Cultivating future citizens

A critical discourse analysis of the concept of critical thinking in EMI degree program mission statements

Adam Gyenes, Ryutsu Keizai University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 2 (Article 5 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 10 September 2019.


Critical thinking (CT) receives increasing attention in discourses around the reform and internationalisation of higher education in Japan. While the implications of teaching CT in this cultural context have been debated since the 1990s, it has become a key concept with the internationalisation of degree programs through English medium instruction (EMI). Seeking to understand how CT is conceptualised in this milieu, online materials generated by Japanese universities were surveyed, and the mission statements of six EMI programs were identified for their focus on CT. A critical discourse analysis inquiry tool was developed to analyse the framing of CT in these texts. They were found to adopt an authoritative yet authorless voice, as they negotiate the scrutiny of multiple audiences. CT is depicted as a vital step towards educating globally-minded human resources (‘global jinzai’), yet students are described as passive objects, rather than active agents in this process. Additionally, critical thinking is constructed as a means to an end, rather than valued as an outcome of education in itself, suggesting an intertextual relation with the values found in government discourse.

Keywords: critical thinking, English medium instruction, global jinzai, internationalisation of higher education, Japanese universities.


Critical thinking (CT) is a topic of frequent discussion around secondary and higher education in Japan, and has been linked with two major trends. The first is a re-conceptualisation of academic ability: a shift since the 1990s, away from the traditionally held understanding of academic achievement in terms of gaku-ryoku, to a more holistic focus and concern for 21st century skills. The second is the simultaneously occurring initiative to internationalise Japanese universities, with the aim of advancing the skills needed by graduates in a global economy. In the discourses surrounding these intertwined movements, CT has become a key concept, deployed in justifying the missions of academic programs that are products of these initiatives. Yet the construction of a concept of critical thinking in this setting is also revealing of underlying values and attitudes, with implications for the classroom and beyond. The aim here is to unpack these implications within the texts that are their signifiers: the mission statements of English medium degree programs.

Critical thinking in Japanese reform and internationalisation discourses

For a long time, Gaku-ryoku (学力) has been the dominant conception of academic achievement in Japan. Literally meaning ‘study strength’ or learning capacity, it is quantified as a measure of memorisation, speed and endurance, through performance on standardised tests (Yamamoto et al., 2016, p.43), which are used in calculating hensachi (偏差値); the “abstract notion of a national norm-referenced person-indexed score” (Brown, 1995, p. 25). Thus, gaku-ryoku has been the predominant determiner of the universities students could expect to enter, and therefore held major influence over the paths their lives might take thereafter. Those who attended ‘good’ universities were perceived to have higher gaku-ryoku, and those who did not, did not. However, a steady stream of reform documents published by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) have pointed to a new, holistic focus on 21st century learner competencies.

Beginning in the late 1990’s with the concept of ikiru-chikara (Central Council for Education, 1996), the MEXT has attempted to delineate and disseminate the skills that educators at all levels should strive to develop in their students, and while critical thinking may not be explicitly mentioned, it is constantly alluded to. Ikiru-chikara (生きる力, translated by the MEXT as ‘zest for living’) states that students must be ‘driven by a propensity to actively seek out tasks independently; learn, think, act, and solve problems with their own resources’ (translated in Yamamoto et al., p.52). In 2008, the idea of gakushi-ryoku (学士力) was introduced, meaning ‘graduate attributes’; the learning outcomes to be expected of an undergraduate degree program (Central Council of Education, 2008). This was published as a decree for universities to review their curricula and pedagogical aims, based upon which university admissions are also currently being revamped (Central Council of Education, 2015). Included among the 13 competencies that are listed are ‘understanding multiple and diverse cultures, logical thinking, problem solving and self-management’ (see figure 1), all of which draw upon critical thinking.

Figure 1. Competencies involved in gakushi-ryoku. (Source: Yamamoto et al, 2016, p.53; adapted and translated from Central Council, 2008)

Gyenes, Figure 1

The second trend is a drive to internationalise Japanese universities, which has resulted in a proliferation of degree programs taught in English at select institutions, funded by the MEXT through the ‘G30’ and ‘Top Global University’ projects. The G30 project established English Medium Instruction (EMI) degree programs at 13 elite national and private universities and was superseded in 2014 by the Top Global University Project, which has expanded funding for broader internationalisation initiatives at 37 universities (MEXT, 2017).

