January 30, 2012

Starting in the fall

In Japan, the fiscal and school years, public and private, corporate and government, have traditionally all begun in April. But over the next five years, Tokyo University (Tôdai) plans to shift the start of its school year from April to September.

Although Tôdai is the Harvard, Yale and MIT of Japan, it receives only a middling ranking in world-wide comparisons.

Tôdai believes that facilitating the exchange of students and faculty will raise its status. Giuseppe Pezzotti, a materials scientist at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, analogizes what Tôdai is after, a ruby made beautiful by a few parts per million of chromium:

Without this impurity the [aluminum oxide] would simply be white, while the chromium itself would be featureless. We foreign residents can similarly be regarded as intentionally inserted elements, or dopants, which make the society more beautiful.

Incidentally, demographically speaking, the "parts per million" part of the metaphor is apt. Japanese in general definitely do not embrace immigration as a "cure" for its birth dearth. But the less elegant reasons are probably the more important ones.

First of all, Tôdai is creating is a back door around Japan's punishing entrance exam system. Similar regimes used throughout northeast Asia are little more than draconian filters that sift students by raw IQ (with an emphasize on memorization skills).

As far as most employers are concerned, a student who can get into Tôdai has already proven he's got the right kind of raw clay. Job done. Time to party.

At the same time, the number of all Japanese exchange students has fallen drastically over the past quarter century, something about which Nobel Laureate Eiichi Negishi (who did most of his work at Purdue) has voiced concern.

I wouldn't dismiss a reemergence of nascent isolationism left over from the Edo Period at the heart of this. But the bigger problem is that Japanese corporations march in lockstep and do their hiring only in April. Missing that window can doom a career.

If Tôdai can start to shatter some of these deeply ingrained (and deeply stupid) bureaucratic conventions, the value of this transition to Japanese society will greatly outweigh feel-good pronouncements about "internationalism" and "diversity."

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