An Interview with Professor Yujin Yaguchi of Go Global Center and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

 Professor Yujin Yaguchi

Thank you for taking the time to do the interview, Prof. Yaguchi.

My pleasure.

Since you have been involved in a lot of projects of globalisation at the University of Tokyo, I would really appreciate that you can introduce your experience and the problems about globalisation at the University of Tokyo.

Well… There are quite a few challenges. I think there is a consensus at this university that globalising our campuses is an extremely important mission. And this obviously includes research, education as well as administration. As far as I am concerned, I have been involved more in the realm of education. First of all, I was involved in the establishment of the undergraduate degree programme in English – English-median undergraduate degree programme. And then currently, I am more involved in a kind of overall planning of student exchange, making sure that there would be more students coming from abroad on short term and long term, as well as our students going abroad. Challenges are many. There is a sort of structural challenge. Everything from school calendar to curriculum to teaching style, and also the mentality of the University of Tokyo’s students, as well as how we can respond to the demands and needs of the students coming from different parts of the world, who come with different levels and types of expectation. So that’s a very general response (to your question), but it’s a multifaceted type of challenge.

I think that structural challenge is probably the most difficult one to tackle. If I may, can I ask you in more details about how, say, school calendar, curriculum, and teaching style are challenges in terms of globalisation.

Well… for example, our standard school year starts in April. It goes on to March, as you know. Many of the schools outside Japan start in the fall and the semester ends in December. We have students coming from abroad for one semester in the fall. But our school goes to the end of January. So many of the students who come here for one semester are not able to complete the semester here if they want to return to their own school in the January semester. That is a very simple example. Again, about school calendar. We tend to have summer programmes in the end of July or August because our exam period runs till the end of July. So, if we want to give our students opportunities to participate summer programmes abroad it almost has to be in August especially for the first- and second-year students. But many of the summer programmes outside Japan tend to be in July or the end of June. And there are fewer students who are able to come to Japan in August, especially after the middle of August. Whereas our students are off from the month of August till the middle of September. So that’s a fairly simple example of school calendar.

To tackle the problem of calendar, as far as I know, our university has created both undergraduate and graduate programmes conducted entirely in English and these programmes start in September, right? Does this help?

Well, I think it helps. I am not familiar with the graduate programme very well, but it helps for the undergraduate programme here. Many of the schools outside Japan tend to start in the fall. So a lot of secondary schools end in May or June or maybe April. In order to be able to attract students from schools in those countries and regions, I think it makes sense to start in the fall for better transition of these secondary school students into university. Of course, there are challenges on our side because the premise of the entirely university is that we start everything in April, there are very few students who come in September. Now we have September entrance ceremony, orientation, and so on. The number of students is relatively small in September, but we have to do everything twice, one in English and one in Japanese. It does become a bit complicated. Graduation in the fall is different from graduation in March. March graduation is very grand whereas fall graduation is much more low-key.

Right. So it seems that calendar is less a problem than other challenges – curriculum, teaching style seem to be more fundamental to the university.

I think so. Curriculum differs from country to country. I am not sure what the best curriculum is. I think there is merit to our curriculum as well. But one example I have is that outside Japan like in the UK and in the US, as you know, I now suspect that this is the case in China, or I know which is the case in Singapore and other places, students tend to take far fewer number of classes. Whereas here each class meets once a week for hundred-five minutes and students especially in the early stages of their undergraduate career tend to stack up a number of classes. They register for a large number of classes, which make them a kind of very difficult to do in-depth study of any subject. I mean the good part of this is they get a range of subjects to study. They are taking, say, fifteen different subjects. So, you know, they get a wide range. But I think that the depth has to be, a sort of, compromised to a large degree. And it creates a different kind of teaching style and a different kind of expectations, like you know, how many pages are you going to ask student to read. As you know, if you are a history major in the U.S., you are reading hundreds of pages a week. Whereas it is not possible to do that here because the students are taking a large number of classes. So that’s an example of the differences in curriculum. Also, as you know, our undergraduate programme is a kind of split into two parts – first two years and second two years. The first-year students can take a range of subjects based on their experience. They choose what they want to specialise in the third and fourth year. So, you know, in a way, it’s a good system, but at the same time, there is a divide between the two. And often it is not a seamless transition. So often students study something for the first two years and then the third and the fourth year, the connection is sometimes not very strong. And also, you know, obviously teaching style is very different. I think we have more lecture style courses. Students are more used to listening to lectures. Faculties are more used to lecturing. The concept of active learning is spreading in Japan including at the University of Tokyo. But I think it’s probably less than some other parts of the world. And I think there is a debate whether we need to incorporate more active style learning or not. But if we do want to do that, we need to have a different infrastructure, for example, class rooms, class sizes, and that sort of thing as well as a different kind of culture among the faculty and the students.

In this regards, do you find a gap in terms of expectations between students coming to Tokyo for exchange and professors and students of the University of Tokyo?

So you are asking about the exchange students but not the degree seeking students, just those who come for a semester or one year?

