The entire Japanese public university system attempts a massive queen sacrifice

Wielding an enormous ax, the Japanese minister of education has apparently decided his country’s universities no longer need humanities and social sciences departments.


[according to] a letter from education minister Hakuban Shimomura sent to all of Japan’s 86 national universities, which called on them to take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organisations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”.

Yasuda Auditorium on the University of Tokyo's Hongō CampusI’m not sure how much enforcement power minister Shimomura has.  The Times piece mentions some universities refusing to comply, but also

Of the 60 national universities that offer courses in these disciplines, 26 have confirmed that they will either close or scale back their relevant faculties at the behest of Japan’s government.


7 national universities will stop recruiting students to humanities and social science courses – including law and economics, according to a survey of university presidents by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which was reported by the blog Social Science Space.

Apparently the minister has issued statements along these lines earlier this year and in 2014, so the anti-humanities, anti-social-sciences stance isn’t new.  Shimomura seems to be quite, ah, a character.

There are two interesting resonances with the American queen sacrifice strategy.  First, there’s obviously the anti-humanities, pro-vocational and/or pro-STEM angle:

The call to close the liberal arts and social science faculties are believed to be part of wider efforts by president Shinzo Abe to promote what he has called “more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society”.

Second, the context Shimomura’s move recalls the challenges facing many American institutions:

[I]t is likely to be connected with ongoing financial pressures on Japanese universities, linked to a low birth rate and falling numbers of students, which have led to many institutions running at less than 50 per cent of capacity.

Can we learn anything about American higher ed from Japan’s example, as they are somewhat ahead of the US on the demographic transformation curve?  For example, would we see some American businesses support the humanities and social sciences, as does this Japanese group?

Can someone with more knowledge about contemporary Japanese politics offer insight into why this move, and why now?

(thanks to the indispensable Phil Long for the link; image of Tokyo University from Wikipedia)


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14 Responses to The entire Japanese public university system attempts a massive queen sacrifice

  1. Thanks Bryan. I echo your last bit: “Can someone with more knowledge about contemporary Japanese politics offer insight into why this move, and why now?”

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I wonder what ounties might be susceptible to system wide queen sacrifices

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  7. Earl H. Kinmonth says:

    This article is full of factual errors beginning with the headline. The national universities are not the sum total of the public university system in Japan. There are public universities funded and controlled by prefectures and municipal governments.

    To summarize what the government actually asked for was the closing of programs in education that did not lead to a teaching credential and a redirection of other programs to a more regional or international orientation.

    Nothing much happened except some amalgamation and name changes.

    • Greetings, Earl, and thank you for weighing in.

      Good point about the entire system. Do you know what proportion of higher ed is national, and which is prefectural and city-based?

      Good to know what nothing much happened. Why didn’t more occur?

      • Latest figures I could quickly find (2013) show Japan with 782 universities of which 86 are national, 90 are public other than national, and 606 are private. Student numbers are roughly proportional to the these categories. In other words, even if the government directive (it was not a “letter”) had said what some claimed, the impact would have been limited and private universities would have been more than happy to pick up the slack.

        Nothing much happened because what the directive asked for was two things:

        (1) that social science and humanities programs be given either a more regional or more international orientation;

        This was done by most of the universities that have such programs. There is nothing sinister about saying that university programs should pay attention to either regional or international issues.

        (2) that education programs that did not lead to a teaching credential be phased out.

        These programs in education had in fact been introduced at government suggestion as a holding pen for surplus arts and humanities faculty that could not be discharged when enrollments in regular education programs (those leading to a teaching credential) declined. Anyone who knew the history of these programs would have understood what was being said.

        The whole foreign reaction with only two or three exceptions was totally hysterical and based on profound ignorance of the Japanese higher education system. A few foreign nationals in Japanese national universities quickly wrote correctives, but they were ignored.

        Japanese language coverage was initially not much better but subsequently articles, at least one book, and government statements (as well as government action) proved that a wide segment of the media and many Japanese universities administrators had shot off their mouths before they had actually looked carefully at government policy.

      • Earl, when was this done: “programs in education had in fact been introduced at government suggestion as a holding pen for surplus arts and humanities faculty”?

        • These holding pen programs came in around 2006. My university although in the private sector had one that it is only just now phasing out. It was obvious at the time why they were being created and since each and every progman new or reorganized has to be approved, it was clear that the government was backing this policy. A very small number of Japanese language articles on the alleged elimination of arts and humanities from national universities make the point that no one should have been surprised by a call out phase out these programs because they had been set up as a temporary measure to begin with.

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