One objective of this internationalisation drive is to facilitate the growth of international student bodies on Japanese university campuses, with the ambitious target of bringing 300,000 international students to Japanese universities by 2020 (ICEF, 2018). Yet diversification of the student bodies on Japanese university campuses is not merely an end in itself, but part of a ‘realisation that more diverse, more transnational campuses do much to further the mission of a university’ (Poole, 2016, p.210). These programs simultaneously aim to nurture globally-minded, elite Japanese students, with the necessary skillset to function as so called global jinzai (グローバル人材; globally minded human resources). These developments are eulogised by those educators in Japan, who for a long time have bemoaned the inadequacies of Japanese students—ranging from their poor English ability to their declining interest in study abroad—and connect this lack of global perspective to being: ‘unskilled at using a logical and objective method to independently form their own opinions’ (Kawato, 2012).

The concept of critical thinking is closely linked with both of these trends: it is the nexus of many of the 21st century skills required of the global jinzai that the internationalisation drive aims to foster. Furthermore, the development of critical thinking skills is stated as a central pedagogical aim of many of the EMI degree programs created to meet the challenges of internationalisation, and features prominently in the mission statements of these schools. Yet CT is a problematic concept in itself, for while it pertains to a quest for ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’, ‘reason’, or ‘knowledge’, it is also a socially constructed concept, and the truths and objectivities it reveals are dependent on how they are framed by socio-cultural perspective. What it means to be a critical thinker varies according to context (Gallo, 1994, p.43), and in a Japanese context it has been conflated with internationalism, yet the implications of framing CT in this manner need to be more clearly understood.

The challenge of critical thinking in Japan

Despite the attention critical thinking has received in this changing climate, it has often been problematised in Japanese education. Interest in CT in Japan shadowed its emergence in the United States in the 1980s. In the US, CT had become a topic of much discussion following the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk’ (Gardner et al, 1983): a report that brought to light a perceived crisis in secondary and higher education and sparked a range of discussions about education reform. As boards of education required its inclusion in curricula and educators strove to incorporate it into their teaching practices, new definitions of CT were conceived, such as the oft quoted ‘rational, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to do or believe’ (Ennis, 1987, p.1).

CT began to gain attention in Japan in the 1990s, as part of wider discourses that culminated in the education reforms passed in 2002 known as yutori kyouiku (ゆとり教育; ‘education that gives children room to grow’), for which ikiru chikara was the foundation (Cave, 2007, p.18). With similar reforms being made in other education systems in Asia around the same time (Bjork, 2016, p.164-171), the question of the appropriacy of teaching CT in Asian cultural settings became a topic of some debate among language instructors and applied linguistics researchers working in the region:

Critical thinking is cultural thinking… discoverable if not clearly self-evident only to those brought up in a cultural milieu in which it operates, however tacitly, as a socially valued norm (Atkinson, 1997, 89).

The charge brought by Atkinson and others (Davidson, 1998; Day, 2003) is that to teach critical thinking in Asian contexts is a form of western cultural imperialism that forces an individualist mode of communication onto students from a collectivist culture. However, this view of critical thinking education as ‘xenophobic’ (Long, 2003, 215), has itself been critiqued for being based on stereotypes of Asian students, that are largely unfounded (Kubota, 1999).

Furthermore, with critical thinking’s increasing prominence in Japanese education reform discourse since the turn of the century, the significance of these discussions has been negated to a certain extent. Long argues that there is a clear mandate for critical thinking education coming from the Japanese government and business community in response to internationalisation, and this invalidates reservations about teaching CT, which ironically come mostly from non-Japanese educators based in Japan (Long, 2003, p.218). As the teaching of critical thinking skills is actualised in Japanese universities whose missions it has been written into, where courses in critical thinking are offered, the question of whether CT should be taught seems less relevant: it is being taught.

However, that is not to say that the challenges to critical thinking education are not substantial. Rear (2008) considers these challenges to be political rather than cultural, and suggests that CT poses a dilemma to the interests of government and business, for while they may hope to develop competitive business leaders with a penchant for independent judgment, non-conformity and the rejection of assumptions behind conventional ways of thinking might not be traits they would seek to encourage. Yoneyama concurs that critical thinking poses a dilemma to ‘hierarchical, competitive and conformist institutional structures’ (2012, p.235), but locates these social structures within the classroom, and therefore sees the affective barriers as primarily sociological, rather than political or cultural.

