Engineering Education in Japan


Professor Kenjo draws on his extensive experience to describe the strengths and weaknesses of Japan’s engineering education system, and describes what will be done in the near future to strengthen it. He also ponders on possible future collaborations between Britain and Japan to increase engineering prosperity between the two nations.


In 1985 I became acquainted with John Lorriman, who came to Japan to study the education and training underlying our successful economy. Nine years later we wrote the book Japan’s Winning Margins. The year 1985 was the pinnacle of Japan’s economic prosperity, which had successfully been supported by the ‘seniority’ and ‘lifelong employment’ systems. In that year, however, finance ministers of the seven leading industrialised nations signed an agreement at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. As a result, the Yen was greatly revalued. The Plaza Agreement signified the end of Japan’s catch-up period, as evidenced by a whispered comment overheard two months later at a bar in the Plaza Hotel: ‘The Meiji Era has (effectively) finished now!’

The word ‘Meiji’ has a special meaning when talking about Japan’s modernisation. The Meiji era ended literally in 1910 with the death of Emperor Meiji, but Meiji effectively continued up to 1985 – another 75 years. Akira Esaka insists that Japan’s seniority and life-long employment systems should not be maintained if Japan is to remain competitive in the world market. He also maintains that the question of ‘how to manufacture’ was addressed in Japan’s catch-up period, but ‘what to design’ is the question to be asked from now on.

The end of Meiji can be associated with the great achievement of Henry Dyer, a Scottish scholar, who started Japan’s modern engineering school in 1873 when he was only 24 years old. The school was then called the Imperial College of Engineering; it later became Japan’s premier engineering school, Tokyo University. This became the model for many other universities.

Dyer’s modern engineering education and our traditional Japanese management (including life-long employment) systems were amalgamated to form Japan’s industry. During his nine-year stay in Japan, and continuing after his return to Scotland, Dyer wrote several books about Japan. The more he insisted on the need for his contemporaries to learn from Japan, the more the British disliked him.

A typical example of the life-long employment system is seen in Japan’s steel industry, which recruits mainly from first-class universities. A steel industry employee told the author that he has learnt by heart the names, universities, graduation year, and company careers of 800 engineers. This was only possible due to the lifelong employment system and the fact that there is no poaching from rival companies.

The life-long employment system works well in some ways, but has resulted in much practical knowledge not being taught in universities. Rather, the focus has been on mathematics and fundamental science, backed up by good communication skills. This is what has been expected from the Japanese university educational system, but this practice will not be acceptable in the future.

One indication of the new trend in engineering education is the setting up of JABEE (the Japanese Accreditation Board for Engineering Education) and participation in the Washington Accord. These initiatives are intended to address the problem of international accreditation. Japan has become a provisional member of the Washington Accord and is now about to become its first formal non-English speaking member. This represents a drastic reform of Japan’s engineering education system with the aim of bringing it up to international standards.

In 1996, when John Lorriman and I were revising our book, there were indications that a radical change in Japanese management and in-house education methods were needed. This came after the burst of Japan’s bubble economy. At that time, the recession was viewed in two different ways. One group simply insisted that it was temporary, and the other that it was of significant importance and the economy could not be easily restored.

At present most people feel that the latter was correct, since the situation is now even more serious. Japan’s electronics industry, which has long been leading the nation’s industrial base, has recently become unprofitable. For example, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company Ltd announced that they would change their policy of lifelong employment and reduce the number of employees to make up for the huge financial losses that the company has incurred.

The problems are clearer than before, but the key question is whether or not Japan’s leaders can really reform Japan’s economy. This background information may seem unrelated to engineering education, but in fact there is something here that cannot be separated from the education system.

Mass production of engineering graduates

The existence of a large number of universities and engineering graduates have been major strengths of Japan. Table 1 shows the number of Masters and PhD graduates produced last year from Tohoku University. Since about 70% of graduates go on to the Masters programmes, the annual output of 4-year graduates is over 1000. It should be noted that there are seven more major national universities which produce about 7000 additional graduates annually. Moreover, there are over 40 provincial national universities, several major private universities which have engineering departments, and thus more output of graduates.

