electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 4 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on 13 May 2004

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A Worst Possible Beginning to University Reform

The Pressing Need to Expand the Academic Horizons of Researchers Who Embrace Peer Review


Yasuharu Dando

Newspaper and Web Journalist

Japan Research and Analysis
through Internet Information

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About the Author


In April, 2004, the Japanese government incorporated the national universities as "independent administrative entities." Japan's national university system was created in the early days of the Meiji Restoration to achieve scholastic parity with the West. The government kept the universities on a tight leash for the next 127 years, permitting little in the way of academic independence.

A critical first step in making the new reforms possible was the reduction of staffing levels through reform of the civil service. Incorporation strengthened the office of the university president. It reaffirmed the existing system, according to which a university's organization is constituted from the alliance of each department's professoriate.

The authority to change organizational structures, hitherto invested in the Ministry of Education, was entrusted to a new council, half of whose members come from outside the university. Whether education targets are being attained will be determined by periodic, external audits. Forthcoming budgetary allocations will hinge upon the results of these evaluations.

However, while giving universities more discretion in terms of their finances, incorporation has also revealed a parallel objective of implementing yearly decreases in budgetary outlays, in order to match considerable belt-tightening at the national level.

Confusion about the university evaluation process

The evaluation process has provoked a vigorous response from university faculties, who claim that academic freedom is being compromised, and basic research is being abandoned in favor of applied research. The "University Evaluation Society," created by a number of closely-involved volunteers, argues for a system based not on the numerical targets favored by the government, but on the peer review process widely used in North America and Europe.

The government asserts that job performance evaluations by one's colleagues cannot be trusted. Though peer review is accepted and used by Japanese scientists and professors working outside Japan, it is rare inside Japan. Even after taking into account the newness of the process, a three-year trial study by the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation produced laughably discouraging results. The only observable variable was the arbitrariness of the evaluators.

A university evaluation system has not been necessary in Japan until now. The pyramidal ranking of the "Old Seven Imperial Schools," with the University of Tokyo at the apex, has continued unchanged from before the Second World War, and the faculties of these universities have been drawn exclusively from their own alumni.

In Germany, however, promotion within the same university is forbidden. Although Harvard University employs more alumni than its European and American counterparts, Harvard limits alumni employees to less than 70 percent of its teaching faculty. And even its alumni faculty must have had work experience at another, outside institution. (For more information in Japanese go to the following edited interview transcript in the web archive of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology). As universities in Japan do not cultivate this same rich heterogeneity, the granting of tenure has more to do with whom you know. It is not the result of an orderly evaluation process.

Consider what would happen if Japan, like Germany, passed legislation that prohibited internal promotion. It would become necessary to hire professors from outside the university based on their capabilities. Japan's schools would be stymied. Although it would not be difficult to appraise the qualifications of professors with internationally recognized credentials in scientific fields, there is no system currently in place for evaluating and ranking home-grown researchers in their respective fields.

As such, can a system be devised for divvying up research budgets equitably? In the final analysis, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology simply distributes monies amongst the most famous universities and institutions according to the past custom. No system exists, such as that found in the United States, for assessing research proposals and making suggestions for improving and revising them before awarding grants. Indeed, there is an utter lack of people qualified to do such assessments and verifications.

Scholars incapable of performing peer review

In regards to the weakness of this human element in the Japanese system of research proposal evaluation, it may help to illustrate the point by recounting my experiences at the newspaper where I work. My company sponsors one of the most prestigious awards of its kind offered by a private company. Before that, it also supported a system of scientific research grants.

The screening method we used was quite extraordinary for Japan. Pursuant to the presentation of a research proposal, reporters at head offices in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kokura conducted confidential investigations of the applicants, and met together on several occasions to discuss their cases.

Relevant information such as, "The initial idea was suggested by a lecturer who was shuffled off to another university, not the professor presenting the application," and other data was collected. A large, general field was narrowed by making assessments such as, "The discovery of this material rivals the discovery of a disease with many carriers."

After limiting the pool of applicants to only those whose work could be considered meritorious, they presented their findings to a committee of company presidents who made the final decision. This committee would not have been previously briefed about the candidates.

Before I left the science bureau, however, almost all of the reporters had been replaced by those who could adequately "study" the content of the research covered in the applications, but who had no capacity for evaluation itself. Award selection was shifted to a regular, behind-closed-doors method of evaluation. At the very least, when I was part of the team, the award was not once given to a leader of the academic world as a medal for distinguished service; it was awarded only for groundbreaking work.

