Forget the age-old rivalry between the hard sciences and liberal arts. Last June, the Japanese Education Minister requested that the country’s universities cut their programs in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of offering courses in economics, literature, and law, the proposal advised higher academic institutions to focus on the more “practical” STEM disciplines to “better meet society’s needs.”
While the shift caused no small amount of unease in the international academic community, the suggested changes fall in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s platform to elevate Japan’s economic and political standing on the global stage. Whether this move aids or hinders his efforts, however, remains to be seen.
It’s not the first time Prime Minister Abe’s policies have caused controversy. Last year, his reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution fueled alarm both in and outside of Japan. Passed after World War II, Article 9 essentially prevented Japan from maintaining a military. Abe’s reinterpretation of the constitutional clause increased the size of the country’s self-defense forces and allows them to take action if an ally were to be attacked. Among the revision’s most vocal critics are famed Ghibli directors, Hayao Miyzaki (Princess Mononoke) and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies).
Taken in isolation, the academic cuts seem short-sighted and backward thinking. Put into sociopolitical context, the proposal paints a different picture. The move to remilitarize Japan is often bolstered by claims that it instills national pride in the younger generations. What does it then imply when the Education Minister says that academic institutions should focus on practical, vocational disciplines at a time when the country seeks to remilitarize?
Although several universities have agreed with comply with the suggestion, it is a non-binding proposal. Japan’s top two universities, including Tokyo University (a.k.a. Todai, for all you manga readers out there), have already stated their intention not to comply. I guess we’ll soon find out if any other academic institutions will join them.