Thursday, February 5, 2009

Japan versus Korea on education

On the heels of this news about South Korean students making up the largest number of foreign students in the United States for the third year running, the Japan Times runs this story on how Japanese are failing at their educational goals:
For a country such as Japan, internationalization must start with education. Japan is an island nation, conversing in a language spoken nowhere else on our planet, with few immigrants and foreigners. Japanese universities have thus far failed to attract the best students from abroad, the only option is a foreign education. Therefore, to internationalize themselves, the Japanese must seek a foreign education. Internationalization must include the elite since they are the ones who will have the most influence on Japan's future.
If you substituted "Korea" for "Japan," the sentiment of this op-ed piece would be right at home in any Korean daily. Japan and Korea share not just a similar cultural and historical background in modern times, but that has translated into shared problems in terms of further economic development. 

Shared problems that might have shared solutions, such that Seoul and Tokyo could team up to solve them and/or each country could look to the other's successes, as when Tokyo University recently finally got around to putting together an English-language graduate school, as Yonsei University did beginning in the late 1980s, with other prestigious Korean universities following suit. 

This is also an interesting lesson for Seoul in that even an uber-advanced country like Japan still has to find ways to tackle the same issues developed-but-still-developing Korea faces. 

Now the other thing I thought was intriguing was the benchmark the two op-ed writers (judging by their names, one a gaijin and the other a native Japanese):
There are about 6.4 million college-age Japanese, compared to only 3.2 million for South Korea. Japan is also much richer, with per capita GDP more than twice Korea's. Yet, there are 39 Koreans studying at Harvard College, compared with only five Japanese (excluding immigrants). Overall, Harvard University has nearly three times as many Koreans as Japanese.
Japan using Korea as goal in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses scenario? Has the world gone topsy-turvy? One of the memes of the K-blogs is that it is Korea that is driven by nationalism and constantly trying to prove itself vis-à-vis Japan. Japan, as some would have you believe, is above such petty dick-measuring contests. 

In reality, Japan is not the pure and noble entity that the Korea bashers would have us believe, nor is Korea the hopelessly and intractably jingoistic entity forever trying to compare itself to Japan out of some need to prove itself because it didn't shake off the shackles of Japanese colonialism on its own. 

No, Korea compares itself to Japan because it has used Japan not just as a benchmark but as a model of development. But now we're beginning to see that the student can become the teacher. Is that a bad thing? Japan faces some difficult problems, some of which Korea has made progress on. Japan can start learning from Korea, just as Korea has been learning — and will continue to learn — from Japan.

Cue the "We Are The World" music. 

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