Do lazy students let down Japan’s colleges?

This week I’ve been considering the claim: “Most Japanese universities are not very stimulating or rewarding places intellectually.”

It is not a new allegation. It was made by an American writer named Robert C. Christopher in the book The Japanese Mind: The Goliath Explained, which was first published in 1983.

Low ranking

Given the enormous prestige placed on university education in Japan, it is perhaps surprising that only one Japanese University, Tokyo, is on the Global Top 50 list compiled for 2017 by Times Higher Education.

It is ranked at number 46, below universities in Munich, Stockholm and Wisconsin.

Robert Christopher wrote in 1983: “Tokyo University, known as Todai, carries the prestige of Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. all rolled into one.” I asked a friend who teaches at a rival Japanese institute about this bold claim and he said that it remains true.

“Tokyo University, known as Todai, carries the prestige of Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. all rolled into one.” Robert C.Christopher

More colleges, less places

Of course, there are other Japanese universities which are regarded as world class, including Kyoto, Keio and Waseda. Yet Japan has an astonishingly large number of higher education institutions; more than 700 in all and that number has doubled since 1983, despite a sharp decline among the population of young people.

The book The Japanese Mind claims that most students do not receive a rigorous intellectual workout at university for three principle reasons.

Firstly, a low teacher-student ratio – some classes are enormous.

Secondly, a reluctance among colleges to dismiss students for missing classes or achieving low grades.

And thirdly and most importantly “once the dreaded entrance exams are behind them, it it commonplace for Japanese youngsters to suffer a psychological let-down and slack off in their study habits.”

Final freedom

The author Robert Christopher says that Japanese undergraduates “have a keen awareness that university will be the only time in their lives that they are likely to experience genuine personal freedom.”

I put those points to my professor friend and he said that the claim still largely holds true, even though he believes that academic standards have risen in most universities in recent years.

From oversupply to shortage

In the 1980s, there was an oversupply of well-educated young people entering the job market every year. Now, we often read about a shortage of people to take up jobs in Japan, although this is not particularly true in the prestigious white-collar professions.

The Financial Times reports this week that building companies and nursing homes for the elderly desperately require more people to come and work for them.

The pressures associated with care work and construction are different to those faced by hard-pressed salaryman. Job insecurity has been a problem so therefore some employers are offering long-term contracts to new staff.

When selecting university graduates, the recruiters may also not be too worried about the college record of the candidates, provided they commit to maintain a high professional standard when they join the company.


Japan cannot defend itself, warns US colonel

Japan is unable to defend itself, according a scathing article about its military published in the Washington Post this week.

The journalist John Pomfret claims that the Self Defence Force is weak, disorganised and under-funded. He suggests this causes dismay to Japan’s principal ally, the United States.

Pomfret bases his article on an interview with Grant Newsham a colonel in the US Marine Corps, who served as a liaison officer to Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force.

Newsham complains of Japan’s “pathological dependence” on the United States for its security.

“The Japanese like to say, ‘The Americans are the spear and we’re the shield,’” Newsham is quoted as saying. “Well, in battle, the spear gets bloodied and the shield doesn’t. It’s the Americans who are expected to do the dying on Japan’s behalf.”

Fatal crash

The perils facing US personnel based in Japan were underlined when a US Navy aircraft crashed in Japan this week. Fatal accidents involving the US military increase the pressure on the Japanese government to justify its alliance.

Japan’s defence capability is also high on the agenda because of the threat from North Korea and because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to reform the constitution so that Japanese forces can fight abroad.

That is a politically divisive issue in Japan. But the Washington Post suggests the Self Defence Forces are ill-prepared for combat and that the air force, navy and ground troops can barely work together. It says “they do not even possess radios that can talk to each other.”

Colonel Newsham says the problems were apparent when the Americans helped clear up after the 2011 earthquake and could not communicate with the Japanese.

Trump agenda

The Washington Post article fits in with a wider agenda of the Trump administration, namely to reduce the dependence of US allies on its expensive military protection.

That was also a theme in an interview for NHK television this week by Mr Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon. He claims to still speak to the president “two or three times a week.”