As a result of this mass-production of engineering graduates, Japanese companies became extremely good at producing existing products at low cost and with high quality. Now that manufacturing has been shifted overseas, there is a crisis – overproduction of Japanese engineers.

Motoaki Kaneko, director of one of Japan’s leading manufacturers of precision motors and CD drives, stated: ‘The Japanese precision motor industry had enjoyed a spectacular growth since the beginning of the 1960s, along with the rapid growth of the export industry. However, after the Plaza Agreement, Japan’s industrial structure began to change drastically. Only those who can adapt to this change can survive.’

Kaneko is a graduate of the Department of Economics of Tokyo University and holds an American MBA degree. He explains that in China it is very easy to recruit many engineering graduates with skills equivalent to those of Tohoku University’s graduates, but the cost to employ them is less than onethirtieth of that of a Japanese engineer. This has significant implications and I feel that it is very important.

Tokyo, Keio and Waseda universities have produced influential politicians, including Prime Ministers. The technology departments of Tohoku University have produced capable engineers for major companies and professors of various universities. In terms of Government funding, Tokyo University is the first and Tohoku is the second, and it is not easy for small- or medium-sized companies like Kaneko’s to recruit from this university.

Meanwhile, another serious problem is that most of the major Japanese companies have built their new plants in China and sent supervisors, engineers, and technicians there for supervisory roles. This implies that highcost Japanese engineers are redundant unless they are really capable. In what capacity is the Japanese engineer destined to serve? This service may come in the form of good administration or the design of new, unique, and innovative products, rather than the past practice of gradually refining existing products.

Creativity and communication

A weakness of Japanese engineers is often discussed in terms of ‘a lack of creativity’ and ‘a poor ability to communicate in English’. Often these two are interpreted as opposite sides of the same coin. Is this interpretation valid? Some people insist that one solution to the creativity problem is to broaden the students’ minds by exposing them to cross-cultural experiences and ideas before starting their specialised studies.

An American engineer who has a keen interest in robotics told me that the engineers who built an advanced, innovative humanoid robot (for a famous Japanese company) could not speak English when he met them. From the point of view of the author’s lengthy experience in technical education, those who can speak a second or third language fluently are, in general, not as skilled at ‘hands-on’ building or designing. I agree that Japanese engineers are generally poor at writing and/or speaking English, but I do not think it is necessary that they should all improve their English linguistic ability.

As stated above, Japan entered into a period of ‘what to design’ rather than ‘how to manufacture’. Recently, among Japanese educators, the subject of ‘educating for creativity’ has been intensely debated and ‘creativity education programmes’ have been attempted in various ways. Tohoku University has built a facility called the Innovative Technology Centre. Its necessity is explained as follows: ‘Those who wish to study engineering don’t have hands-on experience with designing or building things before entering the university. The Centre is the place where students can practise creating something in a teamwork environment.’ This implies that the concept of ‘team creativity’ is different from ‘individual creativity’. An example of the latter can be found in the students’ final year project, which in most Japanese universities is an individual research project.

From another point of view, developing creativity at the university level is a case of ‘too little, too late’, and implies that creativity should be taught beginning in the elementary and junior high schools. As compared with Britain or the US, programmes for cultivating curiosity about science may not be as good in Japanese schools. If this point of view were completely true, it would defeat our engineering departments’ efforts to enhance the students’ creativity. Of course, creativity can be stimulated at almost any level of human development but creativity depends, to a large degree, on the individual students’ desire and willingness to be creative. We as educators can only attempt to guide our students to a better self-awareness of their own abilities, and of their own creative thinking processes.

Meanwhile, the existence of large numbers of engineers and technicians represents a significant portion of business for Japan’s publishing industries. Japanese engineers study from monograph- and magazine-style texts rather than from fat textbooks and academic papers written in English. This situation apparently represents a big difference between the English-speaking countries and Japan. It is rare that working engineers study from British or American texts, except in an emergency. Translated books generally do not sell well, perhaps because of differences in the ways of thinking. These practices do not encourage dual-language thinking.

In the UK, American engineering books may be needed because of the low production of British texts, and this leaves Britain open to an influx of American books. This could be a problem for the British publishing companies. Similarly in Japan, other countries do not use Japanese textbooks and vice versa. One of the reasons that the Japanese are not good at English is that they are satisfied with the relatively large amount of Japanese engineering texts that are produced. This situation must change if the Japanese engineers are to improve their international communications skills.

