Japan’s Ministry of Education Downsizing the Liberal Arts?

Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura
Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura

Since issuing a directive in early June that was widely interpreted as calling for the abolition of humanities and social sciences departments at Japan’s 86 national universities, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Technology (MEXT) has been trying to clarify that it has no such intention to do so. Media reports indicate that 26 of these universities report that they are complying with this directive to some extent, including elimination of courses and cessation of recruitment to some designated HSS departments. Various large academic organizations in Japan, including the Science Council of Japan representing some 2,000 scholars, issued statements condemning the ministry’s apparent attack on HSS while Keidanren, the influential business federation, also criticized the attack on HSS, arguing that this is exactly the opposite of what employers want, stressing that the liberal arts is essential to impart the critical thinking and cross-cultural skills sets employees need to operate in a globalized economy.

Jeffrey Kingston
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. This article is based on a more detailed article he wrote for the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, where he is a contributing editor.

The storm of domestic criticism went global following an article in the Japan Times (8/23/2015) by Takamitsu Sawa, the president of Shiga University, one of the institutions subject to the ministry’s directive. He wrote that MEXT instructed national universities to, “either abolish their undergraduate departments and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift their curricula to fields with greater utilitarian values.” Sawa strongly condemned the initiative, drawing parallels with wartime Japan, and made a robust case for retaining HSS as essential to nurture future leaders, creativity and informed citizens necessary for democracy. In his view, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes of placing 10 Japanese universities in the world’s top 100 have a better chance of being realized if it supports, rather than downgrades, HSS. In a previous column (Sept. 16, 2013) Sawa quoted Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., who said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”


MEXT insists that the wording of its directive has been misinterpreted, with Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura issuing a statement in late July denying any intention to pull the plug on HSS. In September, Kan Suzuki, his special adviser on higher education, wrote a lengthy denial in Diamond, a business magazine, acknowledging that the wording was ambiguous and that the policy was poorly articulated and did not involve sufficient consultation with various stakeholders. Suzuki says the intention is to get universities to focus on what they do best and better prepare students for the job market as a survival strategy to boost flagging enrollments. Journalists tell me that their contacts at MEXT have also vigorously asserted that the policy has been misrepresented and even at a recent US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Education Interchange, or CULCON, meeting in Washington a MEXT official made similar remarks.

So is this just damage control? And why are so many Japanese academics and commentators prepared to believe the worst about MEXT’s intentions? Could all these intelligent Japanese have misread the directive?

In using the terms ‘abolish’ and ‘department’ in the same sentence, there may well be good reasons why people are skeptical about government denials. In the Sankei, a conservative newspaper usually very supportive of PM Abe’s ideological agenda, an op-ed by Masahiro Ishii, a prominent commentator on education  (9/29/2015), lambasted the proposed reforms and pointed out how it is disingenuous for MEXT to assert it has been misunderstood. The directive draws on an important August 2014 MEXT advisory counsel report promoting a more vocational and practical university curriculum; PM Abe gave a keynote speech at the OECD in May 2015 expressing very clearly his support for this policy.

Ishii pointedly rejects the utilitarian reasoning behind the MEXT initiative, arguing that it fundamentally misunderstands the role of the university in society and the synergies of HSS and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In his view, the ‘neglect of the liberal arts” is a recipe for the ‘mental devastation of Japanese society” and jeopardizes the nation’s future. So if there is misunderstanding, it is fairly widespread among people involved with higher education, and especially acute among those who distrust Abe.

Abe’s Agenda Wrapped in Reform

A national university professor currently serving as an administrator at one of the institutions that is not cutting back HSS attributes the attack on HSS to “idiots in the LDP who dislike the social sciences and humanities for ideological reasons.” The professor added, “I do not know why they did this in such a clumsy way to make it sound like a bunch of philistines attacking the social sciences and humanities. Talk about bad PR.” Indeed, the image of MEXT and higher education reform in Japan has taken a significant hit.

The powerful backlash from Japanese scholars reflects deep distrust of PM Abe’s overall reactionary agenda that many believe threatens democracy. Abe is often portrayed as a fascist ogre in op-eds, petitions and placards at mass demonstrations because his laws on state secrets undermine the right to know while the new security legislation is widely criticized as unconstitutional.

Moreover, his track record on education features mandating patriotic education, whitewashing textbooks, imposing government views on how Japan’s shared history with Asia is portrayed, and downplaying the comfort women issue.

