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‘Japanese Government to Abolish Humanities in Universities!’ – and other myths

‘Some of this misrepresentation seems to me to be willful, or, willfully ignorant’

Because Japan lies on the globe’s geographical, cultural, and linguistic periphery (assuming one is using a Eurocentric model) it lends itself particularly well to being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. But some of this misrepresentation seems to me to be willful, or, willfully ignorant. Perhaps the perpetrators assume that no one who actually lives here, speaks the language, and has an intimate understanding as to how the country operates, will notice or call them out for their myths and fallacies. As a result, all types of BS gets passed off as ‘Japan News’.


One of my favourite Japan myths can be found here at which claims (along with several similar websites) that all residents of Miyakejima (an island near Tokyo) must wear gas masks at all times (not true, although they are required to have one handy) but, more germane to my point,  goes on to state that the accompanying photo (below) is an authentic shot of the Miyakejima islanders  circa 2005 — which is just so unbelievably, viscerally, patently, ridiculous that you’d have eat a giant-sized bowl of Gullible Flakes to believe it. And yes, I’ve been to Miyakejima.



Yeah, right. 


Another popular Japan myth can be found at: (again there are various versions of this item wandering around the web) which claims that Muslims cannot get permanent residency or rent an apartment in Japan, that one can’t import an Arabic Quran, that Arabic languages are not taught in Japanese universities etc. This will surely come as a surprise to the many Muslim long-term medical researchers from Indonesia (and elsewhere) just down the hall from my office who live normal lives in Japan, or those who worship at the recently built Islamic Center (de facto Mosque) on our main campus or in the prayer room set up five doors down. Again, people are just pulling stuff out of their butts to create or fit an existing self-invented ‘Japan narrative’. Fortunately, in this case at least, it has been widely debunked.


‘Jumping to hasty, overblown conclusions was the best use of their (supposedly superior) critical powers’


Some people should know better though, as in the case of the recent, ‘The Japanese Government has ordered universities to stop teaching humanities!’ scaremongering headlines (many of these articles can be easily found with a basic Google search). They should know better because many of the writers and commenters live in Japan and thus should have access to more accurate, nuanced information. Others, usually commenters on these stories and also apparently living in Japan, uncritically swallow the headline in a single blind gulp.


Some articles were reasonably accurate and balanced in their coverage, but that didn’t stop comments from readers who apparently didn’t bother to read the article correctly (or at all) and felt that jumping to hasty, overblown conclusions was the best use of their (supposedly superior) critical powers. Go ahead, take a gander at some for yourself.

shocked reader


So, what really happened? Did the Japanese Ministry of Education really order all Japanese universities to stop teaching the humanities? No. Not. Even. Close.


In June of 2015, an advisory body within the MoE (usually known locally as MEXT or Monkasho) sent a notice to all national universities making suggestions as to how to revamp and revitalize their faculties, particularly the humanities. From this fact alone there are several things you should know:


1. It was a notice. It was not an order, a directive, or an edict. No university was compelled to comply (although it is true that specific funding would likely be harder to come by for some of those who chose to ignore the notice). Some have refused (including kingpin unis Tokyo U. and Kyoto U.). Japanese national universities have maintained a fundamental level of independence and self-reliance since partial privatization just over a decade earlier. Nagatacho does not ‘run’ them.


2. It addressed only national universities. There are 86 national universities in the country. There are now just over 800 accredited universities in Japan in total, so we are looking at 11% of universities being affected. Private and municipal universities tend to be very focused upon the humanities, so there is nothing to stop prospective students from entering those schools and following a specific humanities field of interest and gaining a degree.


3. Of the 86 national universities, 43 responded to the notice by stating they would in some way restructure their humanities faculties. Ergo, 43 did not. Of those 43, 26 announced that this would include a revision of their humanities (largely fine arts and social sciences) programs. So, the raw numbers now show us that 26 of the total 800 plus universities in Japan are reviewing (not abolishing) their humanities faculty structuring based upon the notice. Now, if I’m missing something here please call me on it, but that’s under 4%, for you math-challenged humanities majors. More on this later.


