Higher education in Japan: internationalization, the Sustainable Development Goals and survivability

Sachi Edwards (Graduate School of International Peace Studies, Soka University, Tokyo, Japan)
Akemi Ashida (Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan)

International Journal of Comparative Education and Development

ISSN: 2396-7404

Article publication date: 18 November 2020

Issue publication date: 13 May 2021




This paper reviews the national and institutional internationalization activities in Japan's higher education sector and considers the extent to which these efforts have attempted to incorporate and/or contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


This paper was developed based on a review of available demographic data on internationalization in Japan (in both English and Japanese), a survey of recent scholarly literature on this topic and conversations with numerous faculty and staff members working on internationalization issues in a wide range of higher education institutions throughout the country.


There are substantial internationalization efforts being made at both national and institutional levels, yet scholars and practitioners of higher education question the extent to which genuine internationalization is occurring. Moreover, the metrics used to track internationalization are somewhat limited and the available data, in many cases, can be complicated to interpret. A bit of tension also exists in Japanese universities between those who support the movement to internationalize and those who see it as a passing fad, an intrusion on their academic freedom and/or as a guise for Westernization – a tension that some cite, along with language barriers and system misalignment, as a challenge to internationalization.


Numerous scholars discuss the internationalization of higher education in Japan. The originality of this paper is in the comparison of Japan's higher education internationalization efforts to the movement to achieve the SDGs – both in Japan and as a global effort.



Edwards, S. and Ashida, A. (2021), "Higher education in Japan: internationalization, the Sustainable Development Goals and survivability", International Journal of Comparative Education and Development, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 104-119. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCED-09-2020-0061



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Like many countries around the world, Japan is actively seeking to internationalize its higher education sector. This can be seen both in policy reform at the national level and in programming and other initiatives at the institutional level. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, Japan's higher education has long been international – from the early influence of China and Confucian classics on higher learning in the 8th and 9th centuries to the use of European and American models in the provision of Western higher learning starting in the late 19th century. The most recent wave of internationalization efforts (and, accordingly, scholarship on this topic) began in the late 20th century as a response to increasingly rapid globalization and what many call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This paper reviews the national and institutional internationalization activities in Japan's higher education sector within this recent shift in the discourse and practices of higher education internationalization.

A secondary focus of this paper is on the extent to which these recent internationalization efforts have considered, attempted to incorporate and/or contributed to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – collaboratively developed and then adopted by all UN member states in 2015. As this special issue attempts to highlight, there is a strong potential intersection between the movement to internationalize the higher education sector and the movement to achieve the SDGs. This paper explores how this intersection manifests and is understood within the higher education sector in Japan – based on a review of the available demographic data on internationalization in Japan, a survey of recent scholarly literature on this topic and conversations with numerous faculty and staff members from a wide range of institutional types throughout the country. To that end, the concept of survivability is threaded throughout the paper for the way it encompasses a variety of disparate themes currently present in the internationalization of higher education in Japan: the concern about the survivability of the Japanese economy, individual institutions and the students themselves and the way some institutions and organizations are choosing to frame the SDGs and the sustainability movement more broadly.

Recent contextual issues

Early in the current wave of higher education internationalization efforts, Japan emerged as a clear leader among Asian countries – in terms of common metrics like hosting inbound international students and attaining international recognition for individual universities. However, as other countries in the region further develop their economies (generally) and higher education sectors (specifically), Japan now has increasing competition from countries like China, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand for prospective students (see Kuroda et al., 2018). As such, policy reform at the national government level (discussed in more detail below) has intensified and shifted a bit in the last 20 years or so – mainly targeting increased student mobility numbers (both inbound and outbound) and higher international profiles for its universities, among other indicators like English-medium instruction (EMI) and international research collaboration.

Internally, there is also competition among Japanese higher education institutions for local students. Between the decreasing public budget for higher education (Yonezawa, 2011) and Japan's super-aging society (Saiki et al., 2017; Yonezawa, 2020), there is rising concern within institutions (especially smaller ones) that enrollment rates will fall to unsustainable levels – meaning that the discrepancy between the operating budget and the income generated by tuition and public input will force some institutions to close. In this light, internationalization efforts at the institutional level are often used to attract local students (Ota, 2018), with the thought that a more internationalized campus, student body and/or curriculum (generally known as inward-facing internationalization) makes an institution more appealing.