“Prime Minister Abe and others have talked (about) Japan’s looking at redoing its Constitution, looking at getting just away from a Self-Defense Force, maybe back to become a military power again,” Bannon said. “And I think that what President Trump is saying, given its role in the Pacific, given its role as how central it is to the strategy, that it will acquire more of a military force over time.”

He also suggested a communication gap between Japan and the US, saying the two allies are “just beginning” to ensure the two militaries can work together “and that the United States is there to help its ally Japan rearm and rearm appropriately.”


Trump’s Tokyo burger sent a USA first message to Japan

When President Trump went to lunch with the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week, he rejected sushi made by the finest chefs in favour of a juicy hamburger. Fortunately, his hosts had researched what he likes to eat, so they’d already put mustard and ketchup on the table.

It was a potent symbol of how the President’s America First approach to trade affects President Trump’s approach to Asia and how Japan is attempting to satisfy his appetite.

Potential havoc

The Financial Times warned that the President’s visit to East Asia had “the potential to cause havoc” and there were some moments of noisy rhetoric.
In Vietnam, Mr Trump warned that the United States will no longer tolerate what he called “chronic trade abuses.”

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says: “You can see how Trump’s philosophy of America First guides his agenda when it comes to trade. The consistent theme is how will a trade arrangement benefit the United States.”

Yet on many points on the trip, President Trump seemed in a friendly, accommodating mood. In China, he refrained from criticising President Xi Jinping over human rights or pressing for more democracy. In Japan, he said his relationship with prime minister Abe “is really extraordinary.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Japan,” he told reporters at Kasumigaseki Country Club golf course, where the two leaders signed baseball hats bearing the words “Donald and Shinzo – Make Alliance Even Greater.”

That alliance came under pressure soon after Mr Trump came to office and pulled America out of the TPP trade agreement, much to the frustration of Mr Abe. Other nations involved in the project are now pressing ahead without US involvement.

The closest the President came to causing diplomatic havoc in Japan was when he said during a speech in Tokyo that more Japanese car manufacturers should build their cars in the US, rather than shipping them over. In fact, three-quarters of cars from Japanese manufacturers which are sold in the US are made in North America.

Praise and appreciation

The President’s speech in Tokyo was less negative about the Japanese automotive industry than some reports suggested. According to the Washington Post, the President said: “Several Japanese automobile industry firms have been doing a really good job.” He particularly praised Mazda for announcing it will invest $1.6 billion in building a new manufacturing plant, which will create as many as 4,000 new jobs.

That puts Japan in a good position to reach a favourable trade arrangement with the US. Mr Trump hopes to reach bilateral trade deals with countries around the world as these are simpler than the complex multilateral agreements, which can take decades to negotiate. Mr Trump believes that America’s position as the world’s largest market will give it an advantage at the negotiating table.

Protectionism risk

Nevertheless, the business community in the US lobbies government against disrupting trade arrangements, fearing disruption if there are disputes and retaliation. “Rather than gaining jobs through protectionism, in fact jobs could be lost,” says Eswar Prasad, Senior Professor of Trade Policy at Cornell University told the BBC.

“If the US falls out of the supply chain, manufacturers might shift production abroad, which means factories would close in America.”

Professor Presard also foresees geopolitical repercussions in East Asia.

“The international influence of the US is eroding. It is no longer regarded as credible and reliable. Other countries are stepping in to fill the void. This is leading almost every country in the world, particularly countries in the Asian region, to re-evaluate their relations with the US and perhaps move closer into the economic and political embrace of China,” says Professor Presard.

“Economic war”

Mr Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon said just before he left the White House that the US is in an “economic war” with China. China is America’s largest trading partner. Its annual trade in goods and services is worth about $663 billion. After that comes Canada, Mexico and then Japan.

However, Japan’s importance as a US trade partner is shrinking while that of other Asian countries is growing.

As Forbes points out, twenty years ago, Japan accounted for 12% of all US trade. Today is it around 5%. At the same time, the Japanese trade surplus which Mr Trump has complained about ($69-billion last year) accounts for a much smaller slice of the US deficit than in the past, while China’s imbalance is bigger.

If the trend continues, Japan can expect a further fall trade in trade with the United States but it can also expect its trade with Europe to rise. The EU is in the final stages of agreeing a free trade deal with Japan.