Considering the Japanese weakness in international communication, one could say that a very realistic plan for improvement would be to provide an effective learning environment by using good English in the classroom on noncompulsory subjects in Japanese universities.

What reforms need to be undertaken?

A review of Japanese history indicates that the reform of a stagnant society was performed in various ways in order to create a more efficient institution. Interestingly, reforms associated with Western technology and thought were successful. For example, the matchlock guns brought by the Portuguese supported Nobunaga’s victory in the civil war in the 1560s; Ieyasu’s victory in Sekigahara in 1600 was achieved through the engineering consultancy of William Adams, the English sailor. The Meiji Restoration was initiated by Perry, an American Commodore, and modelled after British social structure and engineering education. The reform arising from the loss of World War II and rapid progress thereafter was very strongly affected by the Americans who confronted the Soviet Union.

What reforms are necessary today? We will look at two aspects. First, the annual number of Japanese PhDs is not very large when compared to American universities, despite the many graduates who proceed to Masters courses to gain entrance into large companies. Japanese companies prefer to recruit Masters degree holders, not PhD holders, because they are viewed as being more naive, and thus more suitable to the Japanese in-house training philosophy. With a life-long employment policy, even undesirable employees are kept on, instead of weeding them out as in Western countries.

Since PhD degrees are granted to those who have demonstrated a high level of creativity and research ability, the major companies should acquire and utilise their skills. An influx of new creativity could help Japanese companies, and Japanese engineering practices may change to meet the demands of new trends. An analysis of the themes of Masters theses reflects the recent thinking of these students.

In the case of Tohoku University, the number of Masters degrees from the four electronics departments is over 200 out of a total of 800. This indicates that Japan’s industry is largely based on the electronics market, and comes at a time when Japan’s need is for fewer, more capable engineers, not the other way around. On the other hand, the number of Masters degrees in biotechnology is not at all high. This seems strange, considering the probable upcoming boom in biotechnology. Japan is behind the USA and the UK in this field. These are some general examples of problems that need to be addressed in Japanese businesses and universities.

Another reform possibility is in the area of continuing engineering education linked with distance (Internet-based) education. Most Japanese universities are conservative, but there are some that have aggressive leaders. In distance education, Japan is far behind the USA and Canada, and continuing engineering education is nonexistent. One exception is the author’s university, which links to a number of skill-formation centres.

With this in mind, there is a good opportunity for an overseas university to enter the Japanese education market. It must have the know-how, and a good track record of successful, continuing, Internet-based education. In this case though, a problem that will have to be overcome is the complex relationship between existing educational institutions and commercial businesses. It is often difficult for foreign companies to enter the Japanese market because of the unusual and often inflexible practices of Japanese bureaucracy. Language problems are another barrier.

Possibilities for British–Japanese cooperation

As an inevitable outcome of the discussions surrounding the Washington Accord and JABEE, it seems that Japan will have to strengthen the Englishlanguage capabilities of its engineers and make improvements to its institutions of engineering education. English has traditionally been a weak spot in Japanese technical education. The relationship between Japan and the two principal English-speaking nations, the UK and the US, has some bearing on this issue.

No doubt Japan will continue to have strong ties with the US. But the author feels that Japan and the UK have a common style of writing for the technical and university textbooks that are produced in our respective countries. What would be the prospects of a joint Anglo-Japanese project to produce translations of certain Japanese engineering books for the world educational market? Although we have seen round table discussions on Anglo-Japanese cooperation take place in the past between political and academic leaders of the two countries, the author thinks that effective managerial-level discussions are needed between reformers with broad visions. The kind of joint project mentioned above can substantially contribute to furthering the ‘internationalisation’ of engineering education around the world.

Further reading

John Lorriman and Takashi Kenjo

(1994). Japan’s Winning Margins. Oxford University Press. Revised edition 1996.

Professor Takashi Kenjo

Department of Electrical Engineering and Power Electronics, Polytechnic University of Japan

Takashi Kenjo is a professor of Electrical Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Japan. He specialises in the control of small electric motors and design of educational equipment for engineering students. He is the author of over 30 engineering books. Email:

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