Japan's Hope: If You Build It, They Will Come
By MIKI TANIKAWA
Published: February 25, 2013
TOKYO — The colorful education minister of Japan, Makiko Tanaka, riled Japanese academia last autumn when she denied accreditation to three new schools on the grounds that “there are too many universities in Japan.”
She later took it back when her decision was met with fierce resistance. (And then she lost her job when the governing party lost a parliamentary election in December.)
But her comment left a lingering question: Japan’s youth population is declining, so why do new universities and departments keep popping up?
The number of 18-year-olds in Japan peaked in 1992 at 2.05 million, dwindling to about 1.2 million by 2012. During that time, the number of four-year universities grew to 783 from 523.
Even greater energy has been poured into thinking up new departments and majors. According to the Ministry of Education, there were 207 new departments, majors and graduate programs in 2011, and an additional 236 in 2012. In 2006, a whopping 482 new departments and majors were introduced.
The boom has been happening for quite some time. Since the late 1990s, more than 2,000 new academic departments and faculties have been created in Japan, despite an aging population. Although dozens of departments are scrapped each year, that still leaves hundreds added to the pile annually.
Meanwhile, existing schools and departments are suffering. According to the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation of Private Schools in Japan, a Ministry of Education affiliate agency, 46 percent of private universities have empty spaces. The group said that nearly 40 percent of private universities were operating in the red.
Japan has been making an effort to attract more overseas students, but the relatively small number of foreigners is not enough to offset the growing number of university spaces.
To attract students, schools have taken pains to give their freshly minted departments more modern-sounding names. Tokyo universities like Hosei, Kokushikan and Seijo have created schools like the Faculty of Lifelong Learning and Career Studies, 21st-Century Asian Studies and Faculty of Social Innovation.
Provincial universities are doing the same. Utsunomiya Kyowa University in Tochigi Prefecture now has a program for City Life Studies. Konan University in Hyogo Prefecture opened a School of Creative Management, known in English as the Hirao School of Management.
Akita University in Akita Prefecture is opening Japan’s first Faculty of International Natural Resources next year. Kyoto Seika University has been expanding its Faculty of Manga and recently added a Ph.D. in manga to its roster of degree programs.
Professors and administrators affiliated with the new, nontraditional departments say that they emphasize forward-looking, interdisciplinary programs that fit the 21st century. But some experts say they are there mostly to increase enrollment.
“There is a competition to win students, and universities need to show they are doing something by tinkering with their product lineup,” said Hiroshi Kobayashi, editor of College Management magazine, published by Recruit.
As new universities and departments gushed forth in the past decade, complaints have arisen among high school counselors who advise college-bound students.
“The No. 1 complaint among high school counselors, according to our survey, is that they cannot figure out what those new university departments and majors are all about,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “If a student expressed interest in a certain future career, the counselor can say, ‘Oh, in that case, you should apply to this program or that.’ But it is hard to know what the English communication department does, as opposed to the English language department.”The term “communication” has become a popular term, Mr. Kobayashi said, along with other fashionable words like “international,” “information,” “environment,” “health” and “life.
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