It is truly unfortunate that, for the most part, these large, domestic awards now amount to nothing but awards for meritorious service.

The problem seems to have arisen from the manner in which my company and the researchers back-pedaled in unison. You would think that the younger the generation, the more clear-cut the criteria and judgements would be. But my experience has been that fewer and fewer researchers are willing to decisively defend the results of their own work. Rather, those with international reputations, finding themselves amidst the harmless, the inoffensive and the hesitant, turn their own specialties into sounding boards on subjects completely different from their own.

And when a countervailing opinion is offered, my experience has been that the "peer review" process, nonexistent among the actual scientists involved, is instead carried out by science journalists. Recently, the trend has only worsened. The tendency of researchers at Japanese universities to confine themselves to their own specialties, and not venture into any related, critical activities, has become remarkable.

University faculties must change themselves

The mass media and general public have turned a cold shoulder to academics who insist that incorporation is jeopardizing academic freedom and self-government. By hiding beneath the cloak of "academic freedom," they have skirted their responsibilities to pursue effective research and education. Most people believe that, with no individual checks and balances, the national universities have fallen far from internationally competitive levels expected of them.

The inferior capabilities of Japan's white-collar workforce, when compared with its American and European counterparts, can be laid as well at the foot of our higher education system. Japanese companies have not had to depend on true meritocratic principles until now. But even taking into consideration the stream of obedient, talented graduates they continue to produce, the universities remain in dire straits.

Rather than aiming at original, unparalleled research, researchers tend to follow the prevailing academic fads and fashions. There is little interest in "incubator" projects leading to new venture businesses. When compared with the U.S. and other parts of Asia, my long experience in science and technology leads me to believe that these failings constitute a serious, systemic "illness" within Japanese education.

As a case in point, the government is considering an evaluation process it calls the Scientific Research Subsidy Budgetary Examination System. But there appears to be no recognition of the fact that it would be governed by the same old academic cliques, making it a foregone conclusion that nothing useful will come of it.

The only satisfactory solution is peer review. But for peer review to become a convincing reality, university researchers must be trained in its utilization. University human resource departments must become transparent and open to all applicants. Two years ago, in the midst of the debates over university reform, I argued that the following must be implemented in order to achieve true university reform:

  • Abolish the rights of professors to hire and fire teaching assistants and assistant professors. Selection committees would instead adopt an open invitation system, and choose applicants based on a department's specific needs in a specialized field.
  • If an alumnus could not provide proof of equivalent on-the-job experience outside the university, his salary would be reduced by thirty percent. This stipulation would apply to all incumbent professors and instructors after a five-year grace period.

Since the existing status quo was preserved during the incorporation of the national universities, the second proposal would be hard to implement. Regrettably, it will take some time for these stagnant academic cliques to dissipate.

However, the first proposal could be acted on immediately. All university personnel should be made to experience an open and transparent hiring process first hand. This would force professors who confine themselves to narrow fields to consider the whole of their professional interests. I believe that without numerous exposures to a fair and open selection process, substantive improvements cannot occur. This is the stuff that true self-governance is made of.

Soon after university reform movement became a pressing concern, laments about the lack of a viable evaluation system were widely heard at various symposia. I was amazed to realize that, in a country where so much time had passed without the creation of any kind of job assessment metrics, university faculty still believed that "somebody else" would carry out accurate employee evaluations.

In light of this, the proposal by the University Evaluation Society to carry out such peer reviews themselves is a welcome step. But to make peer review a substantial reality, it is our university faculties that must change and adapt, and quickly.

About the author

Yasuharu Dando graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo. He subsequently became a journalist for a nationwide newspaper. Since joining "Science Net" in 1988, the first Japanese mass media personal computer network, he has kept active in electronic media. Though his specialty is science reporting, he has also covered politics, economics, culture, social matters, sports, and religion.

Dando believes that Internet search engines not only constitute a convenient research tool, but also form the foundation of the many "meta-societies" revealed through the "hits" the search engine returns to the user. He has gained tens of thousands of readers through the magazine and web site, 「インターネットで読み解く!」(English site: "Japan Research and Analysis through Internet Information"), as well as his columns and a subscription email newsletter.

English web: http://dandoweb.com/e/
Japanese web: http://dandoweb.com/

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Copyright: Yasuharu Dando
This page was first created on 13 May 2004. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

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