As the ambitions of the MEXT internationalisation programs are realised, how such dilemmas will play out remains to be seen. Knight’s distinction of the internationalisation of education as a process distinct from globalisation; propelled by and propelling globalisation (Knight, 2004, p.5) has been embraced in the internationalisation efforts undertaken through the G30 and ‘Top Global University’ projects. Nevertheless, the concept of internationalisation or kokusaika, has itself been described as a multi-vocal symbol in Japan, used ambiguously and with differing agendas (Goodman, 2007; Yonezawa, 2010, 121), and there are those who question whether policy makers are motivated to create a more psychologically open and cosmopolitan Japan, or rather aim to protect, distinguish or further nationalistic interests and identity (Burgess et al, 2010).


Those seeking to understand what critical thinking has come to represent within this changing environment have tended to focus on the discourse of government, whereas the texts that universities themselves produce have come under less scrutiny. However, for those with an interest primarily in how critical thinking is conceptualised and actualised within the tertiary sector, it makes sense to look at the discourses authored by universities in which CT is most prominent and conspicuous: the mission statements of degree programs.

Critical discourse analysis and mission statements

University mission statements and publicity materials have frequently been the subject matter of critical discourse studies. Indeed, the principles of critical discourse analysis as method and methodology were pioneered in Fairclough’s work charting the new, market-oriented focus of universities in the UK in the 1990s (Fairclough, 1993). Marketisation of higher education has been a running theme of critical discourse studies since and a number of studies have treated mission statements as a genre, to highlight the growing neo-liberal influence over universities in the UK (Connell & Galasinski, 1998; Morrish & Sauntson, 2013), the US (Ayers, 2005) and Europe (Svendsen & Svendsen, 2017). In one Asian setting, marketisation and internationalisation have been linked, as one study found the development of a market-oriented focus in the University of Singapore’s Website to be concurrent with the university repositioning itself from a local actor to a global, ‘world class university’ (Zhang & O’Halloran, 2013).

The impetus for critical discourse analysis (CDA) is the researcher’s perception of an existing social problem or phenomena (Fairclough, 2001, p. 236), and is critical not only in the sense that it aims to read between the lines, but also draws from Freire’s critical pedagogy in a transformational sense of being ‘committed to progressive social change’ (Fairclough, 2001, p.230). In its methods, CDA broadens the focus on the social context of a text from Halliday’s ‘systematic functional linguistics’ to view language as social practice; ‘socially shaped but also socially shaping’ (Fairclough, 1993, p.134). CDA practitioners therefore view the discourses produced by universities not merely as documents constructed in a climate of marketisation, but as holding the power and agency to be a catalyst and enabling force for it. The mission statements that the universities produce, as tools used to construct the public face and brand of the institution and mediate interaction with society at large, epitomise this view. Thus, the frequent selection of mission statements as the raw material for CDA studies can be said to be made because they embody and underpin the practitioner’s theoretical framework.

Selection of sample mission statements

This study began in an exploratory fashion by broadly surveying the spectrum of online materials related to critical thinking produced by Japanese universities, before narrowing the focus to mission statements of EMI undergraduate degree programs. Through this process, the mission statements of six programs were identified and selected for use. A set of questions was devised as a critical discourse analysis tool: to analyse and evaluate the conception of critical thinking within these texts.

As a starting point, it was necessary to determine the terminology most frequently used in the Japanese language to refer to critical thinking. Critical thinking is usually translated in Japanese as 批判的思考 (‘hihanteki shikou’), but could also be written in katakana (the Japanese syllabary used to transcribe foreign language loan words into Japanese) as クリチカルシンキング (‘kuritikaru shinkingu’), and the English ‘critical thinking’ may also be used. Searches of Japanese Websites (sites using the suffix ‘.jp’) and university Websites (using the suffix ‘’) revealed that while 批判的思考 is the most frequently used expression on the Japanese internet, a larger proportion of Websites using the English ‘critical thinking’ were from universities (see table 1). This can be interpreted as some indication that within universities, there is an association between critical thinking and the English language, or that there is at least more discussion of critical thinking taking place in English at universities.

Table 1: Web search results using different Japanese search terms for critical thinking from Japanese Websites (.jp) and Japanese university Websites ( (January 2017).
Search term .jp results results
批判的思考 305,000~ 96,000~ (31.4%)
クリティカルシンキング 69,100~ 10,800~ (15.6%)
Critical Thinking 88,000~ 34,500~ (39.2%)

University Websites discovered through searches in Japanese and English using the above terms, included mission statements for graduate and undergraduate degree programs, promotional materials, the syllabi of critical thinking courses, and the personal Webpages of the professors who taught them. Although these Websites came from various universities, there was not necessarily any link between a university discussing CT in their mission, and a professor teaching a course in CT. Where these links were found, they were in the English language materials published online by universities among the Top Global Universities (TGUs). This is indicative of CT’s perceived alignment with internationalisation.

