Conceptual and concrete views of globalisation on a multicultural Japanese university campus

Ana Sofia Hofmeyr, Kansai University [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 1 (Article 4 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 29 April 2018.


In 2014, 37 universities were selected as part of the Top Global University Project to act as institutional role models of internationalisation in Japan and as gateways for the development of global human resources. This study, based on a quantitative survey, aimed to explore the views of 355 domestic students at a highly diverse Japanese university campus with regards to globalisation, both as a concept and as a concrete phenomenon with direct impact on their current and future lives. Results show that the majority of students believe Japan should be a globalised country and emphasise the need for young Japanese people to be interculturally competent and to speak English, more so than other foreign languages. However, contrary to the globalisation rhetoric, many students were unsure about concrete linguistic and cultural changes on campus. In general, students with no experience abroad were less likely to identify benefits in the acquisition of foreign languages and intercultural competence.

Keywords: internationalisation, globalisation, higher education, Japan, Top Global University project, global human resources, intercultural competence, foreign language acquisition.


The internationalisation of higher education has attracted much attention from administrators and scholars since the 1980s, and a range of increasingly complex definitions, rationales and strategies have been put forward throughout this period (Knight and de Wit 1995). In 2004, Knight redefined internationalisation in a broader context as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education” (Knight 2004, p.11), allowing for a range of rationales, approaches and strategies tailored to national and institutional needs.

The Japanese government, in a distinct attempt to internationalise universities through the recruitment of international students, announced in 1983 the “100,000 by 2000” plan, aimed at recruiting 100,000 higher education international students by 2000. Although the number fell short at about 64,000, it was six times higher than the number of existing international students in 1983, when the plan was first announced (Horie 2002). This target number was finally achieved in 2003 (Yonezawa 2014), and it was followed in 2007 by the plan to attract 300,000 international students by 2020, in order to improve international competitiveness, increase intellectual contribution, and promote cooperation, understanding and friendship (MEXT n.d.).

In 2009, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced the Global 30 funding programme involving 13 universities, which sought to establish a university network for internationalisation mainly by attracting higher numbers of international students, promoting academic cooperation with overseas institutions, and creating undergraduate degrees taught in English (MEXT 2011). The funding programme was originally set to last five years and it was replaced in 2014 with the Top Global University Project (TGU), which selected a total of 37 universities among over 100 applicants, but essentially retained identical goals and strategies. 13 Type A and 24 Type B universities were selected as part of the TGU Project to act as institutional role models of internationalisation in Japan and as the training grounds for the development of global jinzai, that is, global human resources. Type A institutions were those identified as having the potential to be ranked in the top 100 in the world, whereas Type B were acknowledged as innovative institutions, leaders of the internationalisation process in Japan (MEXT 2014). In addition to these programmes, the Japanese government aims to attract 300,000 international students by 2020 in an effort further to internationalise educational institutions (MEXT n.d.).

Amano (2014) identified three factors, which led to an increased pressure to reform Japanese higher education institutions, partially through internationalisation strategies: the population decline and resulting need to attract a sufficient number of students; the economic turndown, which slowed down Japan’s technological progress in comparison to the West; and the deregulation of universities, which led to a surge in the number of higher education institutions and, subsequently, to more competition for performance-based grants among national, public and private universities. Moreover, the positions of Japanese universities in world rankings have consistently fallen in recent years, partially due to low scores in their “international outlook” in comparison to American and British universities (Rafferty 2016). Internationalisation in Japanese universities, mainly through the recruitment of large numbers of international students, is often perceived as the answer to these issues, compensating for the domestic student shortage and bringing in talented students and researchers who can counteract poor research output, while effectively increasing the universities’ “international outlook” and position in world rankings, thus also strengthening applications for national government funding.

