Liberal Education

In Defense of Japanese Liberal Education

Liberal education has been a target of political discourse in many countries, and Japan is no exception. In June 2015, Japan’s minister of education, Hakubun Shimomura, called upon the country’s national universities to take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.”1

In Japanese higher education, there are three types of institutions: national public, local public, and private. Shimomura’s statement targeted only national universities, which are affected by national policy most directly. The message was clear: the national government wants to focus national resources for higher education on fields that nourish students’ skills that are immediately adaptable to the needs of the labor market, leaving humanities education to institutions of other types—especially private institutions, which rely more heavily on tuition. In other words, the national government no longer wants to spend taxpayers’ money on such individual luxuries as higher education in the humanities.

The first group to react to this announcement was the Science Council of Japan, an organization that represents Japanese academics. A statement issued in July by the council’s executive board noted that “the humanities and social sciences (hereafter HSS) . . . make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole. The HSS are also entrusted with the role of solving—in cooperation with the natural sciences—contemporary problems domestically as well as internationally. In this light, the ministerial request to take ‘active steps to abolish organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs,’ with its specific focus on the HSS, raises a number of alarming questions.”2

Then, in September, the Japan Business Federation also responded: “Outsiders may suppose that the business community that expects immediately-adoptable-vocational skills from college graduates might have urged the government to issue such a statement. However, the reality is quite the opposite: For years, the Federation has advocated the importance of broader cultivation, problem-focusing-and-solving ability, and communication ability in foreign languages for both arts majors and natural science majors.”3 Two days later, Minister Shimomura publicly clarified his statement, saying that the intent is to abolish only those teacher training programs that do not require students to be licensed teachers—not to abolish the humanities or the social sciences. Though the effect of this clarification is not entirely clear—Shimomura did not withdraw his original statement—the immediate danger seems to be over. But is it really?

Historical context

This series of events from 2015 was not the first time Japanese higher education has experienced a policy change affecting liberal education. In fact, liberal education has always been the target of major political discussions of higher education management. The modern Japanese system of higher education was founded in 1877, when the University of Tokyo was established as the Imperial University. At that time, the university was deemed to be an institution in which professional education was provided through majors including law, natural science, literature, medicine, pharmacy, and, a little later, engineering. Liberal education in those early days was provided in high schools that were designed to prepare students for the university. This basic division of responsibility between the university and the high school remained unchanged for several decades.

After the end of the Second World War, however, the landscape changed. In 1947, under the US occupation, the Standards for the Establishment of Universities, the fundamental regulations governing all forms of college education, were issued. The standards set requirements for general education that included the humanities, foreign languages, social sciences, natural science, and physical education. Later, minimum requirements in undergraduate courses were set as four credit hours for physical education, eight for foreign languages, and thirty-six for other general education courses. This basic curriculum was required of all undergraduate students at four-year institutions. The design of this new national curriculum was heavily influenced by the US Education Mission to Japan. Commenting on Japanese higher education until that time, the mission observed that “for the most part there is too little opportunity for general education, too early and too narrow a specialization, and too great a vocational or professional emphasis. A broader humanistic attitude should be cultivated to provide more background for free thought and a better foundation on which professional training may be based.”4

In this way, general education became a part of Japanese higher education nationwide. In the early years, duplication of content between high school education and college general education was criticized. Moreover, the former high school teachers hired to teach college-level general education courses faced pay schedules that differed from those of faculty members who taught major subjects. Over time, however, separation between high school education and college general education was accomplished, and the pay scales were unified. Nonetheless, there was an unanswered question: What is the purpose of liberal education in Japanese higher education?

A partial answer to this question can be found in the 1991 amendment of the Standards for the Establishment of Universities, which legally dissolved the differentiation between general education and major subjects in order “to enable universities to structure curricula that reflect their own educational ideals and objectives.”5 For the first time since 1947, the quantitative requirement for general education, based on credit hours, was removed from the regulations. This change was intended to support curricular management by individual institutions. In reality, however, the reform resulted in the weakening of liberal education at many institutions, in terms of the number of required credit hours, the number of courses provided, and the overall variety of content. Institutions emphasized language education, and some other general education courses were simply terminated. Since the general education requirement was reduced at individual institutions, students began to earn more credit hours through courses in major subjects, remedial education, or information technology.