It was therefore decided to focus on these international programs, and the Webpages of all 37 TGUs were surveyed in order to find which had degree programs that emphasised critical thinking as an educational outcome. The following inclusion criteria were used to identify and select mission statements for use in this study:

  1. The university emphasises the importance of critical thinking in the mission statement of a degree program.
  2. The same mission statement is published online in both Japanese and English.
  3. There is evidence that critical thinking courses are being taught within the program.

Six undergraduate and four graduate degree programs were found to fulfill all the above criteria, and because of the MEXT’s emphasis of critical thinking skills as a desired outcome of undergraduate programs, it was decided to focus on these. The texts of all six mission statements sampled in this analysis are included in the appendix at the end of this article. They include three programs at national universities and three at private universities. The names of the universities and their programs have been anonymised, and are written as ‘National University Program 1’ (NUP1); ‘Private University Program 2’ (PUP2) etcetera.1

Developing a critical discourse analysis tool

Utilising Fairclough’s ‘three boxes’ framework for analysis of discursive events (Fairclough, 2010, p.98), a CDA tool comprising a set of five questions was developed to ask of the six mission statements:

  1. What is the social context that has led to the production of the mission statements?
  2. Who are the mission statements produced by and for?
  3. What is the function of critical thinking within the narratives?
  4. What learning outcomes are described and how are they achieved?
  5. What meanings are associated with critical thinking?

Figure 2. illustrates how these questions have been designed to cover the three levels of social context, text production and text suggested by Fairclough’s model. Questions (3) to (5) are concerned with the text, and move from a macro view of overall text structure, to the level of syntax and lexis. These questions also allow for the analysis to incidentally cover categories such as discourse organisation, cohesion, transitivity, modality and word meaning that have been suggested by Fairclough and others (Fairclough, 1992; Gee, 1996, p.94).

Figure 2. CDA tool used in this study in relation to Fairclough’s 3-dimensional model for CDA (Fairclough, 1993)

Gyenes, Figure 2


1. What is the social context that has led to the production of the mission statements?

The marketisation of universities that Fairclough and others observed to be shaping the discourses that universities in the UK and elsewhere produce, can similarly be viewed as a factor in the production of the Japanese mission statements presented in this study. Japanese universities have also been affected by neo-liberal reforms that in 2004 made 88 national universities into financially autonomous ‘Independent Administrative Institutions’ (Goodman, 2005, p.2). However, two other important aspects, particular to the Japanese context are the aforementioned internationalisation drive and increased competition among universities caused by demographic change.

Japan’s low birthrate has led to an aging society in which the number of Japanese of college age has rapidly diminished. While there were 2.05 million 18 year olds in Japan in 1992, there were just 1.22 million in 2010, and the number continues to fall (Harada, 2015). Although a larger proportion of 18 year olds are going on to higher education, this has led to a situation in which Japanese universities, of which there are around 780 including national, regional publicly owned, and private institutions, are facing difficulties in attracting applicants in large enough numbers and of a sufficient calibre. While competition to enter the most prestigious institutions remains fierce, for those not aiming for places at elite schools, university application now involves contemplation of ‘the relative attractiveness of competing admission offers from a large number of colleges and universities desperate to fill places and generate enough tuition revenue to avoid bankruptcy’ (Kinmonth, 2005, p.106). In these circumstances, students are increasingly viewed as customers, and the pressure on universities to market themselves successfully has become intense, while mission statements have become an important way to distinguish their institutional identity from others.

Such unstable conditions can be seen as a push factor for internationalisation, coming from within universities. The drive to increase the number of foreign students is not just about attracting bright minds from distant shores, but also compensating for the dearth of domestic applicants. In this light, universities selected as ‘Top Global Universities’ benefit not only from MEXT funding for internationalisation programs, but from membership of an exclusive club. The disparity between universities invited into this club, and those that are not has polarised the existing hierarchy in the sector. For those universities chosen as TGUs, it has become a badge of honour, emblazoned on banners hung from the facades of street facing campus buildings, and an important element of their online branding.

