Japanese Liberal Education: A Case Study in its National Context


by Bruce A. Kimball - 1981

Liberal education in Japan, and specifically at Japan's Tenri University, is described. The conflicts between the society's need for well-rounded educated individuals versus well- educated specialists are noted. (Source: ERIC)

At a time when the Association of American Colleges has established a new publication called The Forum for Liberal Education1 and when National Project IV: Liberal Education Varieties and Their Assessment is funded and underway,2 it may be especially interesting for two reasons to examine Japanese liberal education. First is the fact that we put it there. That is to say, liberal or general education in Japan is closely patterned on the model in the United States because the present 6-3-3-4 structure of Japanese education, with its four-year undergraduate component comprising two years in general liberal education and a two-year specialization, was instituted largely through the guidance, recommendations, and insistence of the American-dominated General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) during the postwar Occupation.3 Second is the apparently universal disapprobation of the Japanese toward liberal or general education as it now exists in the undergraduate curriculum. Indeed, “general education courses which have been greatly expanded in the years since World War II are in the worst condition and on the verge of collapse. . . . It is generally known that these courses have become purely nominal,” writes a former minister of education,4 and the Japan Cultural Society (Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai5) annotated bibliography on higher education states that “the 25-year postwar experience indicates that one of the weakest or most troublesome aspects of the new university is the curriculum of general education.“6


Taken together, these two factors make an analysis of Japanese liberal education of more than anecdotal interest to American educators. In the following, I shall briefly describe the historical setting for liberal education and then examine the program of Tenri University, where I witnessed Japanese liberal education during a nine-month visit as a Luce Scholar. Last, I shall consider the weaknesses and complaints as I came to understand them, both at Tenri and through discussions with perhaps fifty academicians in a score of higher education institutions throughout the country.


In the course of the first two years at the university, the average Japanese undergraduate completes a program of study in what is variously termed “kyõyõ-gakubu” or “kyõyõbu” or “ippan kyõyõ,” meaning “faculty of general learning” or “common learning” or “liberal cultural education” or “college of liberal arts.“7 Whatever the precise phrasing, the words “may be expressed in English either as ‘general education’ or ‘liberal education."8 These two English terms were used interchangeably by the United States  Education Mission to Japan in its foundational report to SCAP in 1946,9 and for purposes here, I will regard them as interchangeable except where my sources make a distinction in this regard.


To understand the attitude toward liberal education in Japan today, we must look back to the beginning of the nation’s “modern period,” which is usually assigned to the year 1868, when the semifeudal Tokugawa government was overthrown and the titular emperor restored to power, at least in theory. This is called the Meiji Restoration after the era name of the emperor who, in fact, had little control over an oligarchy of leaders from the governmental bureaucracy and military who sought to push the nation toward modernization. This impulse originated in part during the middle of the nineteenth century when the Tokugawa government, which had effectively closed the country to outside influence in 1637, began to permit the study of Western science, which stimulated a yearning to learn more from the West, due both to a fear of the power of Western technology and to a pure desire for new knowledge.10 After the Restoration, the Meiji government almost immediately turned its attention to education because, unlike the situation in Russia and England, the Japanese quickly accepted the idea that a modern nation needed an educated populace.11


In planning and instituting its education system, the nation exhibited the ambivalence and ambiguity that has characterized its attitude toward Western learning since 1868. On the one hand, it is probably accurate to say that the Japanese have consistently admired Western science and technology. On the other hand, this respect has alternately paralleled and conflicted with their attitude toward Western culture in ethics, philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. Of course, it is dangerous to generalize about the attitude of an entire people. For example, the discontinuity of “Japanese opinion” is shown in that a significant sector of the Meiji elite tried to confine the importation of Western thinking to technological and scientific spheres12 at the same time that enthusiasm for modernization and Westernization resulted in some schools’ teaching English but not Japanese literature and history, while even the university in Tokyo, the crown of the national education system, had no department of Japanese literature.13 However, insofar as we can generalize about the Japanese (and the oft-quoted Nakamura Hajime tells us that they are far less individualistic than most peoples),14 it is worthwhile to note this chronology of the cycle of Japanese attitudes toward Western culture: responsiveness and emulation of the West for ten to fifteen years after the Restoration followed by a period of nationalism and rejection of the West, responsiveness and emulation of the West for ten to fifteen years after World War I followed by a period of nationalism and rejection, responsiveness and emulation for ten to fifteen years after World War II followed by a period of alienation.15