Workforce considerations have also influenced actions related to internationalization of higher education in Japan. For one, in an aging society, there is a need to expand the labor pool. Thus, attracting high caliber international students to study and gain experience in various industry sectors in Japan is seen as one promising strategy to fulfill the human resource needs of the country. Additionally, in an ever more globalized society, students are increasingly expected to develop various global and intercultural competencies as part of their preparation for the workforce. At both national and institutional levels, the term global jinzai (i.e. global human resources) has been popularized as one of the primary aims of higher education internationalization.

Each of these foregrounding issues (regional competition, decreasing public budget, super-aging society, globalization, etc.) influences the goals and strategies of higher education internationalization in Japan. Notably, they can also all be understood as concerns about survivability, where internationalization is seen as a means to survive, that is, survival of the Japanese economy, of its higher education sector, of other industry sectors, of individual institutions and of individual students and their families (given that attaining a job and earning an income impacts one's ability to survive in a practical sense). With globalization as a rapidly all-encompassing and irreversible reality, Japan (like many other countries) and its higher education institutions seem to be responding in ways that they presume are necessary and appropriate to survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Moreover, Japan has been blamed for not responding to globalization quickly enough (Ota, 2018), making the sense of urgency around implementing their response (i.e. their survival strategies) that much stronger. Indeed, the effectiveness and the merit of these strategies are debated, but that is not the focus of this paper. What follows is simply an attempt to summarize the current situation of higher education internationalization in Japan and (later) its intersections with the global movement to achieve the SDGs.

Policy and programmatic trends

In general, the major areas of focus that fall within the umbrella of higher education internationalization in Japan (like elsewhere) include student mobility, international research collaboration, global rankings and EMI. This section reports on the recent history and the current status of Japan in these areas and describes some of the ongoing efforts and challenges the Japanese Government and individual institutions are facing.

Student mobility

Globally, student mobility is the primary indicator by which many policy makers and practitioners measure and analyze higher education internationalization (Williams et al., 2017). It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the main elements of most recent policy and programmatic initiatives related to internationalization has to do with student mobility. As shown in Figure 1, several national government policies in the last 12 years have set specific goals for numbers of inbound and outbound students within a given time frame.

While these goals seem very straightforward, determining the extent to which they are being met can actually be somewhat complicated. How key terms (such as “international student” or “higher education institution”) are defined is central to this. For instance, many of the goals set by the national government seek specifically to increase long-term, degree-seeking student mobility (Ota, 2018). Yet, survey efforts define “long-term” and “short-term” in a variety of ways, and reports on student mobility in and out of Japan by organizations such as the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) and the Institute for International Education (IIE) include short-term and nondegree-seeking students as well. For inbound mobility, these reports also (since 2011) include numbers of students studying at Japanese language institutes (designed to prepare students linguistically for entrance into traditional universities or junior colleges) – numbers that have been drastically increasing in recent years (Kuroda et al., 2018). Increasingly, language institutes are gaining a reputation for being “visa-mills” – or places where immigrants seeking work in the service industry can enroll to obtain a student visa, without intentions to pursue higher education (Liu-Farrer, 2011, p. 33). To be sure, clarity on student mobility (i.e. how many, for how long and for what purpose) can be difficult to achieve (Kuroda et al., 2018).

Inbound student mobility

Early in the modern wave of higher education internationalization, Japan's primary efforts were aimed at recruiting international students to study in Japan as a soft power (see Nye, 2004) strategy. In 1983, the first major goal was set: hosting 100,000 international students by 2000 (a target that was not achieved within that time frame). At the turn of the century, however, motivations regarding internationalization shifted, where political influence and national security were no longer the primary intentions; rather, the 2000s brought concerns about socioeconomic survival (Ishikawa, 2011). Thus, internationalization became a two-way (inbound and outbound) strategy for attracting and developing high-quality human resources, and additional approaches to internationalization were promoted in order to help meet the ambitious target numbers set by the government.

