Hisashi Kobayashi's Blog
Sherman Fairchild University Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Princeton University

Concerns about the insularity of Japan’s universities, poor performance of Japanese students, and weakening competitiveness of Japanese industry.

For many years I have been stressing the need to make Japanese universities as productive and competitive as top research universities of the U.S., by implementing true meritocracy for both faculty members and students, and to make our Ph.D. programs as strong as major U.S. universities by providing full financial support to the best and brilliant. I also emphasized the importance of recruiting topnotch foreign scholars into Japanese universities as well as encouraging students to challenge to go abroad and study and work in a more stimulating and competitive environment [1,2].

I found a year ago that English proficiency of Japanese college graduates, in terms of TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language) scores, is the lowest among 27 Asian countries [3]. In July I came across with a New York Times article reporting that “Japan’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP)—a measure of economic prosperity—declined from third highest in the world in 1991 to 18th last year, according to the World Bank. Average household income has also fallen from its peak in 1994 to a 19-year low of 5.56 million yen, or about $58,000, in 2007.” [4] As I confirmed this fact by Google and found that the standard living in Japan is now well below that of Singapore and Hong Kong [5], I began to consider and discuss with others to find what had gone wrong with my home country in the last fifteen years.

During my recent visit to Tokyo in October, I met with Prof. Kiyoshi Kurokawa (黒川清教授) of GRIPS (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies: 政策研究大学院大学) and other individuals, and commenced my dialog by email with many other friends. I started this effort by presenting my slides “Problems that Japan faces today (現在日本が直面する課題)” that outline my observations and analysis, searching for possible solutions [6]. Responses came from many colleagues, including my college classmate Mr. Michio Miyazaki (宮崎道生氏)[7]. When I initially prepared my slides [6] in early October, however, I was not aware of the latest Math and Science Scores of 4th graders and 8th graders reported in a news article [9] and related website [8] TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which indicate that Japanese youngster’s performance has been steadily on the decline since 1995, slipping behind other major Asian countries: Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Another international test PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) of OECD [10] reveals an even alarming trend of Japan’s 15 years old students: they cannot read and comprehend math and science related problems. They rank 15th in the world in 2006.

By understanding how the ゆとり教育 (“lax education”) [11] has ruined our precollege education, I reaffirm my long-held conviction that so-called 有識者who serve on various review committees for MEXT (文化省) and other ministries are not really taking their responsibility seriously. As for the university reform, it seems that 国立大学法人化 (incorporation of national universities) has not really changed the essential character of the Japanese universities: their academic administrators and professors have not secured true leadership to restructure Japan’s higher education nor reshape our precollege education. The performance evaluation system introduced in recent years exists just for formality (the most productive professors and deadwood are paid alike) and my Japanese colleagues are not serious enough to transform their universities to meet the challenge of this global age. They don’t seem to initiate actions to recruit top-rated scholars from abroad, as Singapore [25-26] and South Korea [28] have been aggressively doing, nor encourage their best and brilliant to study abroad. [27]

Prof. Kurokawa’s inspiring writings and blogs [12-20] also convince me that at the core of Japan’s problems—poor academic performance, declining competitiveness of Japanese industry, absence of leadership in every segment of Japan’s society– lie the insularity of Japanese intellectuals. The Japanese education system has failed miserably in producing independent thinkers or strong leaders with vision.

A friend of mine in Tokyo reminded me of the 1998 book Cartels of The Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop by Dr. Ivan Hall [31]. I was surprised to find very few other Japanese friends knew this book despite its Japanese translation 「知の鎖国・外国人を排除する日本の知識人産業」appeared in the same year. One of the reviewers [30] refutes Dr. Hall’s criticism by saying that his analysis is largely based on Dr. Hall’s own unpleasant experiences and anecdotal notes of several foreigners in Japan. Nevertheless, I suggest every Japanese intellectual concerned about the future of Japan should read this book. It is disturbing to find no serious book review of this book by Japanese, although several American scholars or intellectuals reviewed the book [30a-e]. One newspaper article [12] quotes the catchy phrase「知の鎖国」but without referring to Hall’s book.

Recently Professor Teruji Cho (長照二教授) of the University of Tsukuba was dismissed from his position, because he refused the University President’s order that attempted to force him and his coauthors to withdraw the paper already accepted by a prestigious journal, Physical Review Letters. What is more disturbing is that other Japanese professors and scientific community are not raising a strong voice against the University, and this indifferent attitude of Professor Cho’s colleague in Japan annoys the scientific community outside of Japan. This incidence reminds me of the sad story of Prof. Kan, a Koren born historian, whose reappointment was cancelled unexpectedly in the midst of power struggle between two vice presidents (副学長) vying for the next president’s position, according to Ivan Hall [29,31] .

At this point of writing, I have limited information and input besides what I saw in NHK news and a couple of websites concerning the government ad hoc task force for project screening ( 行政刷新会議「事業仕分け」) besides the Ministry’s websites [33] , which I obtained from a friend in Japan. The budget cut of some large projects recommended by the task force team may unfair and unreasonable, and may possibly jeopardize progress of worthy long-term research projects. On the other hand, this sort of open review is the first time ever done to scrutinize pros and cons of costly projects. It’s wrong to make a blanket statement claiming all scientific research projects should be supported with no budget cut. Many people, especially those in academia and national laboratories, are well aware that most projects, both small and large, get funded in Japan without going through the kind of rigorous peer review commonly practiced in the U.S. [2]. Worse, some projects are initiated by one or a handful of bureaucrats and influential academics to create their own positions, disregarding whether or not the projects make sense scientifically and economically. So I find this task force approach quite refreshing and hope it sets a precedent to conduct such open and transparent discussions in the eye of tax payers from now on.