Closely related to the internationalisation of higher education in Japan is the concept of global jinzai, defined by The Council on Promotion of Human Resources for Globalization Development (2011) as those who “possess rich linguistic and communication skills and intercultural experiences, and thrive internationally.” The rising popularity of this concept, which bridges internationalisation and globalisation, reflects Japan’s desire to increase and strengthen its position on the global stage by fostering outward-looking young professionals, who wish and are able successfully to build bridges between Japan and other countries.

Nevertheless, while Japanese universities have been encouraged to perceive internationalisation as a solution to a range of problems, and despite the government’s support and emphasis on global jinzai, Japan continues to face difficulties internationalising. The reasons for such difficulties have been thoroughly discussed; they include an inadequate society structure, not equipped to produce globally oriented professionals (Agawa 2011), a lack of synchrony with business goals (Yonezawa 2014) and with the job hunting process (Stewart 2016), and a lack of interest or fear in the West (Stewart 2016). Furthermore, the increasing pressure to internationalise is set against broader concerns regarding internationalisation strategies and quantitative goals set by policy makers, such as the emphasis placed on large numbers of international students and international institutional agreements, as well as on global branding (de Wit 2011; Knight 2011).

Overall, although the Japanese government has continually encouraged and funded internationalisation programmes in higher education institutions for the past 35 years, Japanese universities still fail successfully to internationalise (Yonezawa 2010), with fewer Japanese students studying abroad (The Council on Promotion of Human Resources for Globalization Development 2011), and the continuous drop in world university rankings. The question arises, therefore, as to the impact of Japanese internationalisation programmes on university students’ views and attitudes towards the effects of globalisation in Japan and their perceptions of their assigned role as global jinzai.

Research study

Among the 24 Type B universities selected for the TGU project is Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), which emphasises diversity and a multicultural campus. As of May 2016, Ritsumeikan APU had 49.5% international students from a total of 85 countries and regions. In addition, since its foundation in 2000, 138 countries and regions have been represented (Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University 2016). This campus diversity is unparalleled in Japan. In fact, according to the Times Higher Education Japan University Rankings 2017, the top three Japanese universities—Tokyo University, Tohoku University and Kyoto University had a significantly lower international student body, 10%, 9% and 7%, respectively.

Furthermore, Ritsumeikan APU outlined a 2030 vision focused on the development of global human resources by helping to foster global sense and perspective, cooperation and mutual understanding among its students as well as the development of globally-active international students with an understanding of Japan (The Ritsumeikan Trust 2016b). This is further reinforced by the goals it set to achieve by 2023—100% multicultural cooperative learning in class, 100% students with overseas experience while enrolled, 35% of trilingual students, and 35% quadrilingual students (The Ritsumeikan Trust 2016a).

In view of the highly unique and exceptionally diverse multicultural campus of Ritsumeikan APU as well as its vision and goals as a Top Global Type B university, a study was conducted to determine how Japanese students at a multicultural university campus perceive globalisation in Japan both as an abstract concept, and as a specific phenomenon with concrete effects and a direct impact on their current and future lives.

The study consisted of a quantitative survey, conducted online in Japanese to students of English as a foreign language, with a total of five sections and 24 items focussing on the students’ views of globalisation, development of foreign language and intercultural competence, and levels of interaction with international students, faculty and staff on campus. This article will focus on results from the first and third sections of the survey.

Ritsumeikan APU has two main colleges, the College of Asia Pacific Studies and the College of International Management. Students from both colleges are enrolled in English classes at the Centre for Language Education, ranging from CEFR A1 to B2 level, and represented 60% and 40% of the respondent population respectively. The survey was administered online, in both compulsory classes, which are typically taken by first- and second-year students (92% of respondents) and elective classes (8% of respondents). It was stressed that the survey was both optional and anonymous, and it would not affect the students’ grades.

Of the 355 respondents, 96% identified themselves as Japanese, and 4% as mixed-race—Japanese and one other nationality. Half of the respondents were male, 48% female, and 2% preferred not to identify their gender. Apart from the initial demographics questions, all of the survey items were optional. Nevertheless, there was an average 93% response rate per item.