The current goal for inbound international students in Japan is 300,000 by the year 2020. This goal is supported by funds from the national government for a wide variety of things: scholarships, administrative reform at the institutional level to make inbound mobility easier, expanding EMI, international dormitories, among others. As demonstrated in Figure 1, the total number of international students in Japan as of 2018 was near the 300,000 goal (at 298,980), making it seem as if the goal has nearly been met. However, if students at language institutes are removed, the number drops to 208,901. Further, if students enrolled only in “preparatory courses” are also removed, the number drops even further to 205,465 (not shown on the chart) – a far cry from 300,000. Moreover, these data include students on short-term programs, who stay in Japan for less than six months. In setting the 300,000 international student goal, there were no clear requirements set on what kind of student or program of study would count toward this total. However, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) [1] was clear that their hope was to “secure international students from abroad, develop them within Japan to become highly-skilled human resources, have them take jobs at Japanese companies, and allow them to settle in Japan” (Ota, 2018, p. 102). As such, it is difficult to say whether or not the intention of this goal is on track to be fulfilled (see Figure 2).

The country or region of origin for these inbound students is another issue that raises questions about the success of the inbound mobility policies/strategies. Consistently, over 90% of international students studying in Japan are from within the Asian region, with China (the most by far) and South Korea unwavering in their positions as top two (see Kuroda et al., 2018 for a detailed breakdown of inbound student data). In other words, while the current goal of higher education internationalization (generally) and international student recruitment (specifically) is to connect with and recruit talent from around the world, in practice this is happening very little outside of Asia or even East Asia. This lack of geographic diversity in the rolls of inbound students is concerning to policy makers who would prefer that Japan have a broader global outreach. However, barriers like language ability and lack of online access to information for navigating the Japanese higher education system are often cited as challenges for potential foreign students (Brown, 2017; Ota, 2018; Tanaka, 2019).

Outbound student mobility

In the mid-2000s, Japan greatly intensified its support (financial and otherwise) for Japanese students studying abroad for higher education. Moreover, as seen in Figure 1, since 2010, there have been many new policies established that set goals for and attempt to facilitate outbound mobility; the most clear and overarching goal is for 120,000 Japanese students to study abroad by 2020. Again, the motivation here can be understood in relation to concerns about the survivability of Japan's economy (broadly) and Japanese companies (specifically) in the global marketplace, where Japanese students need to gain skills that are marketable and advantageous for conducting business around the world. English-speaking countries (in particular, the USA, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom) are consistently top destination choices for Japanese students studying abroad, perhaps related to the desire to gain competency in the language of global business.

Various reports that attempt to show how many Japanese students are studying abroad each year have drastically different stories to tell. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS), 58,931 Japanese students studied abroad in 2000, a number that then increased to 64,219 in 2003 (a peak for Japan) but has since decreased dramatically down to 31,732 in 2017 (the most recently available data). UIS data, however, only include long-term study abroad (for degree-seeking purposes). Other surveys have found much higher numbers. For instance, other reports from the same year (2017) suggest that the number of Japanese studying abroad reached 53,197 (according to MEXT), 60,643 (according to JASSO), 79,123 (according to the Japan Association of Overseas Studies [JAOS]) and 84,456 (according to IIE). Of course, all of these surveys have different methods and include varying types of study abroad (short-term, long-term, language study and cultural programming, among others). JAOS's study even includes working adults (nonuniversity students) who participated in volunteer service trips overseas.

If the various types of study abroad were added together, it might be possible to assume that the 120,000 student goal has already been met/surpassed (as JAOS' (2017) report does). Yet, the intention behind this goal was to count long-term outbound students only – leading to further misalignment among various organizations/agencies seeking to track progress toward this goal. What is clear, however, is that the trend for outbound mobility in Japan is for short-term (sometimes as little as one week) study abroad programming (Ota and Shimmi, 2019), with language and/or cultural education as an increasingly popular choice. Reasons for this discussed among scholars and practitioners working in this area include lack of language skills, financial limitations (including inability to take time away from their jobs), course of study (e.g. restrictions by their advisors and/or professors) and family obligations. Moreover, until recently, international experience was not necessarily viewed favorably by Japanese industry employers (Ota and Shimmi, 2019). Indeed, there are many practical and logistical barriers to outbound mobility for Japanese students. While Japanese young adults have been blamed, somewhat callously, for being too “inward looking” and having no interest in the rest of the world, these accusations fail to account for the very real concerns Japanese students have about their survivability: financial, academic and professional.

International research collaboration

Related to student mobility is the extent to which faculty and institutions are collaborating across borders. Indeed, there is a correlation between institutional memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and student mobility – certainly in the case of outbound mobility for Japanese students (Kuroda et al., 2018). Between 2012 and 2016, the number of MOUs between Japanese and overseas universities nearly doubled from 19,982 to 38,264 (MEXT, 2016). Many of these MOUs include establishing short-term programs for student mobility, often developed and facilitated by individual faculty members from each of the partner institutions for whom a research collaboration or other academic relationship was already underway.

