Photo by Geoffrey Rockwell

On Starving the Humanities and Social Sciences of Students and Funding in Japan: 4Humanities’ View

On June 8th, 2015 the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology informed national universities that they should cut or change their departments associated with the humanities and social sciences (HSS). The “nonbinding” notice went to the 86 national universities – universities that depend on the government for support for about 44% of their funding. It asked for plans, which many believe will then be taken into account by the Ministry in the allocation of future funds. A follow up survey of national university presidents found that at least 26 had plans to stop accepting students into HSS programs, though the important universities of Tokyo and Kyoto have refused.

4Humanities is concerned by this Directive which follows similar cuts to HSS programs around the world. We believe that a dramatic scaling back of the humanities and social sciences will have deleterious effects on the creativity, interdisciplinarity, and global knowledge capacity of Japan at the very time when it is facing international political and trade challenges. “The Heart of the Matter,” a report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, offers this observation in response to recent similar, if less official, attacks on HSS about the role of the humanities and social sciences in the United States:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, … the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter…

Photo by Geoffrey Rockwell
photo credit: Geoffrey Rockwell


Some believe this drastic Japanese directive is part of the current Abe government’s focus on economic renewal, an attempt to deal with growing debt, and a response to dropping enrolments. The government is trying to prod universities to reorient their programs towards more immediately useful vocational skills. According to a news story by Shusuke Murai, “Subsidies used as carrot to prod national universities to streamline, ditch humanities” (Japan Times) these cuts are being promoted by the Finance Ministry. A Finance bureaucrat in charge of education is quoted in Murai’s article as saying, in an interview posted on the web, that:

We need to reallocate financial resources from (academic) fields that don’t necessarily match the needs of society to new fields (with greater need), … It’s a scrap-and-build scheme.

A longer analytical article by Jeff Kingston in The Asia-Pacific Journal titled “Japanese University Humanities and Social Sciences Programs Under Attack” starts by suggesting that the directive may be being misinterpreted or over interpreted when what the government really intended was to ask universities to plan for decreasing enrolments. Kenn Nakata Steffenson likewise writes that the “main target of reform is the 10 national teacher training universities, for reasons to do with demographic change, academic standards and perceived societal needs.” (“Japan and the Social Sciences”)

Kingston nevertheless points out that if this is a misunderstanding, a lot of people have misunderstood and a number of universities are taking drastic action as if it were a threat to cut funding. He goes on to suggest other reasons the Abe government might want to curtail the HSS including:

  • The need for general budget cuts in education,
  • Anti-intellectualism in the Abe government, and
  • Attempts to stifle criticism of the government by HSS students and faculty.

Responses to the Controversy

The bad tradition of evaluating academic learning and sciences in terms of their utility, with private-sector enterprises meddling in higher education, is still alive in Japan. (Sawa, “Humanities Under Attack”)

The directive has elicited commentary and responses from a wide spectrum of media and interested parties both in Japan and worldwide. One response in the Japan Times was from Takamitsu Sawa, President of Shiga University, one of the first Japanese academics to answer. In a commentary in the Japan Times titled “Humanities Under Attack,” Sawa pointed out that such reforms have been proposed before (in 1960). Despite previous attempts to cut HSS, “A majority of Japanese political, bureaucratic and business leaders today are still those who studied the humanities and social sciences.”

The President of the University of Tokyo, in his Address at the 2015 Autumn Matriculation Ceremony, reinforced the importance of the humanities by talking about the challenge in the humanities of studying Buddhist texts. He gave a digital humanities project as an example from which we can learn how knowledge should be shared:

Professor Masahiro Shimoda, at the Center for Evolving Humanities of the Faculty of Letters, launched a unique collaboration project to construct a digital database of the Taisho Shinshû Daizôkyô. He completed the project in 2007. It has become a new standard for studies in humanities, paving the way for a field called Digital Humanities. I believe it will spread around the world.

The Science Council of Japan has expressed their “profound concern over the potentially grave impact that such an administrative directive implies for the future of the HSS in Japan and the very idea of the university itself…” The SCJ goes on to assert that many of the challenges we face call for collaboration between the sciences and HSS.

Photo by Geoffrey Rockwell

4Humanities’s Response

4Humanities shares the concerns of the Science Council of Japan. We are encouraged that the Ministry may have reversed itself, correcting the first impressions of the directive and clarifying that it was simply asking for reform, not abolishment. (Phro, “Are Japan’s national universities actually getting rid of their humanities departments?”) Nevertheless we believe that the initial interpretation of the Directive needs to be addressed as it follows a pattern of government cuts to the humanities and social sciences in the name of economic expediency. 4Humanities believes:

  • The problems we face globally, from climate change to terrorism, call for the integration of the knowledge and skills of the humanities and social sciences with those of the STEM disciplines. The problems we face will not be solved just by science or technology.
  • Even if the sole goal of universities was economic competitiveness, Japan needs the humanities and social sciences more than ever. HSS are the disciplines that teach creative and critical thinking along with the languages, literatures, and histories of other countries with which Japan engages.
  • As Japan transitions from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy it needs to invest in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
  • The HSS have been shown to make a long-term difference to student jobs and career opportunities. Japan should give prospective students real choices.
  • Starving the HSS risks isolating Japan just as its population is decreasing and its economy is struggling.
  • Japan has rich cultural traditions from poetry to videogames that are important cultural exports. It is to Japan’s HSS scholars that we turn for help understanding these traditions. It would a shame to Japanese scholars were no longer participating in the larger conversations about culture, literature, the arts and play.
Geoffrey Rockwell is a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta and a founding member of 4Humanities. He studies text analysis, visualization, and videogames. He is a co-organizer of the Replaying Japan International Japan Game Studies Conferences. He spent time at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto as a Japan Foundation Japan Studies Fellow and has been studying Pachinko from a game studies perspective.


Works Cited:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “The Heart of the Matter.” 2013.

Department of Education and Training, Australian Government. “Higher education reform in Japan – update.” June 2015.

Gonokami , Makoto. “Address of the President of the University of Tokyo at the 2015 Autumn Matriculation Ceremony.”

Grove, Jack. “Social sciences and humanities faculties ‘to close’ in Japan after ministerial intervention.” Times Higher Education. Sept. 14, 2015.

Kingston, Jeff. “Japanese University Humanities and Social Sciences Programs Under Attack.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 39, No. 1, September 28, 2015.

Murai, Shusuke. “Subsidies used as carrot to prod national universities to streamline, ditch humanities.” Japan Times. June 25, 2015.

Phro, Preston. “Are Japan’s national universities actually getting rid of their humanities departments?” Rocket News 24. Sept. 23, 2015.

Sawa, Takamitsu. “Humanities Under Attack.” Japan Times. Aug. 23, 2015.

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

Steffensen, Kenn Nakata. “Japan and the social sciences: behind the headlines.” Times Higher Education. Sept. 30, 2015.

4 thoughts on “On Starving the Humanities and Social Sciences of Students and Funding in Japan: 4Humanities’ View

  1. Are you aware that the reports of this alleged attack were essentially bogus and that almost nothing changed?

    Some “education” departments that produced graduates who could not qualify for a teaching credential were slated for closure. Some social science departments were given new names to make them more trendy.

    That’s all that happened and apparently all the government wanted.

      1. The government did NOT soften its stance. It could not soften its stance because there never was a policy as described in the article. The author of the piece referenced by the URL “the government softened their position” does not read Japanese and knows essentially nothing about higher education in Japan.

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