Two particular factors should be taken into account when discussing the survey results. First, when asked for the three main reasons for having chosen Ritsumeikan APU, 73.5% of students identified the opportunity to meet and interact with international students, by far the most prevalent reason. Other reasons included parents’ recommendations (30.1%), the language classes available (25.3%), the opportunity to be taught by international faculty (24.2%) and the subjects available (23.9%). It is clear, therefore, that for most students, the multicultural campus factored to some extent in their decision. Secondly, only 13.8% of the respondents had no experience abroad whatsoever at the time of the survey. Around 75% of students said they had spent time abroad prior to enrolment, which included but was not exclusive to exchange programmes, study abroad, and travel. Around half of the respondents spent less than a month abroad, 10% spent a total of one to three months abroad, and 15% between four months to over one year. The number of respondents who spent time abroad after enrolment was significantly lower (60%) and of shorter duration—less than 3 months. This is not surprising, however, considering that most of the respondents were first and second year students. Overall, it should be noted that this time abroad very likely contributed to some extent to the student views discussed in this article.


Conceptual views of globalisation

The first section of the survey invited students to rate their agreement level with eight statements related to globalisation and the pertinence of foreign language and intercultural competence education in Japan on a 5-point Likert scale from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (5). Five of these statements referred to globalisation as a concept and young Japanese people as a group, while four others focussed on the students’ individual goals. The primary aim of this section was to differentiate between students’ perceptions of globalisation as a phenomenon affecting present and future Japan and as a phenomenon affecting them as individual students in a uniquely multicultural campus.

In the first two statements students were asked to evaluate whether they thought Japan was and/or should be a globalised country. Only a minority (23.9%) of students agreed that Japan is already globalised whereas most (72.4%) believe it should be. A high percentage of undecided answers indicates that some students might not be sure of what globalisation entails or what it would mean in the Japanese case.

Table 1: Japan is a globalised country
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
13.1% 39.3% 23.6% 20.8% 3.1%
Table 2: Japan should be a globalised country
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
3.7% 5.9% 17.9% 40.3% 32.1%

In the following three statements, students were asked to evaluate whether they thought it was important for young Japanese people to be able to speak English, to speak foreign languages other than English, and to function in international contexts. The overwhelming majority of respondents (83.5%) believes English to be important, but that number decreased to only 66% for other foreign languages. This is possibly due to the continuous prevalence of English as far as foreign language education in Japan is concerned as well as its leading role in worldwide communication.

Table 3: It is important for young Japanese people to be able to speak English
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
2.8% 5.4% 8.2% 32.1% 51.4%
Table 4: It is important for young Japanese people to be able to speak foreign languages (other than English)
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
2.8% 8.2% 22.9% 38.5% 27.48%

Students who did not spend any time abroad, however, showed an overall lower agreement rate with the first four statements, especially with statement 4, which revealed a 0.23 weighted average discrepancy, suggesting that these students might be less likely to identify the benefits of learning a foreign language.

Most students (76.1%) also agreed that young Japanese people need to be able to function in international contexts, a very similar figure to the 72.4% who believed Japan should be a globalised country.

Table 5: It is important for young Japanese people to be able to function in international contexts
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
3.1% 5.6% 15% 34.8% 41.3%

Overall, only a small minority averaged 9.3% did not agree that young Japanese people should be able to speak foreign languages or function in international contexts. This is nevertheless surprising in a highly multicultural university.

Respondents were also asked to evaluate whether the abilities to speak English, speak other foreign languages, and function in international contexts were important to them as individuals. As with statements 3 and 4, although the vast majority of students believed English to be important to them as individuals (90.9%), a lower number (76.1%) felt the same about other foreign languages. Even though both of these figures are significantly higher than agreement rates with the previous, more generalised statements about “young Japanese people,” this trend indicates that despite the emphasis placed on a multilingual environment and on language classes other than English at Ritsumeikan APU, English is still perceived as being more valuable than other languages. This might unconsciously affect students’ attitudes towards non-English speaking countries, and nationals of those countries, perceived as “non-native English speakers.”