Flag of Japan
The Hinomaru flag of Japan, while widely viewed as ‘the flag of Japan,’ was not made the official post-WWII national flag until a controversial 1999 law.

In addition, in June 2015 Shimomura, Abe’s education minister,  called on national universities to fly the national flag and sing the national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies, a practice that fell out of favor in post-World War II Japan due to the association with wartime nationalism. Since the anthem and flag were legally recognized in 1999, the government has promoted both in elementary and secondary school ceremonies, a practice that many teachers objected to and challenged in the courts, arguing that it violated their constitutional rights. Many object to the lyrics of the anthem that venerate the emperor. Teachers that did not abide by the directive faced reprisals. Thus “flag and anthem” is a polarizing political issue dividing conservatives and liberals; the former justify this as an effort to promote civic nationalism like other nations while the latter see this as yet another way that conservatives seek to downplay the wartime past and nurture nationalism and support for militarism.

The directive does not apply to universities, but the ‘request’ suggests that the government seeks to pressure them into submission. In April 2015 PM Abe stated in the Diet that displaying the Hinomaru flag and singing the anthem should be “carried out correctly” at universities supported by public funds. At 2015 graduation ceremonies, out of 86 national universities, 74 displayed the flag while the anthem was sung at 14. Shimomura insists that he will leave it up to each university to decide what to do, but academics see this as part of a larger, dangerous trend undermining academic freedom and democracy, and voice concern that his suggestion amounts to intimidation as universities worry there may be repercussions when budgets are allocated.

Impetus for Reform

The number of 18-year-olds in Japan has declined from 2 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2010 and the government has slashed subsidies for national universities, creating powerful forces for universities to reform as a survival strategy. Developing appealing programs that will attract more applicants is essential for many of these universities, especially those outside of main urban centers.

But nobody I contacted and nothing I read suggests that sweeping reforms are not essential to improve Japan’s mediocre university system. Japanese commentators often disparage universities as ‘leisure land,” a four-year hiatus from the stress of preparing for college exams and the pressure that await as corporate warriors. In that sense, universities are reduced to a signaling role to potential employers. This situation is the kindling of reforms. Alas, few observers think that the new reforms will lead to a significant improvement of the abysmal educational experience currently on offer at too many Japanese universities, but that doesn’t mean its not worth trying.

Impact and response

The winds of change have been gathering momentum since 2004 when all national universities were spun off by the government and transformed into independent administrative entities, facing annual 1 percent budget cuts, and stiff competition for government grants based on performance criteria and new program initiatives. The 2004 reforms also introduced annual reporting requirements, granted universities greater discretion over use of government funds, and gave presidents more leeway to set priorities. The government is eager to transform university governance that entails shifting power from faculty councils to presidents, giving them authority over new hiring, appointing department heads and other program initiatives that faculty have been resisting. This development is where the reforms might have a significant long-term impact in terms of emphasis and direction.

National universities educate about 17 percent of Japanese college students, and 48 percent of students at national universities enroll in HSS programs. Thus, the directive potentially affects about 8 percent of all undergraduates in Japan. However, many of the prominent, large national universities in urban areas will probably not comply with the MEXT directive, so the real impact is likely to be far less, and those who want an education program rich in HSS have many private university options.

Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University and former president of Yokohama City University, thinks that the MEXT directive might serve a useful purpose, pointing out that many universities are in dire need of sweeping reforms to improve education and better prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. Due to “… rapid advances in technology, communications and science created a greater and greater need for specialization, and as financial problems cut down on life-time employment and corporate education, budget adjustments had to be made.”  Interestingly, he regularly attends gatherings of university presidents and said that at an August meeting, the subject of MEXT targeting HSS never even came up.

In his view, “If the attempt is to eliminate the arts and humanities at national universities, then that is obviously a horrible policy. I say if because it is not clear to me that is the real intent here. When Japanese talk about global human resource development that means creating graduates who are able to communicate, understand and deal comfortably with others unlike them. In order to do that they have to blend what are traditional elements of the liberal arts into their curricula. This is a recognized component of MEXT policy, and they have spent one helluva lot of money doing just that. So, I think it is too simple to say that they are trying to kill the humanities and arts as there is a tremendous amount of evidence to demonstrate that they are trying to instill what is essentially an international, liberal arts based educational philosophy and pedagogy in Japanese universities.”  Yet, he also believes there is a political dimension: “I think they are trying to forcefully reform HSS because these are the faculty members most resistant to reform in the university over the past 10 years.”