For about a decade, therefore, in the course of the early maturation of the Meiji government, foreign ideas such as “liberty,” “equality,” and “human dignity” were much in the air.16 At the same time, studies were conducted of education in the leading Western nations, and Japanese pedagogy was much influenced by the developing thought of progressivism in the United States. Thus, “the model for the Japanese classroom, became the Boston schools of the 1870’s. . . . Until 1879, then, in spite of some opposition, the liberal Western influence was clearly dominant. Educational aims were child-centered, and liberal influences were strong”17 Apart from pedagogy, however, the Japanese adopted more from the centralized European approaches in establishing their educational system, which culminated in the Imperial University Ordinance of 1886. Specifically, the French academy system, with its exam-oriented, tiered pyramid directly under the control of a central Ministry of Education, served as the organizational model. Meanwhile, the curriculum was developed with “a special emphasis on the sciences and technologies felt to be most necessary for natural development. Thus, the two most important tasks of the university were the training of high-level government officials who would be responsible for the administration of the country and the education of an elite group of technicians who would be responsible for the absorption of technologies from Europe and America.“18


Here was the institutionalization of an attitude toward university curriculum that reached back to the popular phrase tõyõ no dõtoku, seiyõ no gakugei of the middle nineteenth century and was carried forward in the saying wakon yõsai through ensuing decades to World War II. The former, coined by Sakuma Shõzan, describes the educational ideal of “Eastern Ethics and Western Science,“19 and the latter means “Japanese spirit and Western skills,” which was gradually realized through “the selective transplanting of only modern techniques and managerial systems from Western Europe and the rejection of modern Western thought and spirit.“20


In 1879, a highly influential Imperial Rescript on Education clearly signified the beginning of the nationalistic reaction against Western influence by stating:


While making a tour of schools and closely observing the pupils studying last autumn, it was noted that farmers’ and merchants’ sons were advocating high-sounding ideas and empty theories, and that many of the commonly used foreign words could not be translated into our own language. Such people . . . with their high-sounding ideas . . . brag about their knowledge, slight their elders, and disturb Prefectural officers. All these evil effects come from an education that is off its proper course.21


After the succession of a new emperor in 1912 began the Taishõ era and World War I brought a boom of industrialization, Japanese society again opened itself to aspects of Western culture for a period often termed “Taishõ democracy.” Advocates of “liberal democracy,” “socialism,” “basic human rights,” were again heard arguing on behalf of educational and political reform. However, such views were squelched in the late 1920s and early 1930s when “individualism” was attacked by governmental and military authorities for breaking down the political and social cohesion in the country and it became a crime to think “dangerous thoughts.“22 Further, the Great Depression led the Japanese to doubt the long-term vitality of the Western democracies and to favor more and more the “statism” of Germany and Italy,23 all of which finally culminated in ultranationalism and war. Meanwhile, higher education never deviated from its assigned task of training professional bureaucrats, technicians, and engineers; and the University Ordinance of 1918 had established a sort of general education specifically designed to promote patriotism.24


