Japan is already at the cutting-edge in terms of research and education, as evidenced by the abundance of Nobel Prize winners to come out of the country in recent years. However, the country is now faced with unprecedented demographic and technological changes that are causing it to adjust its strategy to ensure that Japan remains competitive in the long-term. Yoshimasa Hayashi, the country’s minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, explains how the country is embracing a more international approach and preparing its future generation for tomorrow’s society
Prior to taking up this role, you served as minister of defense, minister of agriculture, and minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. Compared to your previous portfolios, how important is education to this administration?
The way time passes in education, compared to the way it does in economic policies, fiscal policies, defense, and even agriculture, is really different. When you talk about economics, it’s a span of about two or three years, and it’s cyclical. When you talk about monetary policy, it is just a one-day thing, where you look at policies that will be effective for the market today. In a sense, those are very short-term policies. In agriculture, it is a slightly longer timeframe, but still, every year, you plant crops and harvest them.
In education, science and technology, it is not like that. If you change an educational policy, the results don’t show up the next year – it’s more long-term. It’s like a forest. If you plant the tree, you can harvest that tree after maybe 50 or 60 years. Therefore, you have to foresee what the situation is going to be in the future. For example, on average it takes children 16 years from the time they start primary school and reach the college level to enter the society. So, we have to foresee what society will look like 16 years from now.
Looking back 16 years ago, there was no such social media and no internet culture as we have today. Much has changed, but I believe that the change we’ve seen in the past 16 years is smaller than that which we will witness in the coming 16 years, with AI, robots, and the Internet of Things. Therefore, we have to give children the skills to both survive that changing society and for them to lead that change. That’s why education is an extremely important investment for society for the longer term. The timeframe is the key to education.
What strategies is the government implementing to enhance the global competitiveness of Japanese universities?
We are trying to increase the number of courses in Japanese universities where students can learn in English, so they don’t need to learn kanji in order to study here. We are looking at partnership agreements with overseas universities, especially in the United States, to provide shorter programs of around six months. The reason for this short length is that for many students, without knowing what Japan has to offer, may find it difficult to consider starting a two-year master’s program from the beginning. A shorter program can be a nice stepping-stone for us to start partnership agreements with investors overseas, and this will enhance the numbers of those students from the United States and other English-speaking countries in Japan.
What does Japan offer that makes it an attractive destination for foreign students?
I think the content is very important, in terms of very high-quality education, research and a productive curriculum. For overseas students, Japan also has the advantage of being safe. You don’t have to worry about walking on the street at night. Another attractive aspect is that a student who comes to Japan can travel around the country and visit places like Kyoto, which has a rich history, as well as all the natural attractions like volcanoes and lakes. Japanese industrial companies are already hiring those foreign students graduating from Japanese universities. I think that’s one of the reasons that more and more students, not only from Asia but also from the United States and other English-speaking countries, find it attractive to study in Japan.
How important is it to create an environment of cultural diversity in education?
It is very nice to see students from English-speaking countries coming into Japanese universities. We already have Asian students from China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, but generally, those students feel that the culture is close to theirs, as we are all Asian. With a greater number of students from English-speaking countries, and even from Latin America, the universities will be exposed to greater diversity. If we were to score the diversity in the higher education sector, I would do it in this way: if there are only Japanese students, the score would be 10. With the addition of Chinese and Korean students, that score goes up to 30. If they are joined by students from Southeast Asia, that score goes up to about 50, but then the addition of students from English-speaking countries is like a quantum leap in the diversity score, taking it up to something like 90, 100.
It’s wonderful to see students from all regions of the world learning in the same courses on the same campus. I believe that this will further enhance communication skills among students. It is not only a case of having to speak English, but contact with other people gives you an understanding of different cultural backgrounds. More foreign students in Japanese universities would greatly help Japanese students themselves to be more globalized and enhance the community. I think that’s good for both sides. The more, the better.
In terms of innovation and knowledge transfer, what strengths does Japan have to offer to the international education community, and what opportunities exist for partnerships?
We have to learn more about the excellence of universities in the United States in particular. We are now trying to reform further Japanese universities and adjust to the society of change, or society 5.0. Japanese society is changing. Before, people would work at the same company throughout their career. Today, it is becoming more like the United States or other OECD countries in that people are changing jobs or reskilling midway through their career. We already have several partnership agreements that have been made between Japanese universities and United States’ universities. Inter-university exchanges are common, and we don’t need to push universities to do so from the government – they are engaging in partnerships independently and those partnerships are constantly increasing. When we think about the reform of Japanese universities, we need to focus on our strengths. We have so many Nobel laureates in Japan, so we have good aspects that have to be kept, but at the same time, we have to adjust to societal change. In that regard, I think learning from universities in the United States and also Europe could be greatly helpful.
How would you assess the education sector’s progress in preparing students to participate in the labor market of the future and society 5.0?
I feel strongly about the need to adjust to the coming society 5.0. When I took on this role, I set up a committee and brought in specialists in areas such as AI. What we came up with was that, in the coming society 5.0, the key will be to focus on human strengths. In the era of Google, people no longer need to memorize every single fact. Many tasks today are best carried out by computers. Therefore, the emphasis must be on human skills such as communication, leadership and endurance, as well as curiosity, comprehension and reading skills. To foster those strengths in the coming generation, we came up with some ideas. One of those ideas is to look at easing the grade system. Currently, in Japanese schools, every year students move up to the next grade, and we take it for granted that every single task at the fifth grade, for example, is completed when a child moves up to the sixth grade. It is a matter of fact that this is not happening. Some of the children may have not perfectly understood what they have been taught. As a result, if those children go up to the sixth grade, they may have gaps in their understanding of the Japanese language, for example. What we aim to do is to implement a system where these students can take fifth-grade courses, not for a full year, but maybe for some months in order to catch up.
It is around the fifth, sixth and seventh grades that basic skills are supposed to be perfected. These are the foundation for everything. If you don’t have the reading skills and if you learn history or physics or chemistry, you won’t understand the definitions and you will be lost. That is why we are trying to prepare a pilot project where we can give flexibility to that grade-by-grade education. In addition, in higher education there is a clear demarcation between social and human sciences, and natural sciences. It still happens that when you go to a university entrance examination, senior high school classes are divided into those who go to the social and human sciences, and those who go to the natural sciences. Therefore, for that first group of students, there is almost no opportunity for them to learn higher mathematics and data science.
We believe that this division must be somehow broken down so that even if you are going to study social science or human science, you should take math, data science and programming. We want this to be a basic requirement for everybody. Conversely, if you are studying physics as a major, you should also study some philosophy or law, so that when you are faced with a philosophical or ethical issue in your future career, such as the concept of designer babies, you can combine your scientific knowledge with ethics. For society 5.0, this division between social and human sciences and natural sciences must be removed. These are our main aims, and we are working towards them step by step.