Japan can turn around, Agawa says

Despite widespread anxiety about Japan’s future, Naoyuki Agawa expressed cautious optimism that through concerted globalization of Japanese universities, the nation will not “sink.”

Agawa, vice president of international affairs at Keio University in Japan, spoke to around 25 students and faculty gathered in Luce Hall on Wednesday. He discussed the current state of Japanese higher education as well as potential shifts in Japanese identity following 3.11, the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.

“There is an urgency and a sense of crisis that we need to do something about Japanese universities,” Agawa said. “Japan has to go global in order to remain competitive.”

According to Agawa, Japanese universities are widely perceived as “behind” other institutions, including Yale, in pursuing global initiatives.

Considering the high cost of studying outside their home country, Japanese students are less likely to study abroad than they were a decade ago, Agawa said. He noted that the number of Japanese students in the United States peaked at 47,000 in 1997-’98. Now, Agawa said, that number has witnessed a “precipitous drop” to just 21,000.

A few weeks ago, the president of the University of Tokyo announced that the school was shifting the start of its academic calendar from April to September, Agawa said. The move was aimed to bring the school’s academic schedule in line with those of other colleges and universities worldwide, which would make it easier for students to study abroad. Agawa said Keio University is considering a similar move.

“We need to send more students abroad so our young students will be competitive in the global market,” Agawa said. “I think it’s always good to go out of your comfort zone.”

Agawa said today’s Japan has valid reasons to be pessimistic, citing the country’s weak economy, mounting debt and a troubling population forecast. Over the next 50 years, he said, Japan’s population is expected to drop from 128 million to 86 million. Japan is also reluctant on the whole to open its doors to foreigners, he added, and the country’s critics claim that Japanese youth are becoming introverted and uninspired.

“There is great anxiety that Japan is sinking,” Agawa said. “I guess that people do see that there are a lot of challenges ahead of us.”

When the hurricane and tsunami struck last March, Agawa said he and many others looked upon the natural disaster as a “wake-up call.” The disaster united Japan, Agawa said, and helped the nation’s people impress the world with their cohesiveness and discipline.

Though Agawa said it is too early to tell how 3.11 will impact Japan in the long-term, he said he feels confident that the experience marks a “turning point” for the country, and particularly for its youth.

“Last night, I had dinner with my son, and the first thing he said was, ‘Dad, is Japan alright?’ ” Agawa said. “I said, ‘I think so.’ ”

Nozomi Nakajima ’13, a native of Japan, said she agreed with Agawa that not many Japanese students study abroad, adding that she thought changing the academic calendar would be a “huge step” toward addressing that problem.

Koichiro Kawaguchi GRD ’13, who is also from Japan, said Agawa’s lecture hit close to home.

“Not many Japanese students are studying in institutions in the United States,” said Kawaguchi, who studied under Agawa as an undergraduate in Japan. “I think focusing on international education is a key to Japan’s future.”

In fall 2008, Yale College had four international students from Japan, as compared to 28 from South Korea and 43 from China, according to a 2008-’09 annual University report.

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