By 1940, forty-seven institutions had been classified as “universities”: nine imperial and twenty-four private, plus fourteen others sponsored by district and local governments for professional training. These comprised the last three years of a 6-5-3-3 educational stream, and they were accessible to roughly 1 percent of the eligible-age youth. About 90 percent of all children entered the first six years of required elementary school, and then 10 percent of the boys were admitted to the five-year middle school program, which led to higher education. Those of the remainder who sought further education could go on to vocational or technical education in various tracks of 6-2-3,6-3-3,6-5, and so forth. Meanwhile, about 8 percent of the middle-school students were admitted to the kõtõ-gakkõ, or higher school, from which graduation just about guaranteed a seat in some university for specialized study. At the same time, about another 8 percent from the middle schools were admitted to the semmongakkõ, or colleges, where one could be trained as a low-level professional. In principle it was very difficult and in practice it was nearly impossible for graduates of the semmongakkõ to enter the universities, which led to the highest-paying positions of greatest prestige and power.25


As noted earlier, this picture is rather like that of the French and quite opposite to that of the United States: “American schools are relatively easy and noncompetitive at the lower levels, gradually becoming more demanding as the school level rises. The Japanese schools, like those of France, were severely competitive in the early stages, then eased off at the university leve1.“26 This difference plus the traditional Yankee faith in education make it unsurprising, then, that the American-dominated Occupation force moved quickly in this area after 1945.


Fundamentally, SCAP attempted to make the school system less elitist and centralized with greater access to the higher-level institutions. In these efforts, as in so many of the Occupation reforms, the Japanese were very willing to cooperate and even facilitate the changes.27 The first means chosen for these ends was to revise the curriculum, a process initiated by the Report of the United States Education Mission to Japan of 1946, which stated:


In the curriculum of Japanese institutions of higher education, we think, as has already been suggested, that for the most part there is too little opportunity for general education, too early and too narrow a specialization, and too great a vocation or professional emphasis. A broader humanistic attitude should be cultivated to provide more background for free thought and a better foundation on which professional training may be based. . . .


The general education should, we feel, be integrated with the regular curriculum planned for each student, so that he can get full credit for it and not regard it as something extra and separate. . . .


To fulfill these purposes, higher education should become an opportunity for the many, not a privilege of the few. In order to increase the opportunities for liberal education at higher levels, it would be desirable to liberalize to a considerable extent the curricula of the preparatory schools (Koto Gakko) leading to the universities and those of the more specialized colleges (Semmon Gakko) so that a general college training would become more widely available.28


Second, beyond curriculum revision, the number of seats in universities was rapidly expanded by elevating many of the kõtõ-gakkõ, semmongakkõ, technical schools, normal schools, and language training institutes to the rank of university. Collectively these institutions received the name shinsei daigaku (new-system universities), as distinguished from the forty-seven original kyusei daigaku (old-system universities), while all were newly charged together under the School Education Law of 1947 with the responsibility of “giving broad general culture.“29 The significance’ there lies in “the new function of creating an educated citizenry” through a curricular ideal for general education that involves “in part the scientific method but . . . also includes the methods of philosophy and the ability to think broadly and deeply about man, history and culture. . . it is not content with the ability to acquire information alone. It also involves a search for values—for the beautiful, the good and the holy.“30


Despite the tone of those words, which implies appreciation of the humanistic liberal arts, these postwar developments amount to a transmutation, as well as a popularization, of the “traditional liberal education” in the classical liberal arts of the elite, prewar kõtõ-gakkõ. This is because the postwar interpreters of liberal education talk about “liberal” values and emphasize training citizens “with a liberal and critical mind” in order “to liberate” and “to deliver man from that which binds him and to set him free.“31 This outlook, placing greatest stress on critical rationalism as both means and end, is somewhat different from the humanistic and tradition minded education that obtained at the kõtõ-gakkõ. This is not to say that a conflict between what we might call the postwar liberalizing education and classical liberal arts was previously unknown in Japan. In the 1880s, Minister of Education Mori Arinori planned a “dual system” of education whereby the vast majority of students were to be indoctrinated to obedience while the small minority training for the university in the kõtõ-gakkõ were to be schooled with the most liberal academic freedom in critical rationalism.32 However, Mori was assassinated shortly afterward for his progressive outlook, which only adds evidence to the view that “liberalism. . . was a movement with no roots in the Japanese tradition” and was destined inevitably to have little effect before World War II.33 Therefore, although some private universities such as Keio and Waseda may have incorporated some aspects of the postwar idea of liberalizing education because their founders and faculties were major advocates of Western liberalism and pluralism,34 these were the few exceptions, and their influence was not very far-reaching. Rather, the norm was established by those who entered the modern period from the Tokugawa era fundamentally committed to stabilization and preserving traditional culture for its own sake.35 Subsequently, the first generation of university graduates under the Meiji government stressed obedience to custom and law rather than reform, which the original Restoration elite had emphasized.36


