Not a day goes by without Japanese school children hearing the terms globalization (グロバール化) or internationalization (国際化), and why it’s so important for their future careers. In fact, the whole country seems to be swept up in a fervor of these two words. But do Japanese people really understand the meanings of them, or are the terms just being used as catchphrases?
Enter Austin, an international student who has been living in Japan since 2012. Last week he posted a thought-provoking piece called “Some Thoughts – And Doubts – About Japan’s Internationalization” on Tofugu, a Japanese language and culture blog. The piece has circulated around the Internet, and was even picked up and summarized in Japanese by popular Japanese blogger Madame Riri. In it, Austin addresses how while Japan may be making efforts to globalize on the surface, it still lacks something on a deeper level that is preventing it from becoming truly internationalized. Join the debate after we take look at some of his thoughts below.
Tofugu writer Austin wonders if Japan is going about internationalizing itself in the right way. At the heart of the matter, he tries to pinpoint the true meanings of the terms “internationalization” and “globalization.”
According to Madame Riri, these two terms refer to “acting globally, being able to compete on an international stage” and “being able to accept a global outlook, as opposed to always looking inwardly,” respectively. And it seems that now more than ever Japan really does need to step up its game if it wants to continue competing on an international level. Top Japanese brands like Panasonic and even Nintendo aren’t doing as well as they once were, and competition from Chinese and Korean brands grows stronger every day. A lot of obstacles need to be overcome in order to reverse this pattern, and Prime Minister Abe has expressed his desire to see 10 Japanese universities into the top 100 global rankings list in the coming years.
The following are some of the main topics brought up by Austin in his piece. If you’ve lived in Japan for an extended period of time, perhaps you’ll be able to sympathize with some of his points. Is there anything that you strongly disagree with?
- English education
Of course, who could neglect to mention the issue of English education in Japan? As anyone who has has ever taught English here can tell you, there seem to be a lot of contradictory feelings when it comes to English. On the one hand, English in movies and popular music is viewed as being cool and desirable. On the other hand, students still complain about the necessity of learning English at school, even while being constantly bombarded by people telling them that English is a surefire tool for future success. So what’s missing?
Japanese students begin engaging in occasional “foreign language activities” in the fifth grade, and they do not start formal English classes until the first year of junior high school (usually around 13 years old.) This late start could be one factor why it is so hard for them to catch up with students, especially when compared to other Asian countries such as South Korea, where children begin learning English in third grade. In addition, many grade school teachers are not adequately prepared to teach English, even if they have a good command of the language or understanding of its grammatical structure. Perhaps these factors will change in the upcoming years as the government is contemplating requiring a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score on all university entrance applications, regardless of program.
▼English education in Japan pales in comparison to other Asian countries
- University life
As an international student at a Japanese university, Austin has a lot of experience with this one. He explains how although many Japanese universities tout exemplary international exchange programs, in reality there is actually very little interaction between foreign students and Japanese students. International students are often placed in completely separate programs of study where they have little actual contact with Japanese students. The same goes for living arrangements on or off campus. As a result, foreigners and Japanese often fail to intermingle, and do not take advantage of the diverse knowledge each group has to offer the other.
▼International students and Japanese university students often fail to intermingle
- The corporate world
While some Japanese corporations have taken extreme measures to “internationalize” themselves (think of Rakuten, where English is the sole language used in-house), others have only superficially made an attempt to do so by hiring foreigners. However, does the presence of foreigners at a Japanese firm really signify any great development towards globalization? Austin points out that foreigners who are working at Japanese companies are often treated as “Japanese who just speak another language,” and the enriching experiences they could potentially bring into the mix are not being used effectively at all. They often conform into traditional hierarchical Japanese working practices, where their voices cannot be heard. While he does not say that Japanese companies should have a major cultural upheaval, Austin believes that some component should be added if companies do not want the talents of their international workers to go to waste.
▼Perhaps Japanese companies should revamp the way they utilize foreigners internally
Austin also touches upon Japan’s immigration system, which is very strictly regulated. It is notoriously difficult for foreigners to gain permanent residency in Japan if they are not married to a Japanese person. Austin illustrates this case with a personal anecdote, stating that even his friend who has taught at a Japanese university for some 10 years now was denied permanent residency last year.
But how can an overall homogeneous society such as Japan achieve internationalization when the chances to interact with foreigners are so limited to begin with? Related to this point is also how Japan sends fewer students to study abroad than China or South Korea.
▼Some of the world’s strictest immigration requirements make taking up residence in Japan a real challenge.
Austin sums up his his discussion by saying that what Japan needs is not superficial reforms, but should instead endeavor to change things on a much deeper level:
“It seems to me that Japanese attempts to internationalize by bringing in more foreigners, enforcing standards of English etc. are simply fulfilling the prerequisites of internationalization. This does not necessarily mean internationalization itself.”
Time will only tell when, or what, the impetus for change will be.
We hope you found the points in this article stimulating and informative. Be sure to check out the comments section at the bottom of Austin’s article for several reflective thoughts by readers. And of course, please feel free comment here in the space below, too!