You may have noticed stories in the press recently about the government of Japan asking national universities to shut down their humanities faculties. Such stories have appeared in the Times Higher Ed, Time, and Bloomberg. Most of these stories have been accompanied by commentary about how shortsighted this is: don’t the Japanese know that life is complex, and that we need humanities for synthesis, etc.? A lot of these stories are also tinged with a hint of early-1990s “these uncultured Asians only think about business and money” Japanophobia.
The problem is, the story is only partly accurate. A lot of background is needed to understand what’s going on here.
Some facts about higher education in Japan: First, “national universities” – that is, big public research universities – only account for about 20% of student enrolment in Japan; the remainder of students are enrolled in private universities. Second, the number of 18 year-olds has fallen from 2 million in 1990 to about 1.2 million; meanwhile the annual intake of students has stayed relatively constant at around 600,000. The problem is that the 18 year-old cohort is set to continue shrinking, and few think that a system with 86 national universities, about as many regional/municipal universities, and 600-odd private universities can make it through this demographic shift. Re-structuring is the name of the game these days.
Now, while national universities are theoretically autonomous, they still take “advice” from the Ministry of Education, which is sometimes transmitted via circulars that explains the Ministry’s perspective on national academic priorities. The current brouhaha centres around one such circular, distributed this past June, which contained the following statement: “With regard to the programs of teacher training, and humanities and social sciences in particular, it is encouraged to stipulate a reform plan, taking into consideration the reduction of 18-year-old population, human resource demands, expected level of education and research, the roles of national universities and etc., and dismantle and restructure organisations based on social needs”.
There’s some clunky language in there, and since I don’t speak Japanese I’m unclear as to how much of this is lost in translation. A lot of this story comes down to the meaning of the phrase “dismantle and restructure organizations”. Nearly all the coverage assumes that “organization” means “faculty”. But if it means “program” (which is effectively what this commentary from a former education bureaucrat suggests) then basically the government is saying “students numbers are down, maybe you should do some program reviews”. If this is the case, the whole thing is a lot less controversial.
There’s another aspect here, too. The original English language stories in the Japan Times and the Times Higher Education relied heavily on a Yomiuri Shinbun story – which no longer appears to be on the internet – in which 26 of the 60 national universities with humanities programs said they were closing programs, or curtailing enrolment, without ever specifying the proportions. Twenty-six universities where enrolment in certain humanities programs is being curtailed is a very different story from shuttering 26 humanities faculties altogether.
A final niggle is that since this circular only applied to national universities, humanities in the country’s 600-odd private institutions would have been unaffected anyway. So even in a worst case scenario sense, this is would be the fate of humanities in about 5% of the country’s universities, not the entire system.
So if the story is only partly true, why did it blow up the way it did? A couple of reasons, I think. First, obviously, is that there aren’t a lot of English-language journalists specializing in Japanese higher education, so there is considerable potential for misunderstanding and nuance-missing. Second, there’s a big market for stories about humanities programs being shut down, mainly from humanities professors themselves who seem to have an endless capacity to imagine what fresh horrors the barbarians in control of the system will do next (for an example see this from the Guardian).
The third reason, though, is that there really are some big disputes between Japanese academics and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Academics are generally on the left, and have opposed the LDP’s recent legislation allowing the Japanese military to participate in overseas combat missions. They also aren’t too happy about new government legislation that strengthens central administrations at the expense of faculty councils. In a sense, the humanities row is a proxy fight: there are some in the LDP who really would like to stick it to the academy this way, and there are some in the academy who have reasons to make the government look buffoonish.
But for western readers, there’s a different lesson here: be not overly credulous in dealing with stories from countries whose languages you don’t understand. Especially if they play to your existing prejudices.