From this starting point, the prewar basic education in the kõtõ-gakkõ. seems to have followed a model much more akin to the classical, humanistic liberal arts than to the liberalizing education of SCAP. As we have already noted, the higher school was thoroughly elitist, and the students were “able to enjoy philosophy, literature and the arts, as well as sports and friendship in a special environment protected from everyday society without any worry about the future.“37 This certainly harkens back more to the artes liberales in the literal and historical sense as the gentlemanly education for those freed by leisure to study38 than to the postwar emphasis on liberalism and “free thought.” We might further note that the semmongakkõ, which are also sometimes incorrectly cited as a prewar example of liberal education or general education, were fundamentally dedicated “to train specialists and technologists in pragmatic fields” and so can hardly be said to approach the model of traditional liberal arts or of postwar liberal education.39 Overall, then, the postwar general education or liberal education involved changing as well as generalizing what is often labeled “liberal education” or “general education” from the prewar period. Whatever their respective merit, the former tended to be associated with recommendations of liberalism and critical rationalism for its own sake while the latter incorporated more respect for humanistic traditions and a classically prescribed curriculum. As we move now to the postwar experience it will be important to remember that when Japanese academicians criticize present liberal education in light of the past, somewhat different standards are involved.


Located in the Yamato area about ten kilometers south of Nara, Tenri University is among those 75 percent of Japanese institutions of higher learning that are private and comprise 77 percent of the total student enrollment.40 The government provides about 40 percent of the school’s budget, a relatively high subsidy for such institutions in Japan. It was founded in 1925 as Tenri Foreign Language School by the Tenri religious sect, one of the oldest and most highly respected of the so-called New Religions of Japan,41 which today contributes about 40 percent of the school’s budget, while tuition provides about 20 percent.42 Intended as a facility to train missionaries, the school was renamed Tenri Foreign Language College in 1927 and then, as with other shinsei daigaku, was upgraded to Tenri University in 1949, “with the purpose of transmitting knowledge and studying higher arts and sciences, according to the Fundamentals of Education Act and the School Education Act, and based on Tenrikyo doctrine, to train those who will contribute to the welfare of humanity and the development of culture.“43 Because of this background, plus the fact that all of its 2,400 students are undergraduates, Tenri is a particularly good case through which to examine how liberal education has developed since the Occupation. This suitability is further heightened by the fact that the university adheres particularly closely to the government recommendations for the general course in liberal education rather than incorporating some of the flexibility allowed by law.44 Furthermore, though respected, Tenri is certainly not one of the front-rank universities in Japan; and for that very reason it probably more closely approximates the mainstream of undergraduate education in Japan—especially in view of the continuity in organizational behavior among Japanese institutions of higher education.45


Beginning with a Faculty of Letters comprising a Department of Religious Studies and a Department of Japanese Language and Literature now numbering about 450 students, Tenri added a Faculty of Foreign Languages in 1952 that now includes eight departments of different foreign languages with about 1,400 students; in 1955 it added a Faculty of Physical Education, with one department numbering about 550 students. The university awards the equivalent of our bachelor’s degree in any of those eleven specialized departments, and a prospective undergraduate must apply to and be accepted by a specific department in order to be admitted to candidacy for a degree. The comparative numbers of faculty members are difficult to assess, due in part to the different levels in the hierarchy as in the United States and in part to the fact that not all are full time; but mostly because Tenri, like most Japanese universities, employs many “outside lecturers” from other universities to teach one or two courses per year. With this in mind, we can note that the Faculty of Letters numbers twenty-five members plus thirty-three outside lecturers; the Faculty of Foreign Languages, seventy-nine members plus sixty-three outside lecturers; and the Faculty of Physical Education, twenty-four members plus twelve outside lecturers. In addition, there is a Faculty of Arts and Sciences with eleven members and four outside lecturers, which offers three different types of professional programs for accreditation: public school teaching, library science, and museology. None of the professional courses may substitute for courses in a student’s major; nor may the courses of cultural science, social science, or natural science, which constitute the offerings of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, where the students take their two years of general education under sixteen faculty members plus eighteen outside lecturers.46