Yes, the exchange students. It happened to me once that one home university of exchange students requires their students to take, say, four or five courses here. And it wanted to take a look at their syllabus and they found the syllabus very different from theirs. So I am curious about it.

So, there are two kinds of international students here, those who are seeking degrees and who are here for one semester or one year. And degree seeking students get used to our system – they accommodated to our system in both positive and negative sense, I think. That’s one category. But if you are asking me about the exchange students, yes, well… the exchange students come from all over the world. So they have very different expectations. It is a bit hard to generalise. But as you said, one of the things that we struggle here in our offices is that, you know, when the exchange students want to come to us, they wanted to know what kind of courses are available. And what we call syllabus is very different from the kind of syllabus many of the exchange students are used to say in the United States or Canada. Syllabi there tend to be very detailed; whereas our so-called ‘syllabus’ is very general. And, you know, the administration of schools wants to assess the possibility of credit transfer in advance. So, they want to know what kind of courses their students get to take. When they come to us prior to the students coming here, the kind of course information we are able to provide is, in their views, very limited. And we have very little control over how the syllabi are written of course. I cannot call up a professor and say, ‘Would you please give a detailed syllabus?’ So that’s a challenge definitely. And especially for students coming from North America, maybe Singapore, where they are used to much more detailed course descriptions in advance. And, in some cases, we’ve had a situation where our partner universities seem a bit reluctant to send their students, not so much because of the quality of education as because we are not able to provide sufficient information in advance. In that case, they can’t promise the students in question that credits will be transferred back. If that happens, often the students don’t want to come to us.

That sounds a challenge.

That’s a challenge. And, you know, a good part of this university is that individual professors have total control over the class: how they write their syllabus; how they teach; how they assess. So professors are given complete autonomy as well as authority over class. There is very little interference by the university. I think that’s a good thing. But at the same time, it creates a bit of problem for someone like me who oversees the exchange programme, because we want to be able to explain to our partner universities what we have, but what we have are not necessarily standardised at all.

Right. The structure of the University of Tokyo seems to be very different from universities outside Japan and maybe from other universities in Japan as well. It is very decentralised.

Very decentralised. And I am told there are such schools outside Japan, too. But my frame of reference is the United States, and it is very different from the American system. The school is very decentralised, and each faculty has a kind of complete control over how it teaches its courses; how it forms as a curriculum. And one of the challenges of our exchange programme is that exchange students come and they don’t belong to a particular faculty, right? They belong to the international headquarters. So the exchange students belong to the University of Tokyo, but they don’t belong to any particular faculty. But at the international headquarters, we don’t provide any classes, right? So our exchange students are here, and they go to different faculties and take classes. So this is a kind of anonymous position. In comparison, all degree-seeking students, whether they are Japanese or not, belong to a college or faculty.

So this creates gaps in terms of management and coordination, right?

It is generally a bit of challenge because we have our students, more than a hundred students. But we have no control over what classes they can take because the classes that they take are held by different faculties. I am a member of the college of art and sciences, so I can discuss the classes at the college of art and sciences with my colleagues. But I can’t really, as the director of this office, go to other faculties and say, ‘would you teach this in this way, and would you teach this at this time period’, and so on. So I can’t really promise these more than a hundred students who are here the kind of structure that each faculty is able to promise to its own students.

Right. There also seems to be practical difficulty for exchange students. We have two major campuses, the Komaba campus and the Hongo campus, quite far from each other. Do you come across this kind of difficulty where people have to commute between the two in order to take different courses? Right…, so some students take classes on both campuses. You know, they would take some classes here on particular days of the week, and others at the other campus on the other days. But as far as the exchange students are concerned, I think quite a few of them end up taking courses primarily at one campus over another. A part of that is the logistical issue. They don’t really want to commute and they don’t really want to pay the transportation cost. But also, as you know, the two campuses are very different. This Hongo Campus has different faculties and it’s very decentralised. So, there are, you know, courses here and there and there. It’s a bit difficult for these exchange students to gain a sense of belonging. Whereas at the other campus, it’s just one college. And a bunch of courses in English are offered there. And it is a much smaller campus. So it is easier for the exchange students to create a kind of cohesive group and gain a sense of belonging. It’s a space issue, too. They can go to the basement of Komcee which is more of a kind of international ambience. I am sure there are such spaces here on this campus but are spread out. So it’s a bit difficult for students here unless they really are into a particular set of courses in a particular faculty. So that’s a bit of an issue.

In terms of the number of courses taught in English, are there enough options for students at both campuses?

I think you will get different answers from different faculty members. From my personal perspective, I wish there were more. Not only for exchange students but also for voluntary Japanese speaking students too. I think the issue is not so much for the exchange students. We need to have a larger number of courses offered in English for the majority of undergraduate students. For example, in the first and the second year, basically all the students have to take English language class. But very few students take courses in English for other subjects because there are so few offered, right? Very few science classes are offered in English, for example, for first- and second-year students unless they are for PEAK students. And that applies to the same to other subjects. So it is difficult for students who want to take courses in English to find a kind of classes that suite with their interests. So I am not advocating a dramatic increase in the number of classes at this university, but I think it will be beneficial to the student body overall if we have more courses offered in English.

