Japan’s Modernization Fitting Development Model

Approximately two-thirds of the world is composed of developing countries. Nations that are well-off, democratic and liberal account for a minority. History shows that it is extremely difficult for developing countries to become developed. Japan is the first and one of the best examples of managing to achieve such growth.

Japan’s remarkable journey of development without Western background dates back to the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century. Despite its defeat in World War II, it recovered from the ashes and forged ahead to establish a peaceful, rich and democratic nation. Throughout this journey, Japan never lost its core culture and identity.

Certain people are skeptical of Japan’s development. Of course there were and are flaws and failures, but Japan’s history of development is indisputably outstanding overall when compared with the developing countries of today. Over the course of time, Japan preserved its language and culture.

While serving as ambassador to the United Nations, I was asked numerous times to share the “secrets” behind Japan’s successful development. I also met quite a few people who wanted their countries to become as developed as Japan someday. Modern Japanese politics and diplomacy are my disciplinary specialty, and I wanted to devise an initiative for people around the world to share Japan’s experience of modernizing itself.

There are people abroad who have dived deep into the study of Japan and made splendid achievements. But the number of Japanologists remains limited.

Developing countries, meanwhile, dispatch young government officials and other future hopefuls to Japan to study and gain expertise in necessary fields.

For instance, the Japan International Cooperation Agency offers a program for long-term trainees from developing countries to attend graduate schools in Japan. They study a range of subjects — mostly in English — including finance, international politics, infrastructure development, disaster prevention and agriculture. Moreover, multinational organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the governments of certain developing countries have scholarship programs of their own to help successful applicants study in Japan.

When I served as president of the International University of Japan in 2012-2015, I met students from developing countries who were able to come to Japan thanks to these scholarships. They said they were very happy to have opportunities to study in Japan, but many of them wished they had more time to learn about Japan itself.

Soon after I became president of JICA in 2015, I began exploring a possible initiative to give young government officials and others from developing countries, who had come to Japan on scholarship programs to study specific fields, an opportunity to learn about Japan.

However, JICA is not an educational organization and no program could afford to enable students to study everything. So, I came up with a solution to invite graduate schools in Japan to teach foreign students on development scholarships about the modernization of Japan, its postwar reconstruction and its official development assistance. The ODA policy illustrates how Japan has been a hands-on donor nation for developing countries.

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enthusiastically welcomed my plan to launch an initiative for scholars from developing countries as a commemorative project to mark the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.

But I still faced a big problem: a glaring lack of people who could both teach Japan’s modern history and other matters, and handle follow-up question-and-answer sessions in English.

I eventually joined forces with the Open University of Japan (OUJ), a distance learning institute, and asked it to create an English-based course named “Seven Chapters on Japanese Modernization.”

In the inaugural chapter, I gave a lecture on the Meiji Restoration. The subsequent chapters were covered by a team of authorities in certain academic disciplines. For example, Akihiko Tanaka, then president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, focused on Japan’s postwar diplomacy and national security; Takashi Shiraishi, chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto, touched on Asia and Japan; and Hiroyuki Itami, then president of the International University of Japan, expounded on Japanese-style management.

The series began being broadcast on a satellite channel in 2019. Eight new chapters were later added, and it is now provided by OUJ as “Fifteen Chapters on Japanese Modernization.”

Development studies

This approach is part of what is called the “JICA Development Studies Program” for overseas scholars accepted as JICA scholars. The program has three layers. First, universities across Japan that have a number of graduate school teachers capable of giving lectures in English have them make presentations on the modernization of Japan and relevant themes. Second, JICA scholars are invited to the International University of Japan or the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies — both of which are fully bilingual campuses — to attend a short-term intensive lecture series during summer/winter breaks. Third, the program calls on them to utilize the abovementioned OUJ content. About 1,000 JICA scholars go through the three courses every year.

The OUJ program has earned a great deal of praise. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for instance, requested permits to carry the Japanese distance learning institute’s program on their respective state broadcasting services. Those reactions encouraged me to envisage the creation of learn-about-Japan courses all over the world.

Few countries in the world are short on British and U.S. outreach outlets — and those of France and Germany as well — that help their host-nations’ populations cultivate friendly knowledge of these major Western countries, including knowledge of their cultures. I thought there should be opportunities for every country’s people to learn about Japan. To that end, I believe Japan should persuade leading universities in every country to participate in an initiative to launch courses to teach their students about Japan’s journey to modernization. JICA has about 100 overseas offices, many of them in developing countries. Some countries have insufficient higher education infrastructure, but there are others in which multiple universities have expressed their hopes to participate in such an initiative. Against this backdrop, the cooperation agency launched the JICA Chair (JICA Program for Japanese Studies) in 2021. It aims to offer learn-about-Japan courses to 100 universities in 80 countries, and has begun preparing such courses in cooperation with OUJ. Most of the courses tackle Japan’s modernization, postwar reconstruction and ODA.

As part of the new effort, JICA, in cooperation with the Nippon Foundation, donated up to 200 books to each of those overseas universities. Written in English and praised for their valuable content, the books are to be used as reference materials at their faculties.

In addition, DVDs prepared by the OUJ and eight 20-minute DVDs created by JICA were sent to those universities, covering such subjects as agriculture, disaster prevention and health care. The agency plans to add more DVD content in the future. Furthermore, the program offers plans to dispatch prominent lecturers to overseas universities twice a year in principle. When online lectures are added, the JICA Chair university course awards the Japanese equivalent of 2 credits.

Helping people in the rest of the world deepen their knowledge of Japan was originally the responsibility of the Japan Foundation, but this independent administrative agency has traditionally been engaged with a relatively limited number of countries already famous for the presence of active Japanologists. In contrast, JICA covers countries that are keen to learn from Japanese modernization.

The primary purpose of the JICA Development Studies Program is to enable people in developing countries to learn about how Japan modernized itself and use this knowledge in their endeavors to contribute to the development of their own countries. The second purpose is to foster as many Japanophiles as possible. If people who learn about Japan become successful in their careers at home, they are likely to help maintain and strengthen friendly relations between Japan and their countries even 30 or 40 years later. Thirdly, it is aimed at internationalizing Japan’s own academic universe.

The level of humanities and social sciences education in Japan is considerably high. Nonetheless, this fact is little-known abroad due to the barrier of the Japanese language. What’s more, only a few measures have been implemented to make it well-known. Japanese scholars should proactively work to provide explanations with clearer concepts and logic so that people abroad can understand them better.

Both the JICA Development Studies Program involving graduate schools in Japan and the JICA Chair program for universities abroad have been developing at remarkable pace. The latter has already been launched at about 80 universities abroad. However, progress toward the third goal — the internationalization of the Japanese academic universe — still lags behind the other two.

I strongly urge that, while striving to educate others about Japan, Japanese people review the past so they’ll feel obliged to break their country’s current stagnation.

Shinichi Kitaoka

Kitaoka is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, specializing in Japanese political and diplomatic history. His previous posts have included Japanese ambassador to the United Nations in 2004-06 and president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2015-22.

The original article in Japanese appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.