As of 1978-1979, the Ministry of Education required that all certified programs leading to the bachelor’s degree must comprise at least 124 credits. In fact, many universities and their departments often demand more credits, and at Tenri the students usually graduate with close to 140 or more—the balance being devoted to professional accreditation courses or extra “elective major courses,” many of which are advanced courses taught by the Faculty of Liberal Arts. Of the total undergraduate education, the Ministry of Education has in theory required one half, or two years, in a major specialty and one half in liberal education. Until 1973, this was interpreted to mean seventy-four credits in the major course and fifty credits in general education, including eight in foreign languages, four in physical education, two in an interdisciplinary “synthetic subject,” and thirty-six in what is called “general culture,” to be described below. This general culture requirement was then reduced to twenty-eight credits under pressure from faculties in the natural sciences, whose students were allowed to devote the balance of eight to their major. But the change was not directly relevant to Tenri University and similar institutions that did not reduce their requirements and whose students must therefore spend about one and one-half years in general education.47 The exceptions to this general outline along with computations of credit hours and variations therein need not detain us.


At Tenri University, the students are “strongly encouraged” to complete general education during their second year, when the major course of study normally begins. The foreign language and physical education components are satisfied in courses with those respective faculties while the government required and recently instituted synthetic subject, which adopts an interdisciplinary approach to a contemporary social problem, is taken in the liberal arts faculty. There, too, the requisite general culture credits are obtained according to three requirements. First, three courses must be taken from Cultural Science offerings: history, psychology, philosophy, scientific study of religion, aesthetics, literature, logic, ethics, music, and Japanese; three courses from Social Science offerings: education, jurisprudence, descriptive geography, sociology, economics, politics, and anthropology; and three courses from Natural Science offerings: mathematics, physical geography, history, natural science. A student may take any three courses within each of those divisions; a student may not take more than one course in any given subject.48


To this point, the reader has doubtlessly been struck by the congruence between this structure and that of many American undergraduate institutions. In fact, the identity even extends deeply into the subject matter itself. For example, philosophy in liberal education “in most Japanese colleges and universities” means “philosophy in the Western sense of the term” while “Oriental thought is reserved to specialized courses.“49 For me, this irony is intensified by the fact that amid the avalanche of complaints, only twice did I hear this point emerge as a criticism about liberal education in Japan.50


Having briefly described the national background and the setting in Tenri, we may now consider why many academicians believe that “the two years of general education are dreaded by many students.“51 From a historical perspective, it is crucial to remember that the shinsei daigaku were originally lower-ranking institutions that became universities by being renamed and adding liberal education—a curriculum associated with the old higher schools. So it was with Tenri University, and the legacy from this is twofold. On the one hand, as many academicians told me, the shinsei daigaku are often second-rate institutions without the facilities, resources, or traditions to strive for excellence as have, say, the former imperial universities. This perception contributes to the many derogatory labels that have been given to the group: “Inflation Universities, Mass Production University, University for Leisure, University Enterprise, or Department-Store University,“52 and to the eagerness of the faculty at the reputable shinsei daigaku to distinguish their institutions from the inferior ones—which is behavior that I occasionally observed at Tenri. On the other hand, setting aside the question of actual qualitative difference, there is also the psychological attitude among the Japanese that general education just does not really belong in a university, that a real university education means specialization. Clearly this view is rooted in the prewar approach to higher education. At Kwassui Women’s Junior College in Nagasaki, the dean, an American missionary, suggested to me this analogy: Suppose the first two years of postsecondary study in the United States were suddenly renamed “junior college.” Both faculty educated under the old system and the next several generations of students would probably feel discomfited by this change in terminology because the new term would inevitably connote a devaluation of those two years due to past associations with the term “junior college.“53 A similar experience is the source of at least some of the deprecation of shinsei daigaku in Japan. Unavoidably, this attitude carries over to that part of the shinsei daigaku that is seen as the direct inheritance of the old higher schools and thus a compromising of the traditional university ideal—general, liberal education.