2. Who are the mission statements produced by and for?

Anonymity of authorship in the texts produced by societal institutions is a theme frequently picked up on in critical discourse studies. In issuing ‘utterances’ through authorless texts or a text whose voice is an opaque, collective ‘compound’ author (Gee, 2014, p.47), the produced mission statement is simultaneously representative of all concerned with the institution while not being attributable to any individual. As other studies have commented of this characteristic in mission statements:

The textual voice did not manifestly adopt a particular point of view, express an attitude about the missions or purposes, nor provide any clue either about their authorial origins. It identified to whom the missions belong, but did not reveal who, or what body, determined what they were to be (Connell and Galasinski, 1998, p.466).

It could be argued that in the selection of this writing style, universities are merely prescribing to the expected norms of a genre; that a different style with an identifiable author would not be fitting. After all, mission statements are written because other universities have them: ‘they exist because they are expected to exist’ (Morphew & Hartley, 2006, p.458). Yet, it is important to question why this writing style has become normative, by considering who the mission statements are written for.

If the authors of mission statements are unknown, their target audience is also ambiguous. On the surface, they provide guidance for prospective students as to the values that underlie the school’s educational activities. They also serve a purpose of guiding and motivating educators and administrators whom the university employs to work towards unified goals. Yet mission statements have other audiences too: they may have originally been written for a new program in order to win the approval of an internal board or faculty, and are also required by the MEXT for accreditation of a new course of study. Thus, there exists an intertextual relationship between the goals stated in the mission, and the values of the MEXT, and all six of the mission statements sampled here echo the competencies of an ideal graduate, as expressed through gakushi-ryoku (see figure 1).

They also become part of a conversation with the mission statements of other universities, and the mission statement of one university can be said to be part of an intertextual chain of mission statements, as universities seek to distinguish themselves from one another. The six mission statements selected here are from programs that all have a similar focus on liberal arts and intercultural competence. It is likely that students considering one of these programs would be looking at the others too, and the mission statements give the universities an opportunity to nuance and position their educational activities in relation to each other. This is also accomplished linguistically, through the use of cohesive devices within the texts: ‘at the same time’ (NUP1), ‘not only… but can also’ (NUP2), ‘in close connection with’ (PUP1), ‘together with’ (PUP3), ‘further strengthened by’ (PUP3); as the mission statements each seek to highlight their outstanding features.

These mission statements, therefore, do not have one clear audience, but negotiate multiple audiences. The scrutiny they come under from these various sources can be understood as a reason for their selection of the authorless voice. Anonymity is employed as an empowering device that allows for control of the agenda. It gives the text an authoritative omniscience that disinclines a reader from questioning what they read (in other words, thinking critically).

3. What is the function of CT within the narratives?

Looking at the texts themselves, the narrative structures of all six mission statements describe their education in terms of a process moving towards a specified goal. This is perhaps most obvious in the paragraph structure of NUP2, which succinctly outlines the aim of the program, describes the skills that will be learned, and the goal that will be attained as a result:

NUP2 aims to cultivate future citizens who will not only understand and respect their own country's history and culture but can also adopt an international outlook and a broad worldview, combine specialised knowledge with flexible problem-solving skills, and pair a pioneering spirit with strong critical thinking abilities in order to take on positions of leadership in public life (NUP2).

Critical thinking is located before the goal is reached in this narrative: a key step along the path; a discourse organisational pattern found in other mission statements as well:

PUP1’s “ideal graduate” is a well-educated individual who, equipped with “global competency” (including linguistic skills, flexible and critical thinking, and cross-cultural skills), can serve as a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world (PUP1).

CT therefore functions within these narratives as a means to an end: a vital component if that goal is to be reached. In both of the above narratives it is implied that it is absent at the beginning of the process, and acquired through completion of it. In two of the statements, the goal is academic excellence, and critical thinking is part of a foundational education towards this (NUP3 and PUP2). The other four texts, including the above examples, describe more abstract goals that will be reached as students go on to participate in society.

4. What learning outcomes are described and how are they achieved?

The concept of CT is described as an essential part of a process, a step towards a destination, and the six statements present a multitude of potential outcomes. Through completing these programs (and becoming critical thinkers), students can:

  • Become ‘GLocal actors’. (NUP1)
  • Take on positions of leadership in public life. (NUP2)
  • Come up with constructive solutions for a variety of challenges facing society. (NUP3)
  • Develop global competency. (PUP1)
  • Contribute to the understanding and betterment of global society. (PUP1)
  • Serve as a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world. (PUP1)
  • Study effectively. (PUP2)
  • Learn to be critical, creative and independent thinkers in English. (PUP2)
  • become truly global citizens motivated to act on the world stage. (PUP3)

