Liberal Arts in the Land of the Rising Sun

By Alex Silverman

The liberal arts education is traditionally considered an American institution. Indeed, it is a notion that developed alongside the country and culture of America. Recently coming under fire from those who doubt its practicality, it is nonetheless an American value and a school of thought that is predominately associated with America itself.

But not entirely. Liberal arts institutions have been cropping up the world over, from Ashesi University in Ghana, to Ashoka University near New Delhi. Arguably the most prestigious of these international liberal arts schools, is the University of Tokyo. Todai, as it is referred to, is the premier university in Japan, and ranked by the ARWU as one of the top schools in the world.

Because of their long-standing tradition of championing the liberal arts, I contacted the University of Tokyo to discuss their commitment to the liberal arts. Mariko Watanabe, a lecturer in International Public Relations in the Globalization Office, is the public relations representative for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She shares just what comprises the institution’s liberal arts philosophy, and provides some insight into the world of East Asian liberal arts.


How were the liberal arts first conceived on the campus of the University of Tokyo in 1949? Why were they included in the curriculum during that year? 

WATANABE: The College of Arts and Science, University of Tokyo was established in 1949 based on the long tradition of the First Higher School, which had by then produced nearly 20,000 young alumni. Many of them turned leaders in Japan’s government, businesses, and academia. The core curriculum of this high school was modeled after liberal arts education, and it was succeeded by the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Through the efforts of our first dean, Tadao Yanaihara, and his colleagues, a strong foundation was laid for a Junior Division education based on a new philosophy, to be run under the auspices of the College. In Dean Yanaihara’s words, ‘”…we must give our students a solid base in general education needed for further study, provide them with an unbiased knowledge, and foster a spirit of a life-long quest for truth. This spirit is the lifeblood of the College of Arts and Sciences.” 

How do most students feel about liberal arts education in comparison to the more typical university experience in Japan? Why is it that the liberal arts education is a rarity in Japan? 

WATANABE: According to a survey we conduct amongst our students, many say they chose the University of Tokyo because of our liberal arts curriculum. Most Japanese universities accept students into particular disciplines/fields and thus the applicants must decide before they apply what they wish to study. In contrast, our “Late Specialization” system enables students to reflect on what they wish to pursue *after* they enter the university. We encourage them to broaden their knowledge and sharpen their critical thinking skills in the first two years so that they can be sure what they want to specialize in during the latter two years of their undergraduate career. 

Are the liberal arts in Japan different in anyway from their counterpart in America? 

WATANABE: Unlike U.S. liberal arts colleges, it is not, in principle, possible to switch majors once the students decide what they want to study. And they need to decide their major by a certain deadline. In addition, there is a selection system to be admitted to their desired major based on their grade point average. 

Why is it that the liberal arts suffered a decline in Japan during the 1990s? How did the University of Tokyo resist this change? 

WATANABE: There was a trend to push early specialization in the 1990s to produce graduates with a more focused knowledge of the field. The University of Tokyo did not go with this trend because it firmly believed in the need to encourage students to broaden and deepen more foundational knowledge in the first two years of their study. 

What role does the East Asian Liberal Arts Initiative play? Could you please elaborate on how EALAI helps foster a uniquely East Asian influence in the liberal arts? 

WATANABE: EALAI (East Asia Liberal Arts Initiative) was launched in 2005. Its main activities are geared towards BESETOHA, which is a consortium of four major universities in Asia – Peking University, Seoul National University, the University of Tokyo, and Vietnam National University-Hanoi. EALAI has been serving as its secretariat and organizes symposia and workshops that are joined by faculty members and students of the member universities. Some of these are open to the public. The development of East Asia-related courses in the liberal arts curriculum is also an important mission at EALAI. 

Based on perspectives from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese studies, we have been pursuing a common platform for liberal arts education in this region. We welcome contributions from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well. Students from each university are invited to give presentations and they also have opportunities to learn from each other, thereby broadening their world. Sharing experiences and opinions, participants learn the value of academic endeavors, cultures, and prospects of East Asia. 

Is there any message that the University of Tokyo would like to share with liberal arts institutions in America and across the world? 

WATANABE: Yojiro Ishii, our dean who graduated from the University of Tokyo and is one of the most preeminent scholars of French literature in Japan, decided to study French literature even though initially he planned to study law. There have been many cases like this where students come in thinking one way and then decide on another after going through our liberal arts education and then becoming distinguished figures. We are proud of our system of inspiring new interests and desire for learning among our students. 

According to world employers, liberal arts students have more interpersonal and problem solving skills, and we believe it is because they are able to approach situations with various ways of thinking and perspectives. The liberal arts foundation is something they can treasure all their lives, no matter what they do after graduation. 

Alex Silverman is a recent graduate of Wofford College in humanities and German. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. Wofford College is home to the Beta of South Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.