Table 6: It is important for me to be able to speak English
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
3.1% 1.1% 4.8% 21.5% 69.4%
Table 7: It is important for me to be able to speak foreign languages (other than English)
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
4.5% 5.4% 13.9% 33.2% 42.9%

Not unlike the agreement rate for statement 5 about young Japanese people, 78% of students believed they should be able to function in international contexts. Unsurprisingly, and in accordance with other answers, this number dropped to 65.3% for students with no experience abroad. In fact, statements 6 to 8 revealed a similar discrepancy in weighted average value between students with no experience abroad and students who had been abroad—0.24 points—with statement 8 revealing a particularly significant difference of 0.34 points.

Table 8: It is important for me to be able to function in international contexts
Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
3.7% 5.4% 12.8% 27.6% 50.4%

On the whole, students were more assertive about their views about the role of globalisation in their individual lives than in Japan as a country. In fact, students placed a stronger emphasis on the individual benefits of foreign language learning and intercultural competence than on the collective benefits for young Japanese people. This is to be expected at Ritsumeikan APU, where the learning environment requires students to be able to interact daily with international student and faculty who do not necessarily speak Japanese. However, it also raises questions regarding the perceived role of foreign languages and cultures in Japan in the future, especially non-Anglophone ones, and the students’ long-term commitment to multiculturalism.

Concrete views of globalisation

In addition to the eight statements discussed above, students were also asked to evaluate, in a separate section, a series of statements about the use of English and Japanese on campus as well as their plans to use English after graduation. The aim of these questions was to compare the globalisation rhetoric analysed in the first section to the perceived direct impact of multilingualism and multiculturalism on students’ current and future lives.

As shown in Figure 1, most students (74.2%) believe that English should be widely used on campus. This number is consistent with the number of students who believe Japan should be a globalised country. Despite this conviction, however, when asked whether all teachers and staff should be able to speak English, the number dropped to 50.1% and 46.2% respectively. These results suggest a perceived distinction between the multicultural campus as experienced by an international student body and the campus as a whole, which also includes faculty and staff.

Figure 1. Views on the use of English and Japanese on campus

Hofmeyr, Figure 1

Surprisingly, the numbers are even lower with regards to the ability of teachers (35.6%) and staff (41.3%) to speak Japanese. In addition, this set of statements received the highest number of neutral (“neither agree nor disagree”) answers, suggesting that although students appear to agree with globalisation as a concept, they have still to process the idea of and formulate an opinion about the potential concrete linguistic and cultural changes brought about by that same concept.

In a different set of questions, students were asked to identify which language they predominantly used in a range of situations on campus—Japanese, English, or another foreign language. English was primarily used in English language classes (78.5%), in lectures and seminars taught in English (70.9%), with non-Japanese students (73.9%) and with non-Japanese teachers (89.1%). These results are on par with the belief that English should be widely used on campus. Nonetheless, it can be somewhat surprising that there is a significant use of Japanese in English courses (18.9%) and in courses taught in English (21.6%), seeing as these are especially designed to help Japanese students to learn in English, and together with international students and faculty.

Figure 2. Language use on campus

Hofmeyr, Figure 2

In lectures and seminars taught in Japanese, on the other hand, Japanese was spoken by the large majority (97.7%). Finally, the predominant language used with non-Japanese staff varied—mostly English (50.7%), but also Japanese (43.3%) and a second foreign language (6%). This indicates that students have different expectations of and standards for language interaction depending on the situation and the receiver.