Critical thinking is constructed as the key to activating a range of potentials, enabling students to take charge of their own destinies. However, there is a paradox that is apparent when considering the transitivity of the verbs that have been chosen to describe what the universities do:

  • ‘aims to cultivate self-motivated, reflective students’. (NUP1)
  • ‘aims to nurture students’. (NUP1)
  • ‘aims to cultivate future citizens’. (NUP2)
  • ‘nourishes in them the ability to discern the individual paths they each must follow’. (NUP2)
  • ‘seeks to foster’. (PUP1)
  • ‘cultivates the skills necessary to study effectively’. (PUP2)
  • ‘committed to producing graduates who can use …’. (PUP3)

‘Cultivate’ seems to be the favoured choice, among other verbs such as ‘nourish’, ‘foster’ and ‘nurture’ that rather than treat students as independent thinkers, actively involved in the process of their own education, appear to regard them as docile saplings being ripened for harvest, or empty vessels waiting to be filled. The text of NUP3 is an exception here, opting for choices such as ‘seek to encourage / develop’, and writes of CT as something that students ‘wield’ rather than something they are ‘equipped with’. However, in the other five narratives, there is a disparity between the passivity with which students are described and their supposed educational outcomes.

5. What meanings are associated with CT?

A word cloud generated from the combined texts of all six mission statements to visualise the frequency with which vocabulary appears, gives a sense of the weight given to critical thinking in these texts. ‘Critical’ is the most frequently occurring word after ‘students’ and is used eleven times, alongside ‘skills’ and ‘thinking’. Other words appearing frequently include ‘perspectives’, ‘flexible’, ‘creative’, ‘culture’, ‘English’, ‘global’, ‘issues’, ‘liberal’, ‘specialized’ and ‘understanding’. While a word cloud provides only a simple snapshot, it is helpful to grasp the lexical associations that are made in the mission statements, and a gives broad sense of the ideas conflated with critical thinking.

Figure 3. Word cloud generated from the texts of all six mission statements. (

Gyenes, Figure 3

Looking more closely at sentences in the statements, a number of other concepts are implied to be elements of CT. A definition of CT based on association with vocabulary it is used in conjunction with would include: being informed, having specialised knowledge, flexibility, reflexivity, creativity, multicultural perspectives, a pioneering spirit, problem-solving skills and evaluating information independently. The choice of these items closely mirrors the 13 traits expressed as desirable by the MEXT in gakushi-ryoku, further evidencing the intertextual relationship between the mission statements and government discourse, and highlighting how critical thinking has become an umbrella under which such concepts are amalgamated. Furthermore, while these are considered parts of critical thinking, CT is also constructed as a component of other traits such as global competency, studying in English, an international outlook and a broad worldview; the attitudes and abilities of global jinzai.

As well as the selection of words, it is worth considering the cohesive devices through which these concepts are introduced. Critical thinking is often presented together with other skills in three word lists:

‘Informed, critical and multicultural perspectives’. (NUP1)
‘Linguistic skills, multicultural competency, and flexible and critical thinking ability’. (PUP1)
‘Students learn to be critical, creative and independent thinkers in English’. (PUP2)

This again enhances the authoritative voice of the text, and gives an impression of comprehensive, multi-faceted education. Serving numerous audiences as these mission statements do, there is a need to cover a range of outcomes and show that nothing has been missed. In a sense, the use of three word lists could be seen as a form of triangulation, appeasing readers from all sides.


The six mission statements sampled in this research have been produced against a backdrop of marketisation, competition and internationalisation that is shaping the landscape of higher education in Japan. They take on an all knowing, authoritative, yet authorless voice that protects them from the scrutiny of multiple audiences. Their narratives are structured to showcase the process by which educational outcomes are achieved, in which critical thinking is a key step: a means to an end. Various desirable outcomes are presented for the students who go through this process, and learning critical thinking skills through completing the programs empowers them to lead important roles in the future, yet the texts describe them as passive participants in their learning, who need to be nurtured and cultivated: processed in the process. Skills and attitudes that the universities value closely match those desired by the MEXT. Of these, critical thinking appears to be the most highly valued amongst others including autonomy, flexibility, reflexivity, creativity, and having a multicultural perspective. These are described as elements of critical thinking, yet critical thinking is not presented as an end in itself, but a component of the global competency and international outlook needed by business elites.