Philip Seaton, a professor of history at Hokkaido University’s International Student Center and convenor of the Modern Japanese Studies Program (a bilingual bachelor’s degree in which students are required to take courses on Japanese history, culture, society and political economy in both English and Japanese to graduate), is well informed about the MEXT reforms and is involved in crafting his university’s response. Like Stronach, he is unconvinced by caricatures of the reforms as a barbaric assault on the humanities and academic freedom, pointing out that some universities are responding to the trends in post-2004 educational reforms by establishing new faculties and programs that meet MEXT criteria, serve students and seek to boost student enrolments and revenues. These responses preceded the June directive, but it does seem that MEXT is nudging universities to proceed with overdue reforms that represent survival strategies in a climate of declining student numbers and educational budgets.

Seaton argues that, “There is a big difference between universities at which the humanities/social sciences (HSS) play a key role in other strategic goals and universities at which the HSS are relatively isolated. For example, when HSS are central to an in-bound degree program or international student exchange program (which contributes to internationalization and/or rankings strategies), they are not in danger of being cut. But, if the departments are providing education mostly to Japanese students and enrollment is declining, then pressures to reorganize are somewhat inevitable.”

Nonetheless, “blanket targeting of HSS is short-sighted. Even if the bigger universities retain their departments, in a country with such a rich history and culture, treating HSS as peripheral is very ‘uncultured.’” However, “On a more practical level (which the government is keen to stress), a key growth area for academic research is interdisciplinary research covering science and the humanities, such as digital art, care technologies for an aging population that take into account their lifestyle preferences, and debates over the ethics of new technology. For these and other areas, a vibrant academic sector in universities big and small researching humanities and social sciences is important.”

Thus, he asserts, universities are strategically responding to the new situation: “The challenge for HSS departments in Japan is to internationalize and make themselves more globally relevant by targeting their research at a global audience. Then they will become central to a key policy of the Japanese government, namely getting more Japanese universities into the group of the world’s top institutions according to rankings.”

Essentially universities need to make HSS relevant to an internationalization strategy or reorganize departments into interdisciplinary entities with the natural sciences to attract more students, raise tuition revenues and attract government funding. According to Seaton and Stronach, such reforms could actually strengthen HSS, attract greater numbers of students for these courses and improve educational opportunities for graduates. But for some of Japan’s numerous national universities, some operating at only 50 percent capacity, this might be the beginning of an accelerated decline if they can’t boost enrollments and revenues at a time when MEXT subsidies are declining.

The professor added, ‘I do not know why they did this in such a clumsy way to make it sound like a bunch of philistines attacking the social sciences and humanities. Talk about bad PR’

President Sawa at Shiga University, perhaps the one individual most responsible for raising the international alarm about ‘barbarians at the gates,’ recently announced how his institution is responding. Shiga University will launch a new department of data science to, “train data scientists who will not only be equipped with professional knowledge of statistics and informatics but will also be capable of communicating with businesspeople, civil servants, journalists, medical doctors and schoolteachers, and of creating new values. This university department will become the first one in Japan aimed at nurturing future-oriented talents who will be equipped with “true scholastic ability” consisting of the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression through the learning of languages, mathematics and data science in a well-balanced manner.” (Japan Times 9/18/2015) This appears to be an interdisciplinary endeavor responding to market needs that highlights a role for HSS in conjunction with data science and enables the university to reallocate rather than retrench existing faculty and staff. Shiga is famous for its Education Department, one of the MEXT targets, so the launch of a new department may enable the university to reassign some of its existing faculty, a model other universities are also pursuing.

Another academic involved in launching a new reform-driven initiative at his national university points out that MEXT emphasis on globalization opens opportunities for preserving HSS. Preferring anonymity and asking that I not go into specifics, he explained that some existing departments are being reconstituted and rebranded as a new undergraduate program from 2017 that appeals to government priorities, but requires minimal changes in faculty and curriculum. A new related interdisciplinary MA program will be launched from 2019 and, because it “contributes to rankings by internationalizing the student population, should require the hiring of a few more international staff, and will get the entire faculty looking more outwards.” This will address MEXT demands and, he argues, put needed pressure on deadwood faculty who have gotten by in contributing the obligatory article a year to the university journal.  He thinks getting these colleagues to ”up their game” will not only secure a better ranking, but improve educational opportunities, attract good new students and boost scholarly engagement.