To support additional cross-border research collaborations, the Japanese Government has committed considerable funds to make them possible and more productive. For instance, at the individual level, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) offers grants and research fellowships to both Japanese researchers seeking to spend extended time (1–2 years) overseas and for foreign researchers to spend time doing research at Japanese universities (various programs range from one month to two years). The JSPS even runs alumni programs in an effort to maintain the cross-border relationships that were established during research fellows' tenure.

At the larger, institutional level, the Japanese Government has also funded the establishment of research centers (that operate primarily in English) within Japanese universities that explicitly attempt to recruit scholars from around the world. One example of this is the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI) that began in 2007. At present there are nine research centers established by the WPI, and there are plans underway to open an additional 20 within the next few years. In terms of output metrics, WPI centers are considered successful, in that the international ranking of their academic publications are comparable to those of the most highly ranked universities in the world (Nature Index, 2017).

Across Japan, international collaboration in research and scholarly publication has been steadily increasing, especially with neighboring countries such as China and South Korea (National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, 2019). While much of the data produced in relation to tracking international academic co-authorship look somewhat narrow at science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, given the broad support of agencies like the JSPS for cross-border collaboration fields in the humanities and social sciences (in addition to STEM fields), we may be able to assume that international co-authorship in other fields is also likely rising.

Of course, there are many motivations and intentions behind the government's support of international research collaboration. Most prominently, however, reasons offered for these initiatives include recruiting and developing knowledge leaders in various fields and increasing the global “visibility” of Japan (generally) and Japanese research institutions (specifically). Indeed, global “visibility” can be understood, at least in part, as an effort to raise Japan's overall profile on global university rankings.

Global rankings

Since the beginning of the modern ranking phenomenon, Japan has focused a great deal of attention on the position of its institutions on global ranking lists (Yonezawa, 2013). At present, there are several ranking lists that seek to compare and measure institutions in the global higher education sector, each using slightly different indicators and methods. Reaching top positions on these lists is seen by some as evidence of “successful” internationalization because metrics for ranking often include things like global reputation, proportions of international students and faculty and international research collaboration (i.e. academic publications). For that reason, Japan's most recent/current internationalization policy, Top Global University (TGU), included the goal of having ten Japanese higher education institutions ranked within the top 100 globally by the year 2024.

Japan has not seen progress in this area, however. In the first Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) list from 2003, there were five Japanese universities in the top 100. The most recent ARWU list from 2019 featured only three Japanese universities in the top 100. Another popular list, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, included five Japanese institutions in their first list in 2010. That number increased to six in 2013 but has since gone back down to five, where it remains, as of the most recent report in 2019. A third commonly referenced list, the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings shows that Japan only has two higher education institutions in the top 100 – a number that has remained consistent since the inception of this list in 2010 [2].

The phenomenon of ranking is, no doubt, controversial and almost universally disliked by faculty and other academics – in Japan and elsewhere. The individual lists themselves are also heavily critiqued on their methodology. Nevertheless, administrators, policy makers, prospective students and parents, as well as employers in most industries do often let these lists influence their decision-making around policy and institutional reform, application and enrollment in higher education and employment (Ishikawa, 2012; Yonezawa, 2013). For better or for worse, they remain a central component of Japan's higher education sector aspirations.

English-medium instruction

Courses and degree programs that utilize English as the medium of instruction are also energetically pursued in Japan and can also be quite controversial among faculty who fear an over-Westernization of their universities. Debates around the hegemony of the English language aside, Japan's national government has embedded goals for EMI in many of its internationalization policies. The Global 30 program (2009–2014), for instance, funded the development of new EMI degree programs at 13 universities in Japan. Other policies – such as the Project for Global Human Resources Development and the Top Global University Project (Brown, 2017) – have similarly included incentives for institutions to establish or expand EMI offerings. As with student mobility, the data on the implementation of EMI in Japan can be somewhat difficult to interpret due to varying definitions of what counts as EMI; studies have shown anywhere from over 70% to only 9% of higher education institutions offering EMI (Brown, 2017).