Bark and bite

So far, Mr Trump’s tough rhetoric on economic nationalism has led to no substantive changes in US trade policy. “Trump’s rhetoric on trade has been much worse than his bite,” says Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

That has been a relief to the Japanese government led by Shinzo Abe which fears a regressive, protectionist approach by the United States would harm Japan’s relationship with America and benefit its rival China.

Keeping friendly on his America First terms with Mr Trump is a challenge for Japan but it comes with rich potential awards. A few more hamburgers may well be served to keep the friendship in shape.

How can foreigners find work in Japan?

A record number of foreigners are working in Japan and many companies are actively recruiting globally for new staff.

Japan’s low unemployment rate has created opportunities for foreigners, although many people find the complex recruitment process baffling.

This week I gained insights into the opportunities and challenges at a conference on employment, hosted at the Japanese department of SOAS, part of the University of London.

It was focussed on university graduates but also had relevance to people looking to move jobs in the later stages of their career.

Global hire

Chikako Masuzaki, a consultant from Top Career, explained that the decline in the working age population in Japan is driving companies to hire globally.

She expects the working population in Japan to decrease by around ten million people over the next ten years and said there has been a 40% fall in the number of 18-year-olds since the year 2000.

According to the Labour Ministry, the number of foreign workers in Japan surpassed one million for the first time last year.

Strange questions

Ms Masuzuki said: “There is a big difference between recruiting practices in Japan and the rest of the world. For example, interviews may ask “What is the hardest thing you have tried to accomplish?” – a question which can seem strange to foreigners but which is designed to assess people’s potential as problem solvers.”

A recent Japanese language graduate from Oxford University, Amy Dafnis, started work this year at the Japan Association of Marine Safety.

She said: “I heard some horror stories about the application process in Japan but actually applying for this position was relatively straightforward.

“When I studied in Japan I did a lot of bowing and I tried to speak in polite Japanese (keigo). Now that I’m working in London, I’m not quite sure how much to bow and when to use honorific language. I don’t want to be overfamiliar but I don’t want to come across as too formal, either.”


Sarah Parsons from SOAS said demographic trends are creating a less homogenous and more diverse society in Japan. That idea was echoed by Ian Robinson, Corporate HR Manager at Toshiba Europe.

“We have very diverse industries so we want a diverse group of people,” he said.

He added: “At Toshiba, we want people to come in and challenge the way we do things. Japanese companies must adapt in order to globalise.”


Mr Robinson said integrity, commitment and innovation are among the attributes he most values in candidates.

He also said that few roles outside Japan require people to use the Japanese language to a high standard, although the ability to communicate with colleagues in Japanese is “nice to have”.

Traian Ivanov leads the human capital group at Deloitte, which supplies staff to Japanese clients. “We place an emphasis on diversity and we seek curious, dedicated and smart people,” he said.

He claimed that fewer Japanese young people than before wish to work overseas, so this provides further opportunities for internationally-minded foreigners.

Reviving fortunes

Mr Ivanov went on to say: “Ten years ago, around 500 out of the biggest companies in the world were Japanese. Now there’s only one global giant – Toyota. Traditionally strong companies such as Toshiba and Panasonic are in trouble and so they are seeking to revive their fortunes. A lot of companies are seeking to expand their overseas operations so they hire local people who understand the local market.”

Junko Hashimoto a senior manager at Access Appointments said: “Attitude and motivation are just as important for getting the right job as qualifications and experience.”

Language Skills

Harry Martin from another recruitment firm, Centre People, claimed that Japanese companies are more open to hiring foreigners and people who do not speak perfect Japanese, although an understanding of Japanese business culture is always appreciated.

Mr Martin said that the staff of Japanese organisations are expected to be loyal and long-serving. People who change jobs frequently are not attractive to recruiters. He also said: “If you approach your job search with rigid expectations you will limit yourself and may miss opportunities that you may not even have considered.”

The meeting at SOAS was organised in conjunction with the University of Sheffield, The National University of Singapore and Osaka University. Thank you to Sarah Parsons, Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS and Managing Director of East West Interface for extending the invitation to Japan Story.