However, it is important that this analysis does not treat the six mission statements sampled here as a single entity because there is some variation between them. NUP3 ‘seeks to encourage’ students, rather than ‘cultivate’ or ‘nurture’ them, implying that students are in charge of their own education. ‘If students are able to acquire mindsets and attitudes…’ (NUP3) suggests that the onus is on them and they have a choice in the matter. Contrast this with: ‘nourishes in them the ability to discern the individual paths they each must follow’ (NUP2), which seems almost fatalistic. Such variances of modality in the texts suggest some difference of attitude among their authors, whoever they may be, and rather than all the texts referring to students as passive participants with no say in their own future, the six statements could be placed on a scale between passive and active, though it would be a scale that leans heavily to the passive side.

Despite these variances a question remains that needs to be asked of all six statements: Why has critical thinking been constructed as a means to an end, rather than a valuable end in and of itself? Although the texts have been found to negotiate multiple audiences, arguably the MEXT is the audience that they aim to appease more than others. This is suggested by the intertextual relationship found with the values of gakushi-ryoku, and the way in which students are marginalized in a process that views them as passive participants. Critical thinking is taught not for them, but for the development of global human resources. It is an educational aim not for the transformation of the individual, but for the betterment of society, and is not an educational aim for all, but targeted at a globalised elite.


In layman’s terms, critical discourse analysis seeks to uncover the connections and discrepancies between what people say, what they do, and who they are (Gee, 2014, p.2). While all six mission statements claim to empower students with critical thinking skills, the view of students as submissive recipients leads us to question how students are taught to think critically in these programs. The ambiguity of their authorship makes us ask how the universities strategically position their identity in the face of multiple audiences. The construction of critical thinking as a means to an end, rather than a goal to be valued in its own right, causes us to wonder what motives drive its inclusion in these texts.

Critical thinking is a concern for educators and education systems around the world, and the association between CT and the internationalisation processes in education that have developed around globalisation is certainly not something unique to Japan. The socially transformative, humanistic agendas of instructors are frequently surmounted by the competitive agenda of governments and their institutions as the drivers of internationalisation (Warner, 1992; Johnson & Edelstein, 1993). Yet intercultural communication is facilitated by empathic perspective taking and evidence based judgement. For such competencies to be truly developed, it is necessary to think of critical thinking not in terms of a means by which educational goals are achieved but, as an educational goal to be valued in itself.


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Appendix: Six University Mission Statements

The six mission statements analysed in this project are presented here. The names of universities have been removed and programs are referred to as NUP1 (National University Program 1), PUP2 (Private University Program 2) etcetera. Otherwise the texts appear here as they were originally published online on the universities homepages (Retrieved: July 2017).


NUP1 aims to cultivate self-motivated, reflective students who have a sophisticated knowledge base and the necessary practical skills to meet the challenges that they will face in our fast-changing, globalised world. At the same time, it aims to nurture students who have a well-defined area of expertise and who are able to bring workable solutions to a variety of problems and issues in their field.

This exciting and innovative program is being offered in collaboration with other schools, graduate schools, and research centers at the university. In addition to providing an English language-based program that develops critical thinking and human science research skills (both qualitative and quantitative), it is also expected that students will develop a high-level proficiency in Japanese.

From the fourth semester, students will major in either Global Citizenship or Contemporary Japan. The Global Citizenship Major is intended to provide a learning environment in which students acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and attitude for reflecting critically on and engaging positively with global issues. The Contemporary Japan Major aims to provide students with a Japanese studies curriculum that encourages the development of informed, critical and multicultural perspectives on Japan, Japanese culture and its international relations in the world. Japanese language study will be compulsory in the freshman and sophomore years for both majors and optional thereafter.

These two majors are not separate, but will be effectively integrated in order to nurture ‘GLocal actors’ who can think and act both locally and globally.


NUP2 aims to cultivate future citizens who will not only understand and respect their own country's history and culture but can also adopt an international outlook and a broad worldview, combine specialized knowledge with flexible problem-solving skills, and pair a pioneering spirit with strong critical thinking abilities in order to take on positions of leadership in public life.

To put these educational principles into practice, the university has all new entrants to the university spend their first two years in the College of Arts and Sciences where they receive a liberal arts education. Our liberal arts program, while providing students with a wide and deep general education and developing their sense of the richness of humanity, also prepares them to move on to specialized fields of study. This foundational education gives students the critical thinking skills they need to evaluate information independently and intelligently and nourishes in them the ability to discern the individual paths they each must follow as they progress into specialized fields.