However EMI is defined, there is no doubt that attempts to promote EMI have strengthened since the early 2000s (Ishikawa, 2011). Since language barriers are often cited as one of the primary obstacles for inbound mobility (especially for long-term, degree-seeking international students), EMI programs and course offerings can be understood as an effort to facilitate inbound mobility. Moreover, given that English is known as the language of global business, EMI programs also provide opportunities for Japanese students to develop high-level English skills before they enter the workforce. In either case, intentions behind this movement are most likely linked to concerns about economic survivability – for institutions, students and the Japanese economy as a whole.

Japan's current internationalization policy priority: comprehensive internationalization

While previous internationalization policies have had a somewhat more narrow focus (on, for instance, student mobility or the development of research centers), in 2014, the Japanese Government implemented a new internationalization policy, TGU, aimed at more comprehensive reform of institutional operations toward internationalization – which they describe as a combination of international competitiveness and international compatibility. TGU remains the primary internationalization policy in place at the moment, with its funding structure and many of its target goals set through 2024. In recognizing that some of the challenges of pursuing internationalization relate to bureaucratic processes (access to information for potential inbound students, resources for international students once in Japan, assistance for Japanese students on navigating necessary systems for outbound mobility, credit transfer systems and others), TGU granted funds to 37 institutions based on proposals that described comprehensive reform plans that would both raise their international profile and orient their institutional systems toward internationalization.

With TGU funds, institutions have implemented a wide range of initiatives including those related to student services, faculty recruitment, administrative reform and many others. They all also set numerical targets for various things, most often numbers of inbound and outbound students and numbers of international faculty. Trends in specific strategies across the 37 TGU institutions to help them achieve those targets include (but are certainly not limited to)

  1. Establishing joint and double-degree programs with foreign universities;

  2. Creating remote research centers and/or branch offices (for student recruitment) around the world;

  3. Expanding EMI offerings;

  4. Developing cross- and interdisciplinary programs/courses;

  5. Recruiting esteemed international faculty (both to work full time in Japan and also to serve as research supervisors or committee members either remotely or in a part-time joint appointment capacity);

  6. Revising admissions systems to account for a broader range of entrance requirements or qualifying exams;

  7. Diversifying (in terms of language and country of origin) student services staff;

  8. Making a greater amount of information (e.g. course offerings, syllabi, program requirements, credit transfer processes, etc.) available online in multiple languages – both for their own institution (for incoming/potential students) and also for partner institutions (so potential outbound students can see what their options are);

  9. Reforming credit/grading system and annual calendars for more compatibility with other countries' systems;

  10. Increasing dormitories and other spaces on campus specifically geared toward facilitating interaction between Japanese and non-Japanese students;

  11. Organizing additional extracurricular activities (e.g. clubs, sports, etc.).

Of course, these proposed strategies (currently being implemented) were likely tailored to MEXT's stated priorities, meaning that the approach to internationalization promoted by MEXT is influencing academic programing and administrative reform at TGU-funded institutions (Ota, 2018). Moreover, in seeking the competitive TGU funding, institutions set extremely ambitious goals for what they would accomplish within the 10-year time frame of the policy. As a result, meeting the numerical targets they proposed and expending the bureaucratic energy to compile data and report their progress toward those goals has become for many TGU institutions, the primary workload objective (Ota, 2018). In other words, prospective institutions were not able to design a strategy that fell outside the box of what MEXT envisioned (if they wanted TGU funding) and successful institutions have had to focus heavily on documentation rather than, perhaps, additional student services. Additionally, because of across-the-board funding cuts to higher education from the national government, institutions that were awarded TGU funds received less than what they requested – i.e. less than the amount they estimated their proposed initiatives to cost – making it all the more difficult to achieve the ambitious goals they originally proposed (Shimauchi, 2020). So, while the plans for internationalization that TGU institutions have put forward do seem quite comprehensive and transformative, there is still a great deal of wariness among scholars and practitioners working in this area regarding the extent to which genuine internationalization is occurring or even if the programs established by TGU grants will survive once the policy's funding scheme ends.

