief Fukusaki agrees. "Until now, all
public universities were alike, with the same philosophy,"
he says. "Now they have to develop their own goals and
With total education outlays being slashed by 1 percent annually,
some schools will see the measures as draconian. Fukuda reckons
Japan needs a scant one third of the public institutions it
runs now, or about 30. Fukuda isn't sweating, though.
He is, in fact, breathing a sigh of relief. The privatization
of higher education promises to take professors off the leash
of bureaucratic control and niggling "silly rules"
that, in the best traditions of authoritarian states, control
minute aspects of their existence, from the square meters
allotted to their research lab, to where and when they can
travel abroad, to the number of pencils they are permitted
to order. Now, instead of wasting time filing applications
in triplicate for every paper clip, scholars are allowed to
apply for funding in lump sums.
Top Schools Aren't Tops
The new rough-and-tumble for funds and students is starting
to wreak havoc with the old hierarchy of engineering universities
here. A survey of engineering schools released in Februrary
2004 by the leading business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun was
notable for whom it didn't mention. The engineering
Ivy League—including the University of Tokyo, Kyoto
University, Kyushu University, and Hokkaido University—didn't
make the top 10. They were displaced by upstart private schools
strong in research, patent applications, and industry ties.
Only two prestigious public universities appeared in the top
10: Osaka University ranked first overall and Tohoku University
Osaka University has been one of the leading centers for
adoption of American-style, project-based learning (PBL) programs.
For Itsuo Ohnaka, PBL programs he observed at Stanford evoke
pleasant memories of his own undergraduate experience, during
which he helped design pollution reduction systems for a professor
in his spare time. "It wasn't part of the curriculum.
It was just the professor's hobby," he recalls.
"But it really motivated me."
In the late 1990s, Ohnaka helped set up teams of graduate
students assigned to work on real-world prototypes with professional
engineers at outside firms. At first the university sought
help from blue-chip companies like Matsushita and Sumitomo.
They later found it easier and more advantageous to set up
relationships with small-to-medium-sized companies such as
Shimano, a leading maker of bicycle components, and Aprica,
which builds pricey baby strollers. About 40 percent of the
PBL inventions have gained patents. "It's been
very successful," Ohnaka says. PBL costs universities
relatively little, and any and all results generated flow
to the corporations involved.
Being an elite school can actually be a drawback in the brave
new world of engineering programs. Unlike the calcified decision-making
and complacent management structures that plague so many prestigious
Japanese schools, no-name colleges find it easier to muster
the requisite sense of crisis needed to shape up. Tokyo's
Kogakuin University was a private engineering school until
the late '90s, when it began to gain plaudits for innovations
such as a global engineering department headed by expatriate
Okitsugu Furuya. A graduate both of the University of Tokyo
and Caltech who had spent nearly two decades in Pasadena,
Calif., designing torpedoes for Honeywell, Furuya wasted no
time reforming Kogakuin's vague and outdated curriculum.
"At traditional public universities and private universities,
the [resistance] is too big to change," Furuya says.
"Many young professors would like to change, but as
they get older, they find the system comfortable."
Furuya was lured back to Japan in part from a sense of patriotic
duty and a clear vision of what needed fixing in his homeland.
"Japanese people are not trained to come up with new
ideas," he complains. "It was OK when the U.S.
was generous enough to give away its technology, but now they
have become very cautious. And in the near future Japanese
society will be paying huge royalties to the U.S."
Furuya tightened requirements and objectives and launched
a PBL-style program called Engineering Clinic Program that
gets students into the lab unusually early, in their junior
year. The program has yielded some outstanding coups, such
as a blood transfusion pump. A pharmaceutical company had
been baffled by the problem of intravenously administering
drugs. Conventional IV drips for nutrition and water were
not precise enough for drugs that must be delivered by the
drop over a prolonged period of time. A Kogakuin student-team
design proved so successful the company's market share
in the product jumped from No. 5 to No. 2. Other projects
have ranged from fuel cells to silicon sensors to devices
for tire repair. One student's side-mirror latching
device so wowed Toyota that the firm ended up patenting the
Forced to make presentations before classmates, faculty,
and their supervisors in the private sector, Kogakuin students
become seasoned public speakers by the time they start the
job hunt in their senior year. Their peers at other Japanese
engineering schools are usually stumbling around for a thesis
topic. "Many of our students go on to top companies,"
Furuya says, proudly.
Indeed, the driving force for engineering educational reform
is as strong from the supply side—a Japanese government
desperate to cut fiscal red ink—as from the private
sector on the receiving end, which says it's fed up
with graduates from universities with dumbed-down standards.
Until recently, matriculating to a university at 18 was a
ticket to the vie en rose, or at least a job for life. But
with Japan's so-called lifetime employment system in
tatters, a spot at Tokyo University no longer serves as a
passport to security. "Nowadays, it's hard to
find a job, regardless of where you went to school,"
says Shigeki Sugano, a roboticist at the private Waseda University.
"For example, until two years ago, the carmakers took
all the students we recommended. Last year, Nissan said it
would take only quality graduates. Students are slowly starting
to get the message."
Much of the ferment in Japanese engineering education seems
inspired by events at MIT or Stanford. Sugano insists the
reforms are not "a slavish imitation of the U.S. but
recognition that, in lots of ways, Japanese engineering education
is deficient." Japan, he insists, still beats the United
States when it comes to "mono-tsukuri"—the
kind of detailed, careful craftsmanship that goes into, for
example, a Mazda rotary engine. He frets that as IT and CAD-CAM
gains in importance, mono-tsukuri and contact with actual
machinery will get short shrift.
Sugano, at one of Japan's most revered universities,
say he's frustrated at the slow pace of reform. The
40-something cohort of professors to which he belongs "are
acutely aware of the need for reform. If we had strong elder
professors with leadership qualities, things would change
It's still the early days of change at Japanese engineering
schools, where the flowers of reform—like the country's
famed cherry trees in spring—are only starting to bud.
"Japan can't live without engineering,"
Sugano says. "So when the sense of crisis really sinks
in, that's when things will really change."
Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.