4. The notice did not simply command university administrators to abolish humanities teaching. Rather, it encouraged those humanities faculties that did not lead to certification in some field (for example, gaining an actual teacher’s license) to revamp so as to become a program that leads to certification OR to revamp the faculty to tie in with specific regional interests OR to align/merge the current faculty with some other, more socially productive, faculty.


Let me dwell on this last point a bit. My own university was one that chose to change (although not my own faculty, as I’m in the fortress-like Faculty of Medicine). It chose to do so by changing its Faculty of Education to include a Regional Studies focus and thus will become the Faculty of Regional Studies.


This means that students will be encouraged and directed to apply their newly-learned skills and knowledge within the local region/community. Some courses within the faculty will be duly revamped, again not abolished, in order to meet this goal. Other universities I know of are aiming at tying their courses in with national licensing or certification programs. Yet others are merging with other faculties in order to place the humanities within a more readily applicable or utilizable field. And, again, some are choosing to stay put.


falling sky


So, no, the sky is not falling. But wait, I’m not done yet.


‘A surprising naivete regarding how STEM-based university education anywhere is managed’ 


A number of comments following these, umm, ‘selective’ articles — hive-mind themes and related narratives — reveal a surprising naivete regarding how STEM-based university education anywhere is managed and, more ironically, a notable lack of awareness/critical thinking skills. Sure, not everyone has the same access to Japanese sources or more detailed data that I might (my being in an affected Japanese university — although none of what I wrote above is secret), but much of what was written under the alarmist headlines was, nonetheless, piss-poor shallow analysis. Allow me to elaborate.


Do medical, technology, and engineering majors ever take humanities courses? Of course they do! Ever hear of pre-med? In their first few years, such students are required to get a foundation of humanities: ethics, sociology, lit, psych, language arts — the usual suspects (most of my own Medical English classes fall under this banner). Did the MoE say that these humanities classes would now be dropped from these faculties? Of course not! Universities are not vocational schools. So why the rush, by people who should know better, to claim that Japanese STEM major students would suddenly not be getting any humanities education at all? Where is the basis, the rationale, for that conclusion? Didn’t these commenters/writers actually attend a university previously? If only they had thought more critically…


critical thinking


Which leads me to another point…


Why on earth do some commenters believe (based on their incorrect and irrational understanding that STEM majors would not be studying any humanities at all) that this would lead to a lack of critical thinking, decreased ethics/empathy, and in particular, a regression in the sort of thinking which ‘challenges the status quo’, from the student populace? Let’s apply a little critical thinking here (irony intended)…


Is critical thinking or ethics something learned only when imparted by a humanities teacher at a university? As if none could think critically, empathize, or behave ethically before a university arts instructor told them how to… Hmm.


 ‘Some commenters appear to not understand what critical thinking actually means’


Taking it one step further, why should one assume that someone studying the development of, say, modern Thai language is somehow more of a critical thinker than one studying applied physics? Why believe that someone researching Etruscan sculpture is likely to be more of a critic of the establishment than someone researching stem cells? Why assume that the journalism major will somehow automatically be imbued with greater ethical sensibilities than an ecological engineer? Does the person who studies graphic design always use greater problem solving skills than an MBA candidate trying to understand the economic vectors for pricing a product?


The notion that those who major in the humanities (and I speak as one who did) are somehow superior critical thinkers, more humane, more ethical, and more adept at solving real-life problems than those majoring in STEM subjects is merely self-serving hubris — emotional reactions piggybacking on popular stereotypes – far removed from any accepted notion of critical thinking (and you might have observed that some commenters appear to not understand what critical thinking actually means – conflating it with contrarian or anti-authoritarian rhetoric).


‘For those teaching English (and for those learning English) at universities I would actually say it’s a good thing


The bottom line is that the notice given to national universities was hardly drastic. In fact, for those teaching English (and for those learning English) at universities I would actually say it’s a good thing! I’ve long been an advocate of university English being either CLIL (content learning) or ESP (specific purposes) based. Those required courses in ENDP (English for no discernible purpose) have long been a pedagogical albatross for students and instructors alike. Thanks to this shift in orientation, English learning at universities can become more focused and directed, not dragging students down as if it were some kind of overgrown, required English conversation school classroom.


ball chain


The MoE’s notice is, generally speaking, good for national universities and, further, is good for positive and meaningful English education. As for the mythmakers, you are myth-busted.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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