Japan's Sustainable Development Goals vision: human security

As mentioned above, much of the movement to internationalize the higher education sector in Japan can be understood as a survival strategy. Relatedly, Japan's SDG efforts have been framed in terms of “human security” – which can also be understood as mitigation of threats to our (human and environmental) survival. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2020), during the development phase of the SDGs, Japan actively advocated for including the concept of human security into the SDGs and has since designed its own SDG action plan based on that idea (MOFA, 2017). Specific guiding principles that Japan has named as a framework for their action plan are as follows:

  1. Empowerment of all people;

  2. Achievement of good health and longevity;

  3. Creating growth markets, revitalization of rural areas and promoting science technology and innovation;

  4. Sustainable and resilient land use, promoting quality infrastructure;

  5. Energy conservation, renewable energy, climate change countermeasures and sound material-cycle society;

  6. Conservation of environment, including biodiversity, forests and the oceans;

  7. Achieving peaceful, safe and secure societies;

  8. Strengthening the means and frameworks for the implementation of the SDGs.

In the specific plans and indicators that comprise Japan's SDG action plan, higher education is named as a relevant SGD target under three different categories. In the first category, empowerment of all people, higher education is named as a domestic measure, where the goal is to increase the percentage of students who enroll in higher education (including adults, part-time students and students with disabilities). A nod at internationalization was also included in this first category, where the measure to accept more international students is named. In the third category, creating growth markets, revitalization of rural areas and promoting science technology and innovation, higher education is both a domestic and an overseas measure. Domestically, the action plan involves promoting university reforms that will facilitate collaboration between higher education and other industries, creating pathways and conducive environments for attracting more foreign researchers and fostering young, and especially female, researchers in various science and technology fields. This category also includes an overseas measure that discusses science and technology diplomacy through collaborative research, like the work of the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development Program (SATREPS), which Edwards and Kitamura (2019) described. In the eighth category, strengthening the means and frameworks for the implementation of the SDGs, there is an overseas measure to provide aid to universities (among other entities) in developing countries as a means of fostering the type of knowledge and human resources needed to meet the SDGs.

Beyond the ways in which higher education is explicitly named in Japan's SDG strategy, one could perhaps look at any of the guiding principles in Japan's framework and recognize that higher education has an important role to play. Indeed, around the world, higher education – specifically, the research, learning and knowledge sharing that takes place in this sector – is typically understood as one of the primary spaces where knowledge is preserved, perpetuated and discovered. So, there is a natural overlap in the function of higher education and the SDGs, especially if we consider the potential that faculty (as experts and active researchers in their fields) and students (as human capital that will serve as future leaders in various sectors) have to develop and promote ideas, systems and products that can help achieve the SDGs. In that way, there may be opportunities on the part of the Japanese Government to connect the effort to achieve the SDGs to the higher education sector even further, especially when (as we see in the case of TGU) the government's priorities certainly influence institutional practices.

Recognizing the potential, and perhaps the responsibility, of higher education in the global SDG movement, some universities in Japan have chosen to make the SDGs an important part of their institutional efforts. At least five of the 37 universities that won TGU funding directly addressed global sustainability issues in their project's mission. Many others (both TGU and non-TGU institutions) also have separate SDG-related initiatives ongoing. Kyoto University (KU), as one example, has multiple avenues through which they are attempting to address and raise awareness of the SDGs.

The featured case: Kyoto University

KU is a national university located in Kyoto city, the former capital of Japan. It is one of the oldest modern universities in Japan, second only to Keio University. It is also consistently ranked as one of the best universities in Japan, Asia and the world. Beyond its prestige, however, it makes an interesting case here because of how diverse their internationalization strategies are. In addition to mainstream approaches to internationalization (covered in this paper: student mobility, research collaboration and EMI), KU has pursued other initiatives that are somewhat unique in the landscape of higher education internationalization in Japan. This section briefly describes KU's internationalization attempts, and, in particular, focuses on their creation of the Graduate School of Advanced Integrated Studies in Human Survivability (GSAIS) as an interesting example of how the promotion of the SDGs can intersect with higher education internationalization.

To be sure, KU has a history of promoting education for sustainable development long before the 2015 creation of the formal SDGs. Naturally, then, promotion of the SDGs has become featured in many areas of the university since that time. This can be seen in international partnerships, such as KU's UNESCO Chair on Water, Energy and Disaster Management or the DAAD-KU Partnership Programme toward SDGs that facilitates research collaboration between KU and institutions throughout Germany, in symposia that encourage scholars from various fields to engage with the SDGs or even in practical campus initiatives such as the FAO-KU partnership that seeks to reduce food waste at on-campus food service establishments and raise awareness of food waste globally as a major sustainability concern. Perhaps the most unique and ambitious sustainable development-related effort at KU, however, is the GSAIS. Launched in 2013 (preceding the SDGs) with funding from the national government's Leading Graduate Schools Program, the GSAIS offers doctoral and masters (as of 2016) programs built around the very basic idea that if we do not find a way to live harmoniously with the natural world, humans simply will not survive as a species.