I have been advocating that all large project proposals should be written in English and be scrutinized by a capable peer review team that include foreign experts of the subject. By so doing, we can avoid unnecessary duplication of research efforts already being pursued elsewhere and also identify possible research partners or collaborators. It does not make sense at all to pour hundreds of million dollars to develop, for instance, a super-computer or a telescope, just for the sake of making a No. 1 device in the world, without thinking through whether such an expensive equipment can be jointly developed with international partners. We have to break the insular mentality of the Japanese academic and scientific community by assessing their proposals on large projects.


  1. Hisashi Kobayashi, “The Role of Higher Education in the Age of Globalization,”
    Keynote address at Conference on “Higher Education Reform in Japan and Germany: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead”, February 28, 2006.

    Slides: http://www.hrk.de/de/download/dateien/Vortrag_Kobayashi.pdf

  2. 小林久志「米国の企業及び大学での研究マネジメント」電子通信情報学会誌、vol. 92, No. 5, May 2009, pp-318-326.
  3. アジアの英語教科書のレベルの比較・アジアの中学で接する英語の分量・IBT(Internet based test) TOEFL(2005-2006) の結果(アジア)English_education_and_TOEFL.pdf
  4. “Economy Spells Trouble for Leading Party in Japan,” New York Times, July 19, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/world/asia/19japan.html?pagewanted=1
  5. Type in Google: 国の国内総生産順リスト. There you will get many lists.
  6. Hisashi Kobayashi’s slides: 小林久志「現在日本が直面する課題」Japan’s Problem-October-23-2009.pdf
  7. Response from 宮崎道生and my reply, Parts 1 and 2:
  8. 国際数学・理科教育調査 (TIMSS1995-2003): TIMSS-Wikipedia-Japanese.mht
  9. “U.S. Math Scores Hit a Wall” (Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2009)WSJ-article-Math-Scores.pdf
  10. OECD生徒の学習到達度調査:http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/PISA
  11. ゆとり教育Wikepediahttp://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%86%E3%81%A8%E3%82%8A%E6%95%99%E8%82%B2
  12. 頭脳呼べない「知の鎖国」、科学立国の危機・8、読売新聞2005年2月10日朝刊
  13. 黒川清、新科学技術基本計画と大学改革: 「IDE 現代の高等教育」2006年5月、pp. 32-40.http://kiyoshikurokawa.weblogs.jp/jp/files/20060501.pdf
  14. Kiyoshi Kurokawa: “Opening Japan Up to the World,” Science, Nov. 21, 2008.Kurokawa_Science20081121[1]-4.pdfAlso Kiyoshi Kurokawa’s blog 2008.12.10. “日本を開国へ、My Editorial in Science”, http://www.kiyoshikurokawa.com/jp/2008/12/my-editorial-in.html
  15. Kiyoshi Kurokawa: “How Japan can regain its Vitality” in The Japan Times, Oct. 18, 2009: Kiyoshi Kuokawa’s blog at http://www.kiyoshikurokawa.com/en/2009/10/interview-with.html,Or at a link directly to the above article.http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/eo20091018a1.html
  16. Kiyoshi Kurokawa’s blog: 女性の社会進出はまだまだ遠い。なぜ?先端科学技術大賞の授賞式と『「最後の社会主義国家」日本の苦闘』http://www.kiyoshikurokawa.com/jp/2007/07/post_4505.html
  17. 黒川清「世界に通用する「個人力」がイノベーションの源泉だ」週間東洋経済2007.12.29-2008.1.5.
  18. Kiyoshi Kurokawa’s blog: 2009.10.14. 「外から見る日本」への懸念
  19. Kiyoshi Kurokawa’s blog: Asia Innovation Forum開催;「外から」日本を見る目
  20. 内閣府・アジア青年の家(Asian Youth Exchange Program in Okinawa): http://ayepo.go.jp/
  21. Steve Job’s speech at the Commencement of Stanford University, 2005
    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA
    Text:  http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/1422863/posts
    Article: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/grad-061505.html
  22. Steve Jobs: “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.”
    http://landship.sub.jp/stocktaking/archives/002342.html (UTube video at the end)
  23. President Obama’s speech in Japan, Nov. 13, 2009: Video and article
  24. Philip Yeo, “Trying to Build a Knowledge Based Economy,” in Colloquium Celebrating the Retirement and 70th Birthday of Hisashi Kobayashi, May 8, 2008, Princeton University.
  25. “Interview with Chairman Philip Yeo,” SMA (Singapore Medical Association) News, Vol. 41, No. 11, Nov. 2008.
  26. “Scholarship Awardees by Year,” Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
  27. 19 New Foreign Professors join SNU (Seoul National Univerity)
  28. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century,”
    Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009. pp.94-113.
  29. Ivan Hall, Cartels of The Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop, W.W. Norton & Co. (1998, 208 pages)
  30. Book reviews of Ivan Hall’s book:
  31. アイヴァン・ホール著(鈴木主税訳)「知の鎖国・外国人を排除する日本の知識人産業」毎日新聞社、1998年
  32. 筑波大学・長照二教授不当解雇事件


  33. 文部科学省:http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/kaikei/sassin/1286925.htm

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