About Japanese Universities
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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.

Personal Pages

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 Koza names.)

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 Project.

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 conference attendees.

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.

Lab Pages

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.

Department Names

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 elsewhere.

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.

Class Schedules

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.

Class Syllabi

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.

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