If the attitude were only an attitude, it might have gradually died out. However, it has become institutionalized and materially reduced the stature of the faculty of general education, which “has been delegated to a separate semi-faculty within the university.“54 “ Generally speaking, throughout Japan, the faculty of general education is regarded as not as strong as the faculty in the major departments,” according to the dean of student affairs at Hiroshima University.55 This opinion is reflected in lesser compensation and lesser prestige with the concomitant decrease in professional opportunities, states Aso Makoto, sociologist of education at Osaka University, where the general education faculty receives 4 percent less remuneration than that received by the specialized faculties.56 Further concretization of this deprecation can be found in the separation of the liberal arts faculty from the specialized faculties. Of course, some American institutions do have separate departments or programs of general education: however, the professors in such cases are not commonly regarded as inferior; and many times, as in the case of Harvard, the faculty for those courses have positions in the other departments of the university. But in Japan, liberal education has its own faculty, which is almost always administratively separated in its own building or even, as at Kyushu University, on its own campus, miles from the “elite” specialized faculties. This tendency seems to be more pronounced as one climbs the hierarchy to the more prestigious national universities,57 although even among somewhat progressive private institutions, such as Rikkyõ (St. Paul’s) University in Tokyo, the general education program is segregated from the other departments and often suffers from a lack of respect.58


As we saw earlier, this normative structure exists at Tenri University, where the Faculty of Liberal Arts teaches most of the general education and offers no specialization. In one sense, Tenri is rather anomalous in that there is no structural salary differential and some of its most published and respected professors teach in the Faculty of Liberal Arts. In fact, two high-ranking professors from that faculty recently completed two-year terms as dean of students and dean of academic affairs, positions that accord them a relatively high degree of power among faculty members. Furthermore, these professors find the Faculty of Liberal Arts an attractive place for the serious scholar because the absence of advisees for specialization provides time to do serious research. On the other hand, for precisely the same reason, both acknowledged that, as a whole, their department has relatively less influence in the university than it otherwise might.59 In a sense, then, Tenri is the exception that proves the rule. At least some of its liberal arts teachers are highly respected but only because they are specialized scholars, and they enjoy teaching in their faculty because it leaves them time for serious scholarship. Meanwhile, the faculty as a whole loses influence because of its lack of specialization for students.


Given the generally lesser status and inferior treatment of liberal arts faculties, it follows quite logically, if perversely, that universities provide them with less support, facilities, and resources to teach general education. First, a “high student-faculty ratio is particularly noticeable in the departments of general education . . . a relatively small number of professors are made responsible for half the education.“60 A glance at the aforementioned figures for Tenri University appears to bear this out. Resulting from that is a situation where “general education courses are taught in mass, large lectures. Small classes and seminars exist only for specialty courses.“61 Finally, even the physical facilities where general education is taught are often second rate.62