Also requesting anonymity, another national university professor currently in an administrative role thinks that the reforms won’t have much immediate impact, largely due to pushback from faculty and students. He notes that the declining number of students will have an uneven impact as the MEXT designated Global 30 universities will continue to get sufficient funding while other universities outside large urban areas will suffer the most. He points out that the declining pool of applicants increases the temptation to lower standards to maintain enrollments and revenues.

For those worried about the quality of education at Japan’s universities, this is a troubling prospect. However, Hhe says, the MEXT directive targeting HSS is unrealistic, “I cannot imagine the Ministry closing down entire departments because where would they put all of the administrators?”


In the context of a declining population, Japan has too many universities, a target for MEXT reforms. David Campbell, an assistant professor at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine in Hokkaido, says MEXT wants to consolidate existing veterinary programs. For his university this also means that increasingly teaching of HSS programs now taught at Obihiro University will be shifted to Hokkaido University; similar initiatives are underway with other vet programs.  He says there is an ongoing, “consolidation of the national universities in each prefecture. Our vet program is in the process of merging with Hokkaido University and I would bet that by the time I retire we will be a branch campus of Hokudai. As part of the process they have started a program for the HSS courses of five of the six national universities in Hokkaido to be offered to students of the other schools through a television system. Hokudai got a huge grant to implement it and I think that the idea is that most of the HSS courses will be offered through Hokudai in the future in some combination of online or TV courses.”

The pending retirement of aging faculties will also facilitate reforms. “The age of the faculty,” Campbell notes, “will make the closing or downsizing of these programs much easier. If other small universities are like our department the average age is around 55. In five years, five members of our department will retire at one time and in the three years after that it will be one or two people a year. Everything I have heard is that they have no plan to replace most of the people retiring, but will fall back on Hokudai to offer the HSS courses.”


Some universities are responding creatively and productively to the new MEXT reform in ways that will sustain HSS, save jobs and help universities stay relevant and solvent. Its worth emphasizing that national universities only educate 17 percent of Japan’s university students and many of the stronger ones have made it clear that they will sustain strong HSS programs, but at the smaller and weaker institutions where enrollments and revenues are declining, the disincentives of not complying in some way with MEXT reforms are potentially high.

In the Abe era, under the most ideological government in post-WWII Japan, there are good reasons why Japanese liberals, intellectuals, students and pro-democracy activists are skeptical about the reforms and believe they are motivated by a reactionary political agenda. They suspect that the real targets of this reform are university departments that nurture appreciation for liberal democratic values, hence endangering democracy. Since informed and engaged citizens are essential to democracy, the implications of Abe’s higher education reforms could prove detrimental. Yet, there are grounds for optimism that pushback from universities and creative reorganization will ensure the survival of liberal arts education in Japan. The outlook is not so encouraging, however, about the improvement of higher education at Japanese universities.

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Jeff Kingston

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan and author of Asian Nationalisms Since 1945 (Wiley 2016), editor of Asian Nationalism Reconsidered (Routledge 2015) and Press Freedom in Japan (Routledge 2016). He is an Asia-Pacific Journal contributing editor.

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“Greate” “Ministry of Education Downsizing ” MEXT demands that the wording of its order has been confused, with Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura issuing an announcement in late July denying any aim to pull the fitting on HSS. In September, Kan Suzuki, his exceptional counsel on advanced education, composed an extensive foreswearing in Diamond, a business magazine, recognizing that the wording was questionable and that the approach was inadequately verbalized and did not include adequate discussion with different partners.


MEXT demands that the wording of its mandate has been misjudged, with Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura issuing an announcement in late July denying any aim to pull the fitting on HSS. In September, Kan Suzuki, his exceptional counsel on advanced education, composed a long refusal in Diamond, a business magazine, recognizing that the wording was vague and that the arrangement was inadequately explained and did not include adequate interview with different partners. Suzuki says the aim is to inspire colleges to concentrate on what they improve get ready understudies for the employment market as a survival system to help hailing… Read more »

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MEXT demands that the wording of its order has been misjudged, with Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura issuing an announcement in late July denying any goal to pull the fitting on HSS. In September, Kan Suzuki, his unique guide on advanced education, composed an extensive disavowal in Diamond, a business magazine, recognizing that the wording was questionable and that the strategy was ineffectively enunciated and did not include adequate discussion with different partners. Suzuki says the aim is to motivate colleges to concentrate on what they improve get ready understudies for the occupation market as a survival methodology to support hailing… Read more »

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