Students were also asked to rate their intercultural interaction satisfaction level. Only about half of the students were either satisfied (37%) or very satisfied (14%) with the amount of intercultural interaction experienced, a fairly low number in a highly multicultural campus. In addition, only 64.5% said that they had enough opportunities to meet and interact with people from other countries on campus, and an even lower number (43.5%) agreed that they regularly made use of those opportunities. Although these figures are higher than those of intercultural interaction off campus (35.8% and 28.8%, respectively), they suggest that regardless of a high percentage of international students and faculty, there are obstacles to a truly internationalised campus. These figures might be partially due to a difficulty making international friends who cannot speak Japanese, as identified by 56% of the students surveyed. Notwithstanding, the need for more effective university promotion and support of intercultural interaction is evident.

Finally, students were asked to identify how and how often they expected to use English after graduation. The vast majority of students believe they will use it either frequently (51%) or occasionally (42%). As previously mentioned, in addition to English, Ritsumeikan APU offers a wide range of languages spoken in the Asia Pacific region and which students might favour over English. As regards the specific situations in which students expect to use English in the future, the top three choices were holiday travel (78.9%), at work in Japan (69.6%) and at work abroad (68.1%), which is to some extent consistent with the role of these students as future global jinzai.


From the results presented above, it would seem clear that the majority of students surveyed believe Japan should be a globalised country, and strongly emphasise the need for young Japanese people to be able to speak English, more so than other foreign languages. A large number of students also identified English as a language they will use in the future, to work both within and outside Japan, which is consistent with the fostering of global jinzaipromoted by the TGU project. These results further suggest that the globalisation process is perceived by the majority of students as being linked mainly to English. This is likely due to the prominent role of English in Japanese education and its position as the language of international business. Nonetheless, it raises questions as regards to the future of multilingualism in Japan and the country’s openness to non-Anglophone cultures.

In line with such views is the opinion that English should be widely used on the Ritsumeikan APU multicultural campus. In fact, students tended to emphasise the importance of foreign languages and intercultural competence on them as individuals more than on young Japanese people, as a group. Nevertheless, a significant number of students admitted to using predominantly Japanese in situations where English is provided especially for the linguistic and cultural benefit of domestic students, such as English language classes and English-based courses taken together with international students. Moreover, although the overall use of English on campus is stressed, many students either disagree or remain undecided as to whether all faculty and staff should be able to speak English. These results suggest that even though most students emphasise globalisation rhetoric, many are unsure of, uncomfortable with, or simply not prepared to cope with the practical changes it could bring about in practice.

It should also be noted that despite Ritsumeikan APU’s multicultural campus, and the clear impact of such campus on the students’ choice of university, a minority of students believe that it is not necessary for young Japanese people or themselves to be able to speak a foreign language or function in international contexts, questioning the future role of Japan on the global stage as perceived by its future workforce. In fact, students with no experience abroad either prior to or during enrolment were less likely to identify the group and the individual benefits of learning foreign languages and of being interculturally competent, stressing the importance of study abroad programmes and other overseas experiences in the development of global jinzai.

Finally, although Ritsumeikan APU has a uniquely multicultural campus, where Japanese students are not only encouraged, but often required to interact with international students both within and outside the classroom, only half of the students surveyed said they felt satisfied with the amount of intercultural interaction on campus. Moreover, less than half admitted to making use of the intercultural opportunities provided on campus and many identified issues establishing friendships with non-Japanese speaking peers. Although the causes were not further investigated at this stage, the problem is evocative of the myths and misconceptions of internationalisation as discussed by Knight (2011) and de Wit (2011), reminding us that the presence of international students on campus alone is not sufficient to internationalise it. The university must further promote, encourage, and facilitate meaningful interaction between domestic and international students, faculty, and staff in its internationalisation process and in the fostering of global jinzai.


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About the Author

Ana Sofia Hofmeyr is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Foreign Language Studies at Kansai University in Japan. She is currently conducting research on student acquisition and development of foreign languages and intercultural competence through participation in at-home internationalisation programmes.

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