About Japanese Universities
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Observations 2:       Visiting
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If you visit a Japanese university it will feel different. This page discusses the reasons.


Most campuses are surrounded by walls, with the gates closed at night, and manned for ID check on entrance-exam days. It's easy to see a metaphor for the traditional relation between the university and society.


Most campuses are crowded of course, but beyond that, the buildings are cluttered. Campus planning, along with other responsibilities of the central administration, tends to be weak. This is in part due to the fact that deans and even presidents tend to be rotated every few years (presumably for fear that longer terms would allow them to amass power at the expense of the faculty, and of the Ministry). As a result an entrepreneurial professor who has conjured up some building funds will probably get the green light to start construction.

A contributing problem at national universities is the "supplemental budgets" designed to pump money into the economy in the final months of the fiscal year. Whereas planning in general is glacial, easily held up by any vested interest, supplemental budgets are cobbled together in a rush of excitement and time pressure, and university administrations are in no position to do anything but say yes to whatever manna the Ministry and the politicians chose to provide. This takes the form of a politically appropriate amount, based only loosely on any real need, which then translates fairly rigidly into a square footage, with the result that a building of that size gets plonked down on whatever parking lot, tennis court, or grove of trees is not yet built over.


Buildings tend to be ill-maintained, at least in public universities. The national budget includes (at least until the reforms of 2004) line-items for each specific university department or center, with little or nothing for the university as a whole. Within each department faculty interests dictate that the bulk of the money goes to research, with things like grounds upkeep, building maintenance, cleaning, and soap in the bathrooms done on the cheap or cut altogether.


In the dirty buildings the research laboratories are often overflowing with shiny expensive equipment. In Japan, as elsewhere, faculty are evaluated in part based on the funding they bring in. In Japan, however, faculty salaries are for 12 months, grad students traditionally do not expect to be supported, technicians generally cannot be hired with soft money, and overhead is very low, so the only real possibility for spending is equipment. It is also the case that grant reviewers smile upon proposals where the budget is mostly for equipment, perhaps reflecting the fact that in the Japanese economy overall capital investment is highly valued, and indeed forms an unusually large fraction of GNP.

Research Reports

Visitors are often presented with a bound volume of all the lab's publications over the past fiscal year or two. The point of this is of course the size; a large number of pages proves that the lab is productive. These bound volumes exist also for another reason: multi-year research awards typicaly require a formal report at the end and include a budget item for a large print-run. The extra copies are mailed off to various interested (or uninterested) researchers and libraries, with the remainder stacked up to await visitors. It's often said that Japan is a country where producer interests take precedence over consumer needs, and research is not entirely an exception.

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