The curriculum fares no better. Advocates of dismantling Japanese general education never tire of decrying the courses as “insubstantial,” “superficial,” “nominal,” a boring repetition of “various kinds of general education at various upper secondary schools.“63 Now there is evidently some basis for this view, such as in the policy at Tenri University and elsewhere by which a student is not allowed to take more than one course in a particular subject of the liberal arts and so is virtually condemned to dilettantism. Beyond that, this sort of broad-brush critique is difficult either to prove or to refute. Linked with it, usually, is the assertion that students are bored and complain about general education in the same fashion. 64 That is a bit more concrete statement along with the often associated judgment that Japanese university students do not work very hard. This opinion can be heard across the country: from Tõyõ University in Tokyo65 to the head of the Central Library at Tenri66 to the Christian Senan Gakuin University in Fukuoaka.67 This phenomenon has been much debated and is often attributed to the great participation of Japanese students in extracurricular “club” activities. At Tenri, for example, up to 60 percent of the students spend about three hours per day in club activities; but the assistant dean of students contends that this does not detract from studies and points to the fact that members of the clubs have higher academic averages than nonmembers.68 In any case, the well-acknowledged lack of commitment to studies is often attributed to “superficial” liberal arts courses that extinguish students’ desire for learning before they get to the meat of the curriculum in the specialization, and this interpretation is put forward with no small amount of satisfaction by the advocates of greater specialization as the capstone on their argument.69


Yet it is possible to use the same observations and arrive at a different and, I think, more reasonable conclusion. In the words of Dean Okihara of Hiroshima University: “Students do not study and are bored with general education courses because they are not so demanding.“70 This can be seen in the fact that requirements for such courses generally amount to only one final exam, which is based purely on material delivered in lectures. Required reading and term papers are virtually nonexistent. At least that is the case at Tenri and, I was told by many academicians, throughout Japan. This is complemented by the fact that “grading in Japanese courses is far easier than in the United States,” a condition sometimes attributed to the student riots of the 1960s which left many Japanese professors fearful of making rigorous demands on their students, who are, at the same time, reluctant to encourage their professors to request more work.71 Emerging here, we begin to see a picture that is more complex than the broad-brush critique of liberal arts subject matter. Students are not interested because their courses do not require them to work because their teachers make few demands on them.


But are not these some of the same academicians who complain that general education is superficial? A good deal of them are-in the role of outside lecturers who come from departments of specialization in their own universities to teach collectively about 40-50 percent of the general education courses in other universities.72 So why do not these teachers require more work from students, who will then no longer find the liberal arts courses superficial and boring? The answer, I believe, lies in the nature of the Japanese outside lecturer system, which works to absolve both the teacher and the university of responsibility for improving general education.


The system has the principled rationale of allowing more intellectual exchange and access between the students of one university and professors of other universities. At the same time, there is a financial rationale in that it is cheaper for the university to hire part-time guest lecturers than full-time professors, and the system provides a source of supplemental income for academicians. These factors keep the system working. However, the teaching quality suffers when these outside lecturers are assigned to teach single-handedly a general education course of several hundred students. In this situation, they can hardly be faulted for not exhausting themselves by adding more to the students’ workload, which only adds more to their own. Moreover, since it is not their own university, they need not feel a very high sense of commitment or accountability to the students, whom they will probably never see again, or a sense of responsibility for the quality of instruction at the university. Conversely, the institution need not feel a high sense of commitment or accountability to the outside lecturers by responding to their complaints about massive understaffing in liberal arts courses, which is the common situation in Japan.73 Outside lecturers are thus able to simply show up for lectures in liberal arts, give and correct one final exam, and collect the fee for the course. If either the outside lecturer or the university becomes disgusted with the other, each simply makes a new arrangement with a different university or a different outside lecturer. In any event, the situation in the classrooms of general education remains unchanged; and the overall result is that “the outside lecturer system does contribute to the degradation of liberal education,” in the words of a liberal arts faculty member and former dean of academic affairs at Tenri University.74