At its core, the GSAIS is an international program – meaning it can be understood as part of KU's internationalization efforts (even though it is not directly named as part of their institutional internationalization strategy) and as an example of what it might look like for higher education internationalization to intersect more directly with the global effort to achieve the SDGs. As a primarily EMI program, it recruits students from around the world who aim to do research related to environmental sustainability. It also requires students to leave Japan during their program for an internship at an international organization or research institute related to their topic of study and utilizes a multiple supervisor system, sometimes including faculty at foreign universities as part of the research advisor team.

The multiple supervisor system also means that students might have co-advisors from completely different fields, which aligns with their integrated approach to curriculum. Students in the GSAIS are required to take classes in subjects ranging from art and philosophy to life sciences and technology and classes that are (at least in theory) used to enhance understandings of the interconnectedness of these seemingly disparate fields. Beyond required courses, however, the GSAIS creates individualized curricula for each student that supports their unique research interests. In practice, this means sending students to other KU faculty/departments/schools to take classes and bringing in visiting faculty from beyond KU to teach specialized courses. Ultimately, the mission of the program is to help students conduct important and holistically grounded research that makes a global impact on the type of on-the-ground challenges the SDGs address.

In 2018, however, the initial five-year grant from the Leading Graduate School Program ended, and the GSAIS has had to make some (neoliberal) changes in order to maintain their program; ironically, the GSAIS now has to think about its own survival. Moreover, challenges with recruitment and turnover at the leadership level have also hindered the program's ability to meet its desired goals and its full potential. Whether or not the GSAIS is thriving is not really the point here, though. Instead, the example of GSAIS, as previously mentioned, simply serves as an example of what it might look like if universities attempting to internationalize took the charge of the SDGs seriously. In turn, this example may also demonstrate weaknesses in national internationalization policy, where promising programs such as the GSAIS are cut off financially before they have the chance to become fully established and self-sustainable. Nevertheless, daring to imagine approaches to higher education that seem impossible, and sharing examples that go beyond the limitations of current mainstream systems, is an important exercise, especially if we take the impending climate crisis and the effort to achieve the SDGs to heart (Shahjahan et al., 2017; Silova et al., 2018; Stein 2019).

Future projections

On the whole, the situation of higher education internationalization in Japan can be described as vibrant and complex. There are substantial efforts being made at both national and institutional levels, yet scholars and practitioners of higher education still question the extent to which genuine internationalization is occurring. Moreover, the metrics used to track internationalization are somewhat limited and the available data, in many cases, can be complicated to interpret. A bit of tension also exists in Japanese universities between those who support the movement to internationalize and those who see it as a passing fad, an intrusion on their academic freedom and/or as a guise for Westernization – a tension that some cite, along with language barriers and system misalignment, as a challenge to internationalization.

Despite the complexity of higher education internationalization in Japan, we can see some clear trends and likely future directions. As described above, current trends related to internationalization include (1) the use of short-term student mobility programming as a means for engaging across boarders without the high cost of long-term study abroad, disrupting students' course of study or needing calendar/grading/credit system compatibility between institutions, (2) cross-border institutional partnerships in the form of MOUs that facilitate student mobility, joint and/or double-degree programs, research collaborations and visiting or joint appointment faculty positions and (3) language training programs such as study abroad programs specifically for language learning, increased EMI within Japanese universities and the rise of Japanese language institutes. Relatedly, there is a strong trend of neoliberal reforms that reduce the financial support institutions receive from the government, increase academy–industry partnerships and generally introduce further marketization to the entire higher education sector. While neoliberalism may not be entirely encompassed by the internationalization movement, in practical and rhetorical terms, they often go hand in hand. By all indications, these trends will likely continue, at least for the near future.

Based on the calls of Japanese scholars working in this area, there also seem to be some hints about potential future directions for internationalization that address some of the challenges experienced thus far – namely, language barriers, lack of access to resources online and increased regional competition. For instance, Ota (2018) urges Japanese universities to provide greater support for foreign students to develop and refine their Japanese language skills. Doing so would go a long way to further integrate foreign students into the Japanese university system and could ultimately aid their transition into post-graduation employment in Japan – which is one of the original intentions of the government's goals to recruit international students. Similarly, increased language training for Japanese students may be another future priority. Increased EMI for Japanese students is already on the rise, to be sure, but other languages are also valuable in a multilingual global society.

