Your first impressions of a Japanese university will probably come
from its web site, where you will doubtless notice some oddities.
This page explains some underlying reasons.
Faculty pages are often frustrating. Many fail to convey such basic
information as research content or course content, emphasizing instead
grants, prizes, press releases, and society memberships.
(Sometimes you're lucky to find a personal page at all. In the
olden days, a faculty member's role was fixed for life, and stated in
the name of his Koza (chair); for example "Harbor Engineering" or "Heat
Transfer Engineering", and even today there are departments which
publish no more information on faculty research than a list of the
The focus on grants can be explained by the fact that, in a
centralized society, a researcher's worth depends on validation from
the Authorities, which can take the form of grants awarded,
memberships on national committees, or a role in a long-term National
Pride in prizes can be seen as an effect of the strong egalitarian
tradition in Japan, where one man's opinion is as good as anyone
else's. For academia this means that no one can ignore the opinions
of the masses, as reflected by media attention. Even many
reputable-sounding awards are in fact also reflections of popular
acclaim, because most academic prizes are awarded, not by committee of
the elite, but by a casual vote of all society members, or even of all
It is also common to see long lists of publication titles with no
links to content, or even just counts of publications. In Japan there
is an emphasis on evaluation that is "fair" in the sense of being
objective, which implies that someone with 8 journal articles is
presumed better than someone with 7. This is of course convenient for
bureaucrats making funding decisions without technical expertise, but
also for university administrators, who are sometimes too weak and too
busy to use evaluation criteria different than those which Joe
Taxpayer would understand and agree too.
The prominence given to society memberships can perhaps be explained
by cultural factors, but their practical importance also is significant.
In particular, grant reviewing is often done via academic societies.
The Ministry of Education, for one, traditionally sends off grant
proposals to the mostly plausibly relevant academic society, from
which they are forwarded in massive packets to various senior members
for review, with little or no regard for expertise or load. As a
corollary of the importance of societies, interdisciplinary research
tends to be scarce and thin.
On the other hand, laboratory home pages are often quite rich. It is
not uncommon to find a site where all the expertise, interests, and
achievements of the members are pooled, rather than being associated
with individuals. This is in part a relic of the old system, where
the Koza was an administrative unit comprising a full professor, a
junior professor, a technician, a part-time secretary, and a
collection of students at all levels. Even today, in
traditional-minded institutions and in disciplines where it makes
sense, this structure is common.
Japanese universities have many departments with names that are
awkward or implausibly narrow, such as Mechano-Aerospace Engineering,
Knowledge Engineering, and Intelligent Mechanical Systems Engineering.
While this is sometimes due to poor translation, often the Japanese
name is equally odd. This is generally deliberate.
Department names are chosen to appeal to two special constituencies:
the Ministry of Education and potential students. In many Japanese
universities, freshmen are accepted to a specific department, meaning
that they need to make a choice of major while still in high school,
when most are idealistic but ill-informed.
Departments appeal with names that pose a bold juxtaposition or
suggest an exciting future. This is often carried through into a
curriculum whose main feature is a collection of course titles which are
inspiring or intriguing rather than informative.
The bizarre names may also reflect a more general fascination with
novelty, in a country where fashions come and go much faster than
They may also reflect a general concern for image: in a country where
advertising is twice as important as elsewhere (measured as a fraction
of GNP), universities are not immune from the need for aggressive
positioning and branding.
Finding class information on the web is typically hard: many
universities have no centralized list of course offerings or
schedules. Departmental class schedules, on the other hand, are often
visible and tightly structured. In Japan, from first grade up through
graduate school, the day is divided into periods, with something in
every time slot, filling each school day. Thus all juniors in
Electrical Engineering, say, take the same courses in lockstep.
It's rare to find a syllabus on the web; they usually don't exist at
all. Providing a syllabus is a way to give the student a handle on
what he is supposed to learn, thereby empowering him to read ahead, budget
his time, and generally be an active learner. This is not especially
valued in the traditional model of Japanese education.