With that stated, one can still inquire about the “home” faculty of liberal education. Why does no change occur in a situation where professors teach courses that everyone in their university seems to agree are superficial or nominal? First of all, as the history of Japanese academia suggests, it is not clear that any change would help. This is because many Japanese professors believe that general or liberal education can never be a part of a real university education. “Japanese professors fundamentally value a specialist’s expertise more than any general knowledge. Thorough expertise is the only way to gain the respect of one’s colleagues. . . . This is also why Japanese professors are reluctant to teach interdisciplinary courses or to go outside their field of specialty. They do not want to be in danger of being criticized by specialists from other fields.“75 That observation implies a second reason why little change occurs in the structure of Japanese liberal education, a factor also suggested by the traditional and nearly stereotypic view that Japanese prefer to act as members of a group rather than as individuals. Of course, such stereotypes do become distorted, and they invite contravening opinion. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the errors of extreme interpretations, I would side with the opinion expressed in such analyses as sociologist Sakuta Keiichi’s studies of “groupism.” Therein he holds that the Japanese, relatively speaking, do not like to act alone and prefer to strike out on a new course together “as a group.“76 Thus, there is slight probability that separate individuals in scattered institutions will begin to innovate on their own. This groupism is in turn compounded by the respect for hierarchy in Japanese society, which results in a “one-set” pattern where lower-ranking institutions seek steadfastly to emulate higher-ranking institutions. “The one-set pattern is also evident in educational institutions. The new universities established since the war—and there are now over eight hundred universities and colleges—follow the pattern of the old-established top-ranking institutions.“77 Again, innovation is stifled as individuals fear to deviate from the norm, and so I often heard it said at Tenri that no alteration would come in liberal education until Tokyo University did it first. Resulting from this groupism and devotion to hierarchy is a fourth barrier to change: the notorious institutionalized rigidity of the Japanese university system.78 Given the foregoing factors, it is easy to see that the Japanese would prefer to make changes by having everyone jump together rather than individual professors, or even universities, taking the “risk” of jumping alone. Relative to the United States, it might be said that institutional decisions are made through a process that values harmony and unanimity above efficiency and speed. This is not to claim that Americans ignore the need for harmony in decision making or that Japanese disregard concerns for efficiency. Rather, the difference resides in the degree of emphasis. On the other hand, Tenri administrators argued that, although it takes them a long time to make a decision, they can implement it very fast—because total consensus comes along with the decision. In any case, these barriers to change do exist and are further heightened by the fact that control of the education sector in Japanese society, more than in that of some highly educated nations, is fairly evenly divided between the state, the market, and the academic professional sectors of its constituency. This results in a more complex process of decision making than, for example, in Sweden, where the state predominates; in the United States, where the market predominates; or in Britain, where the academic professionals predominate.79


Taking this all together, we can see in Tenri a microcosm of prospective outcomes for Japanese liberal education. In view of the desire for total consensus and the built-in difficulties against reaching it, it is not hard to fathom why the seeming minority of Tenri professors who, like Professor Wasaki, advance liberal education as a sine qua non of the university—“to bring up educated gentlemen and ladies who are intellectual and international”80—cannot be easily discounted and so help to keep the present system in place as does the business sector, which is reported to be seeking well-rounded, cultivated employees.81 But it is just as clear that the criticism will continue to come that “spirituality of a person expands through specialized education, and so specialized education actually fulfills the purpose of general education,” as well as the assertions that government and industry actually complain that students are not sufficiently prepared in their specialization, in the view of Professor Ishizuki.82 Meanwhile, the chipping away at general education requirements will doubtlessly continue. For example, the Tenri Faculty of Foreign Languages has lobbied over the past several years for the university to reduce the General Culture requirement from thirty-six to twenty-eight credits and then to put the extra eight credits into the fields of specialization. So far the Faculty of Liberal Arts has successfully opposed this proposal, but it will be difficult to continue doing so in view of its lesser numbers and influence.83 Furthermore, a significant group of academicians from the specialized faculties will continue to avow support for general education through language that betrays the utilitarian rationale that, since the university is fundamentally there for research, such courses can be useful primers in this endeavor.84 Last, liberal education will stand most secure and strong where it conforms to the traditional norm of Japanese higher education—in the University of Tokyo, which maintains its own College of General Education, complete with a graduate specialty therein85—and Tenri, along with the 799-odd others, will continue to follow along in step as best it can.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 2, 1981, p. 245-261
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 729, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 8:27:01 AM

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