This phenomenon may indicate that true liberal education had not been fully embedded in Japanese higher education. General education became a formal requirement in undergraduate education under the strong influence of the United States, and the requirement was in place for almost half a century. Yet, it seems that the Japanese higher education community remained unconvinced of the importance of liberal education. Once colleges were freed from the national regulations governing general education, they focused their curricula on the acquisition of immediate skills.

Planned restructuring

Following the 1991 reform, Japanese colleges shifted away from liberal education at the institutional level. The 2015 statement by the minister of education was probably intended to produce an even more significant shift toward vocational education. The idea behind this new national policy has clear affinities with the current atmosphere in Japan’s national universities. There was a three-month gap between the issuance of the ministerial statement in June and its clarification in September. During that time, several media outlets conducted surveys of national universities. One such survey from July 2015 found that, of sixty national universities that provided majors in the humanities or social sciences, twenty-six institutions were planning either to terminate those majors or to convert them to other fields.6 Another survey revealed that twenty-five of forty-two national universities with humanities or social sciences majors were planning to restructure in accordance with the minister’s statement. This survey also found that twenty-five institutions deemed that statement to be “understandable,” two regarded it as “unwillingly acceptable,” and only two said it was “definitely unacceptable.”7 These figures speak for themselves, supporting speculation that liberal education has not been fully embedded in Japanese higher education over the past half century. They may also be evidence that “a kind of compliance culture in the universities” toward governmental policy has matured over the decades.8

To be fair, there are many people in the Japanese higher education community who seem fully to understand the purposes of liberal education. For example, Shinzo Koizumi, the former president of Keio University, wrote that “books for immediate use will be useless books soon. . . . Spirit and culture of mankind has been nourished by books for non-immediate use.” He also quotes one of his colleagues from the department of engineering who said that “skills for immediate use will be useless skills soon.”9 There are many others in Japan who support liberal education. But apparently, what the Japanese have failed to do is to establish our own valuation of liberal education, one different from an implanted foreign idea.

What kind of difference do we really expect liberal education to make for students? It is time for educators and administrators in Japanese higher education—not only independently, but also collaboratively—to reflect and represent the value of liberal education in ways that will bear the test of time. In this regard, associations like the Japan Association for College and University Education, which recently established an official partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, may want to play a significant role in redefining the outline and purposes of liberal education in Japan.


1. Jack Grove, “Social Sciences and Humanities Faculties ‘to Close” in Japan after Ministerial Intervention: Universities to Scale Back Liberal Arts and Social Science Courses,” Times Higher Education, September 14, 2015,

2. “On the Future Direction of the University: In Relation to the Departments/Graduate Schools of Teacher Training and Humanities and Social Sciences,” Statement of the Executive Board of Science Council of Japan, July 23, 2015,

3. Japan Business Federation, “Policy on National University Reform,” September 9, 2015,

4. Report of the United States Education Mission to Japan (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1946), 431–32.

5. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, “Remaking Universities: Continuing Reform of Higher Education,” 1, 3 (1), June 1995,

6. “26 Japanese Universities to Abolish Humanities, Social Sciences,” Asia One, August 25, 2015,

7. “Eighty per cent of National Universities to Reconstruct Departments of Humanities or Social Science,” NHK, July 19, 2015.

8. Howard Newby, Thomas Weko, David Breneman, Thomas Johanneson, and Peter Maassen, OECD Reviews of Tertiary Education: Japan (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2009), 36.

9. Shinzo Koizumi, On Reading (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1950), 12.

Rie Mori is a professor at the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation in Tokyo, Japan, and a member of the Japan Association for College and University Education’s Committee for International Affairs.

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