Free Your Mind

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Nestled in farm country within sight of Mt. Fuji, Keio University's Shonan Fujisawa campus doesn't look like an institution on the cutting edge. Students say they can't use the tennis courts at night because the lights might keep cows in nearby pastures awake. Pungent barnyard smells sometimes waft past the campus' glass-and-concrete libraries and lecture halls. Yokohama, the biggest city nearby, is more than half an hour away. But far from being a backwater, Shonan Fujisawa is an unusual beacon of change in Japan's troubled university system. Instead of cookie-cutter bureaucrats and blue-suited corporate clones--the traditional crop of top Japanese schools, including Keio--Shonan Fujisawa is trying to nurture something new: entrepreneurs and independent thinkers. Says Hiroaki Wakashita, a communications-technology student: Shonan Fujisawa is going with the Western ideal--individuals who can work for themselves. Those are the creative types many Japanese say their country needs in order to revitalize itself. Most universities are still geared to mass-producing graduates who can cram facts, follow orders and work impossibly long hours. That's what Japan Inc. wanted when manufacturing was king and the economy was booming. But times have changed. Fleeter, information-based companies are taking over. Japan's top business lobby, the Keidanren, is clamoring for well-rounded grads who can handle an Internet IPO as smoothly as a night on the town with gaijin business partners in New York. The Education Ministry is listening. It has rolled out a reform blueprint aimed at boosting standards in undergraduate and graduate programs and loosening rules that make the universities so rigidly uniform. This year it is letting students enroll in the fall (instead of only in the spring) and making it easier to earn degree credits outside the university. Also in the works: allowing undergrads to finish in three years instead of four. By making universities more flexible, the ministry hopes to spark more creativity on campus. It is also encouraging schools to leaven curriculums with more liberal arts classes. The 21st century will be a time of tremendous change, says Hideaki Matsugi, a ministry official working on the reform program. We won't get through it without this. Critics call these moves piecemeal. They say universities have not veered sufficiently from their traditional role of catering to big business instead of the individual. Such conservatism is hardly surprising. The ministry's bureaucrats have spent much of the postwar period trying to roll back the liberal educational reforms brought in under the American occupation. Conservatives have felt the reforms put too much stress on individual freedoms and not enough on citizens' duties to the state. So there is skepticism about the ministry's top-down push to encourage Japanese students to pursue their own ends, as a ministry-commissioned report puts it. What they are trying to do is a kind of planned spontaneity, says Ivan Hall, a U.S. expert on Japanese education who has also taught in the country. Until recently, what happened on Japan's campuses didn't matter that much. Students got into university by passing a single make-or-break exam, after years of grueling study and after-school cramming. Admittance to select institutions like Keio or Tokyo universities guaranteed a slot at a prestigious ministry or name-plate company. So once students made it in the door, they spent their time socializing and networking rather than studying. Companies didn't care--they preferred to mold new recruits once they were hired. But when Japan's economy hit a wall, many graduates of this system were ill-prepared for the new era of rapid change and open markets. Employers began to realize that, to succeed in places like the U.S., they needed people with better computer skills, smoother English and a broader, more cosmopolitan outlook. Companies can't simply plant their banners overseas; they need people who can get involved in local communities, says Satoshi Suzukibashi, who follows education issues for the Keidanren. This is a response to globalization. Shonan Fujisawa should be a hot recruiting ground. Many of its students are returnees, kids who have lived overseas and are often bilingual, giving the campus a more international, open feel. Students say teachers are motivated and approachable, a rarity at Japanese universities. Community leaders are brought in to lecture as well. While some classes are huge--up to 750 people--they are balanced by small research groups where professors work with a few students at a time. And to encourage a can-learn attitude, students are asked to help with the teaching. But even if other universities manage to follow Shonan Fujisawa's liberal model, it isn't clear that companies are fully prepared for the results. They say they want change, but once they get students from us they say we aren't 'cooperative,' complains Wakashita, the communications-tech student. The school's grads clash with a culture in which arguing one's point of view is seen as disruptive. Graduates of Tokyo's Jesuit-run Sophia University face a similar problem, laments its president, Father William Currie. Companies fear Sophia's female grads are too Westernized--they expect to be promoted along with the men. That is too intimidating for a lot of Japanese companies, says Currie. The education system can't change until the companies change. That challenge goes to the heart of the problems of Japan's higher-education system. When it first set up universities in the late 19th century, Japan was racing to catch up with the West and avoid being colonized. Japanese leaders wanted technology and practical know-how, but not the West's liberal intellectual traditions. Keio's founder, Yukichi Fukuzawa, disagreed: in the 1870s, he argued that Japan also needed such liberal ideas to build a secure country. He tried to put his ideals into practice at Keio, but over the years the fire went out. At Shonan Fujisawa, many of the kids see themselves as trying to revive it. Says Yurina Tanaka, a second-year student of environmental policy, computers and communications: What we are doing here isn't just about getting a job. We can change society, bit by bit.