Ideas underpinning NUP3 education

The important mission of basic learning is to implement diverse teaching methods for diverse fields of basic knowledge based on a class structure that will enable students to exchange knowledge at a multidisciplinary level. The Faculty seeks to encourage students to learn or acquire the following: (1) a creative and critical spirit that will engender reflective thought, (2) flexible thought processes and attitudes, (3) broad perspectives and the skill to take in the bigger picture, (4) deep understanding of ethics and morals, (5) humility and rich sensitivities, and (6) deep understanding of humanity. If students are able to acquire mindsets and attitudes concerning basic concepts and studies, they can also be expected to go on to easily acquire advanced knowledge and skills in specialist and graduate education based on the foundational conceptual framework they have acquired in basic learning. In this sense, basic education is an extremely important undertaking and represents a crucial period that will form the core of a student’s university education.

Active learners

“Individuals who are constantly looking to learn new things and add to their pool of basic learning, who are blessed with a fearless spirit to challenge and take action against unfamiliar issues and circumstances.” Active learners who, even in the face of new and unforeseen circumstances, are able to surpass conventional frameworks and ways of thinking to accurately analyze the issues at hand and make liberal use of multifaceted perspectives for knowledge (distinguishing between an insect’s eye and a bird’s eye). Who, while doing so, are able to exert finely-honed sensitivities and flexible insights to discover and solve issues. An important mission of universities is to develop such active learners who are capable of wielding creative and critical thought to come up with constructive solutions for a variety of challenges facing society. The development of such individuals requires education of a kind that does not isolate students into individual specialist fields but which places emphasis on exchanges of knowledge between people with different ways of thinking and values, as well as learning that is based on concept and dialog driven lessons that are open to various styles and circumstances along with the notion of learning from setbacks and failure. It is through these educational experiences that students become aware of how people’s understanding of things differs according to their perspective, and develop creative thinking that enables them to subject their own ideas and those of others to critical scrutiny, instilling in them the capability to understand things from diverse perspectives and the will to pursue the truth of matters.


“Education and Research Objectives”

The Faculty offers an English-language liberal arts curriculum in which students are encouraged to study specialized subjects (comparative culture, social studies, and international business and economics) in close connection with neighboring disciplines. PUP1 thereby seeks to foster the students’ linguistic skills, multicultural competency, and flexible and critical thinking ability. PUP1 also seeks to contribute to the understanding and betterment of global society through interdisciplinary research.

“Human Resource Development Objectives”

PUP1’s “ideal graduate” is a well-educated individual who, equipped with “global competency” (including linguistic skills, flexible and critical thinking, and cross-cultural skills), can serve as a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world.


At the same time as it increases students' facility with English, PUP2 also enhances the critical thinking skills of the students, and cultivates the skills necessary to study effectively at the university. Consequently, this is a very important introductory program to a liberal arts education.

The majority of April entrants study in PUP2 intensively during their first year at the university. Students are placed into Streams 1, 2, 3, or 4 based on their English proficiency. In each Stream, students are divided into small-size classes of approximately 20 students, which are called "sections". Depending on the Stream, students take 5-12 periods of PUP2 classes every week.

Students read college-level articles on topics such as "Intercultural Communication" and "Bioethics", discuss and present ideas and opinions, and write papers on each topic. Through such academic activities, students learn to be critical, creative and independent thinkers in English. In addition, the intensive English learning environment prepares students to take liberal arts courses in English.


Diploma Policy

The university is committed to producing graduates who can use both the university’s broad scope and their own individuality to make a pivotal contribution to global society. For this, they will benefit from the university’s systematic educational framework, its university-wide academic environment, and its student-to-student relationships to develop an intimate relationship with multifaceted areas of study, culture, language and values. PUP3 seeks to nurture talented individuals capable of confronting global issues with sound judgment and from multi-faceted perspectives, so that they may become truly global citizens motivated to act on the world stage by a sense of justice, competitiveness, and humanity.

Curriculum Policy

PUP3 pursues a liberal arts education that emphasises the fostering of logical thinking and multidimensional perspectives together with polishing fundamental learning through instruction in small classes. PUP3 offers an environment for imparting strong international sensibilities through such measures as making English the common language of the classroom and school as well as requiring all native Japanese-speaking students to study abroad for one year. The curriculum is further strengthened by the presence of a high proportion of overseas students in the student body.


[1] While other critical discourse studies frequently disclose the names of universities in published work, this research was carried out as part of a larger project in which instructors at universities were interviewed under agreement of confidentially. The names of programs and universities are therefore not identified here.

About the Author

Adam Gyenes is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, and teaches in the Sociology Department at Ryutsu Keizai University in Chiba, Japan.

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