PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - SEPTEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1
Remade in Japan - By Lucille Craft

By Lucille Craft


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 engineering schools.

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 economy.

"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 objectives."

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 ranked third.

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 idea.

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 fast."

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.


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