Another trend that is beginning to emerge, and will likely become more of priority in the near future, is the effort to increase transparency about the Japanese higher education system, especially for foreigners who are considering studying in Japan. In particular, this means that more information about admission requirements, credits and credit transfer, syllabi and course offerings, among other logistical information is becoming accessible online and in multiple languages. It also means that quality assurance mechanisms are becoming further aligned with foreign institutions – another issue that impacts the ease of both in- and outbound mobility. The National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education (NIAD-QE) was established in Japan in September 2019 for this purpose; while there are only eight countries [3] involved at the moment, this network is likely to grow. Indeed, there have been multiple quality assurance networks developed regionally (in Asia–Pacific) and globally over the years, but they have been critiqued for limited functionality. The issue of quality assurance has proven particularly difficult and important in Asia, given the diversity among higher education systems between Asian countries. So, the challenge of harmonizing metrics and standards for quality higher education is ongoing and to support that, the movement to create more access to online, linguistically diverse information is likely to intensify.

Additionally, we may see an increase in policies attempting to use higher education internationalization to prevent brain drain from Japan. As Yonezawa (2020) explains, many Japanese industries are moving their manufacturing and other operations abroad, recruiting top Japanese business and engineering graduates to come with them. Moreover, in an aging society, where economic stability is not guaranteed, Yonezawa (2020) predicts that Japanese youth will soon begin to pursue career opportunities outside of Japan at a higher rate and that, likewise, maintaining Japan's attractiveness to international students will continue to be difficult. In such a context, then, regional collaboration and harmonization of education systems, as discussed above, may be helpful. In the future, however, we may see even more overt attention within conversations about internationalization and harmonization about how to address the potential brain drain phenomenon that Japan is facing.

As previously discussed, both the strategies for pursuing internationalization and the challenges to achieving internationalization in Japan's higher education sector can be understood through the lens of survivability. Japan is attempting to internationalize to ensure the survival of its economy, while many Japanese students struggle to study abroad out of fear of their own economic survival. Japanese universities are seeking to survive through internationalization, while many Japanese faculty members are skeptical that their culture and their academic freedom can survive the internationalization movement. Japan has included higher education internationalization in its official strategy for achieving the SDG's (where human security is aptly named as the guiding principle) to a certain extent, but there is much room to expand on the current approaches in order to realize the full potential of higher education internationalization in contributing to human and ecological survivability. While there are some examples of individual universities who are pushing the boundaries in this regard (e.g. KU), national strategy remains somewhat limited to human resource development and gender equity. Japan has demonstrated a strong commitment to the SDGs in other policy areas, though, so a more diversified and holistic intersection between the SDGs (across the board) and higher education internationalization may be a potential future priority.

Japan may also have a unique opportunity to contribute to the global discourse and practice of higher education internationalization at a time when there is a bit of a turning point in the way scholars and practitioners are thinking about what it means and how it should be carried out. Indeed, within this recent wave of higher education internationalization (since the 1990s or so), Western models and institutions have set the standard for how internationalization is understood and what it looks like. Recently, however, a growing number of scholars from around the world, including Western countries/institutions, have pointed out how unsustainable, and often antithetical to the SDGs, Westernization (in the form of internationalization and otherwise) can be (Stein et al., 2019). Calls to decolonize higher education and reprioritize the ethics and priorities of internationalization are on the rise. Japan, with its legacy of ecologically oriented philosophy and practice, may be able to draw on its own cultures and traditions to show the world an/some example(s) of what higher education internationalization could look like if it reoriented its priorities to more clearly and broadly align with the SDGs. To be sure, immediate concerns about economic survivability are not likely to go away and would be difficult to deprioritize, but ecological, and indeed human, survivability is quickly becoming a comparably urgent concern in many ways.


Government's policy initiatives for internationalizing Japanese higher education with numerical targets

Figure 1

Government's policy initiatives for internationalizing Japanese higher education with numerical targets

Trends in the number of international students by institutional type

Figure 2

Trends in the number of international students by institutional type



The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the government agency that writes and implements Japan's higher education internationalization policies.


QS collaborated with THE between 2004 and 2009. In 2010, QS and THE began making their own lists independently.


Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Holy See (Vatican), Mongolia and Turkey.


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Funding: This study was funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

Corresponding author

Sachi Edwards can be contacted at: sachiteresa@gmail.com

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