Here comes the question of the characteristics of, maybe, mentalities of students of our university. You pointed out that there are not enough courses taught in English for people to choose, right? But, on the other hand, do you see strong motivation amongst our students to actively engage non-Japanese education content, including exchange and communication with exchange students?

I think so. The so-called ‘Japanese students,’ some of whom are actually not Japanese nationals, but many of them came through Japanese high schools. It’s actually a mixed bunch. There is a sizable number of Japanese students who are very eager and even aggressive about wanting to have global experiences, and they want to take courses in English or even other languages, you know. If there are courses taught in Chinese, I am sure that there will be students taking courses in Chinese. And we admit about three thousands students every year. I would say, a sizable number, maybe 20%, of the students are very eager for that sort of experiences. And there is a kind of a middle range, who I think, if we nudge them, will get interested. And then there is always a group of students who are interested in other things. So there is always the talk about young people being inward looking, but that’s not necessarily the case for all the university students. A lot of our students, especially those who go through the short-term exchange programme or the longer term exchange programme, are very eager and they do very well under that setting. If we provided with them more opportunities, there would be quite a few number of students who will and can take the advantages of those opportunities. So that goes back to the issue of courses offered in English. If there were a little more courses offered in English, I think, there would be students who take them. Also, I think a lot of students want to have more chances to interact with non-Japanese students. And we can probably try to provide them with more chances. We are offering them with more opportunities to study abroad for short term and longer term. And there is quite a few number of slots available for students. Actually, we had an orientation seminar for students who want to do study abroad at Komaba Campus last night, and there were about 350 students who showed up at 7.00pm. That’s a big number for Wednesday evening. We have one at Hongo campus the other day and we were able to attract more than 200 students at 7.00pm.

Were they Japanese students?

Yes, these were Japanese students wanting to do study abroad. So there was a range of short term programmes to everywhere: China or South East Asia, North America, Europe as well as exchange programmes. In a matter of a week we had more than 500 students showing up for these orientation sessions. So that’s a big number.

how many students do you send out every year?

Quite a few. For exchange for semester abroad, and for a year abroad, close to 150 to 200.

So a similar number of people coming to study here?

Right. For short term, there is a set of courses that offer through the international headquarters. And these are non-credit bearing experiences. But then also other faculties have short term courses in China, or Germany or the US, and other places. So I think the number is quite large actually.

Yes, I think it is good change. Okay, I think I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Lastly, I would like to introduce the Global Japan Studies summer programme. You may have known about it. We just completed our third-year summer programme. And we want to incorporate more students from within the university. So far, it has been difficult. Now we are trying to create a format such as changing it to be a credit bearing course rather than a non-credit short term programme. So we are thinking about changing it from August to July and enabling people to sign up in April at the beginning of the semester. But this is still a possibility we have just started thinking about. And one important dimension of that planning is to have UTEP (University-wide Student Exchange Program) students. So we want to make the course i.e., the programme available to USTEP students although at this moment everything is unclear. But I want to give you an idea how we want to improve the programme to increase the diversity of the participants of the programme. So that USTEP students may have access to a different kind of teaching. It has lectures but also a lot of field trips providing first-hand experience - not just reading books.

I think that is a good idea. USTEP students actually come from all kinds of backgrounds and not all of them are interested in Asia or Japan although they are studying about those subjects. But they are here and they become interested in Japan Studies or Asian Studies, even though they maybe engineering students or biology students. So I think it would be good, there would be interest amongst students if there were such a course available. I think it’s more of a structural problem than a content issue. So of course there is the school calendar issue, right? USTEP students are taking courses in a regular semester, so they are not able to come to a kind of concentrated class that meets every day because they have other classes, right? So it’s more about a time management issue than anything else – it’s my personal impression. Of course, you know, if there was cost involved that might be another thing. But I would imagine it’s more about a time management structural issue. I don’t think they would mind coming to Hongo Campus if they can. But because they are taking courses until the middle of July as you know. And then some of them have exams, and after that many of them leave in August or start travelling as understandably they want to look at other parts of Japan. If you had the Global Japan Studies summer program as a S-2 (June & July) class, you will definitely have students registered. But then I think from the other side, it’s very difficult for the Global Japan Studies program to have class once a week, right? Because if you want to attract students from other parts of the world, you want to have a daily session. So it’s a kind of structural issue than anything else, I think.

Yes. Indeed, our programme needs commitment from students for an intensive whole ten-day period.

Right, and USTEP students must, as they are legally required, register for six classes while they are here. So they all registered for a minimum of six classes or more in the month of July. Then it is not possible for them to come to your class every single day.

So either after the semester or the term ends or they decide that they are going to give up other courses to take the Global Japan Studies summer program course.

But legally, it is not possible because it’s a visa requirement and this office will not allow that. So that’s the issue, I think. I mean the contents seem to very interesting and I’m sure that students will be interested in taking it. But this goes back to the school calendar issue, right?

That’s right. We will keep thinking about how to arrange the programme.

I hope it goes well.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. And I am going to conclude today’s interview. Thank you very much!

My pleasure!