Why you should care

Because a former great power’s demographic decline has many implications. 

Yuki Sato, on paper, has achieved the dream. He is a student at Waseda University, one of the top colleges in Japan, studying political science. Which means he successfully survived the rite of passage that looms large over all Japanese adolescents: the wild hustle to get into a good college.

“The degree doesn’t matter to me,” he says over coffee one weekday, fresh from swim practice with his classmates. “I just want the knowledge.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel he can say the same about most of his peers, who, he says, are products of “cramming” culture — the idea that studying constantly, by rote, is the best way to achieve success. Sato, who attended an international school in Tokyo before going to boarding school in the U.S., takes a distinctly more liberal arts approach to his education. Dissatisfied with his time at Waseda — whose public relations department did not reply to requests for comment — Sato is venturing back to the U.S. soon to study abroad at the University of Washington.

In a few years, some Japanese universities may be better prepared to keep the attention of students like Sato — students who want global, bilingual educations. Some are even staking their reputations on wooing students like this, from across the country and even the continent. Japan is approaching what some are calling “the 2018 problem” — in two years, the number of college-bound 18-year-olds will hit an all-time low and continue to shrink thereafter, according to data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Which means Japanese universities may not be able to rely much longer on a regular customer base. In this country of near-universal higher education, a whole lot of college campuses threaten to be abandoned.

All that which is the traditional Japanese way of educating is changing.

William Shang

That threat is looming large for colleges, especially middle- and lower-tier universities, says William Shang, dean of global studies at Tama University in Tokyo. “We’re anticipating some schools will no longer be in operation at all,” he says. A new urgency is setting in for the nearly 800 higher ed institutions in the country — according to ministry data from 2014. So what is to be done? The challenges Japanese universities are facing are not unheard of. American colleges, too, have stared down the huge overheads that come with running campuses. In the U.S., colleges have ballooned out a kind of secondary economy to higher education — night school courses, extension schools, continuing education, MOOCs and more.

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Aerial view of Waseda University, Shinjuku ward, Tokyo Prefecture, Honshu, Japan.

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Some of those models may reappear in Japan, perhaps marketed toward elders who’d like something to do with their time. But so far, here, the answers some colleges are turning to sound a bit like planks of their own version of Abenomics. Mission one: Globalize. Programs like Shang’s, or the one in which Sato is enrolled, which promise English-language education with an outward view, are becoming increasingly popular. Some colleges have tried to switch to the American school year calendar, thereby allowing their students to take internships abroad. The ruling party has touted TOEFL, the English language proficiency test, as an increasingly crucial part of public and private education, and in 2014, the government announced a $77 million initiative to hire foreigners or Japanese who have graduated from foreign universities to teach at Japanese universities. Rick Overton, professor at the Tokyo College of Music, has been involved in creating a new, liberal arts–style music major for his students; he says alarm bells go off whenever foreign students or faculty are discussed, as his colleagues worry there will suddenly be “no more Japanese anymore.”

What of mission two? Liberalize — liberal arts-ize, that is. Shang says the classic lecture-style courses are increasingly hard sells, and more colleges are looking at seminar-style discussions in hopes that students will find them more appealing. The over $10 billion private tutoring, or cram school (juku) industry, in Japan is even finding some holes poked in it; two years ago one of the country’s most famous cram school chains shut down three quarters of its branches, according to local reports. “All that which is the traditional Japanese way of educating is changing,” Shang says. “They’re behind the ball game,” says Overton of universities’ scramble to revamp their curricula.

Indeed, the scent of senescence has been in the air for some time when it comes to Japanese education, and there have been plenty of signs that things would have to change soon — the latest impetus for the shift is not only the 2018 demographic dropoff but also the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Then there are a few prominent moves made by large companies like Rakuten, whose leader bragged to the The Wall Street Journal about the edge it gets from making English its official language; other industry leaders like Fast Retailing, the parent of Uniqlo and Theory, also expect English from new employees. It would seem that the education sector is experiencing a wave of the same economic urgency that has descended on the archipelago country in the business of trying to remake itself. Much like the Japanese economic system itself, which grew accustomed to catering to its own, sizable market of culturally understood consumers during the 1980s bubble economy, the educational system now must similarly come to understand what lies beyond its borders.

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