BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;
BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE
Chapter 26 (b)
Getting Re-Involved - Akita International University
a. International Journalism?
b. Into China?
c. Into Russia?
d. The MITI Graduate School
2. Akita International University (AIU)
a. The Nakajima Mineo Connection
b. Present at the AIU Creation
c. AIU Problems
d. AIU – A Success?
3. New Directions
a. More AIU?
b. Beyond AIU – Latin America?
Signing AIU student exchange agreement with Wuhan University
With the Tama assignment ending I could enjoy thoughts of semi-retirement. Japan’s kokusai-ka (internationalistion) boom was fading, and with it the never-ending requests for lectures, articles etc.
In theory at least I was free to start doing all the things I wanted to do – climb mountains, travel, write memoirs, follow-up with languages etc.
Finally I could get away from the Japanese version of the rat-race – perhaps.
Family developments were also favorable.
Yasuko had reached retirement age at the Ajiken where we had first met more than 30 years earlier (it is now called IDE or Institute of Developing Economies) and was enjoying her freedom.
Bilingual ability meant my two sons were already well into promising careers – international finance at first, and then branching out on their own.
But I still had some unfinished business to get out of the way.
First priority should have been to bring out an up-to-date version of my original Japan as a Tribe book.
And this time I would not have to face the Japan as Number One critics keen to see Japan as an economic and social model for the rest of us and derisive of anyone who said otherwise.
On the contrary, I would be in a good position to explain why Japan was starting to go downhill, especially in comparison with the Sinitic culture societies of Taiwan, Singapore, China and Korea.
Nor, hopefully, would I have to face the carping from the critics who saw Japan as a gigantic anti-foreign conspiracy – a System out of control.
But my Boso developments still had to be managed. Serious writing usually does not mesh well with having to worry about delinquent tenants, broken toilets etc..
And I still had some career fantasies from the past hanging over my head.
a. International Journalism?
For some time I had had visions of being able to do something about my dormant Chinese and Russian before it was too late.
To learn to fluency two important languages and then see that effort go to waste is unpleasant. To have studied both societies in depth and not write about it is a personal crime.
Maybe I could use both languages to break into international journalism and commentary.
But my efforts to get out the facts on the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo particularly, had killed my former good relationship with the International Herald Tribune.
Starting late and trying to break into other media is not easy.
(Talking of Kosovo, I often wonder how the IHT and others would react if anti-US Puerto Ricans, despite being promised autonomy by the US, had with Moscow and Cuban support carried out a program of gradually assassinating US citizens in living in country areas. Then when the US sent in troops to protect its remaining citizens, as was its right and duty, this would be used as a pretext for having the US intervention condemned, and then bombed?)
(But then analogies like this are hard even for our best and brightest to grasp, not to mention our crowd-pleasing media.)
With Tiananmen I had had even less success. (To this date I have not been able to persuade any of my critics simply to read the US Beijing Embassy reports of the incident. If the did they would get to realize not only how much the facts had been manipulated but more importantly that the incident had little to do with students – that it was in fact an attack on the regime’s forces from citizens embittered by decades of cruel and inept policies at precisely the moment when the regime was trying to move away from those policies.)
When you try to defy the conventional media wisdom about some controversial event you can easily be written off as some kind of pesky oddball, particularly when you operate from the distance of Tokyo.
b. Into China?
Another possibility was breaking away from Japan and getting in on the ground to start a new career in a China. But did I really want to break with Japan?
Could I find something that left me with a foot in both camps?
Hardly. China would have to be a fulltime preoccupation if I was to be serious.
Besides, my earlier efforts in the China direction had already been frustrated by the China-clique back in Australia. (Unlike in Japan, without some backing from your own country China is a very difficult place to get started in the academic or writing area.)
And there was little sign that the clique would back off from its determination to prevent the person who did so much to open the door to China from ever being able to get back in through that door.
c. Into Russia?
Another possibility was Russia.
I had long had a good connection with Alexander Panov, former ambassador to Japan and closely involved in the Mori-era efforts to find a Northern Territories compromise solution.
Via annual meetings in Greece at something called the World Public Forum (set up by a rich Russian outfit trying to match the Davos World Economic Forum) to which I was invited for some years, I was able to keep the connection alive.
He invited me to visit and talk to the students at the Diplomatic Academy he headed in Moscow. We even got to talking about an extended stay – maybe even six months - there while I revived my Russian language and interests.
His students were quality, with the attractive intelligence of so many young, educated Russians.
But Japanese commitments prevented me from being able to stay little more than one week on my first visit (en route from one of those Greece get-togethers). It was hard to follow up.
Soon I began to realize that I would have to settle for my regular Japan Times columns combined with this sporadic website in my efforts remain in the punditry field.
Meanwhile I would gradually wind down my Boso operation to give me more freedom to at least travel.
d. the MITI graduate school
In the midst of all this turmoil came IDE’s request to head a MITI-financed school set up to teach Japanese and Asian graduates the principles of economic development (IDEAS – the IDE Advanced School - was its acronym).
I had agreed, but on the basis of the job being mainly titular i.e. no salary and therefore no serious responsibilities involved.
(Apart from anything else I had little desire to have to go along with the IDE market fundamentalism that said unlimited free trade was the key to Asian development.)
(It was also the key to Japan being able to maintain its manufacturing dominance while the rest of Asia remained as a supplier of raw materials and markets.
(That was not my idea of what Asian development should be about.)
But the school brought together a sometimes interesting group of young Japanese graduates and Asian bureaucrats (including some from Mongolia with whom I could practice my Russian). And for while I enjoyed inviting them out to my Boso development and giving the occasional lecture.
I was even offered a room and research facilities in the very ample IDE library alongside, which I would have liked to use if I had had more time.
But IDE was soon to be headed by Yamazawa Ippei, the rather bland free-trader bureaucrat who had been with me on the Kojima Kiyoshi seminar at Hitotsubashi 40 years earlier.
My appointment gradually faded out, though I never received formal notice of such.
And it was soon to be replaced by a much more serious and unexpected request – one I tried to refuse at first but which ended up keeping me involved with university education for yet another four years.
2. Akita International University
Sometime in 2002, Nakajima Mineo – former president of Tokyo University of Foreign Languages (Gaidai) – suddenly contacted me asking me to join a committee for establishing a new university in Akita.
It was to be on the Akita campus that Minnesota State had set up some years earlier in a bid recruit students for its own State universities.
The US organisers had offered a two year preparatory course at their Akita campus, with the final two years in the US.
Other US states and universities had set up similar operations in Japan during the heady seventies and eighties.
But with the fading of the kokusaika (internationalization) boom and the collapse of the Bubble economy, almost all had all pulled out.
Minnesota lasted longer than most, but eventually it too succumbed.
One reason was bad management. Another was the fact that four years of intensive education in English simply to gain a US degree of little use in Japan was less than appealing for most Japanese students.
This had allowed Nakajima to enter the scene.
He was frustrated by Gaidai with its continual faction fights (which I had seen close up as a member earlier of his university advisory committee).
He wanted to start from scratch a new university – one based on his own top-down management philosophy.
To distinguish it from other competing universities, education would be in English, with one year overseas study compulsory.
The Akita prefectural authorities were happy to let him take over the vacated Minnesota campus buildings.
And he was confident he could use his influence with the education bureaucrats in Tokyo to have his degrees recognized in Japan.
Would I join the committee, please?
I said yes, tentatively.
(It would have been hard to say no since I was, after all, claiming to have a strong interest in improving language education in Japan.)
Before long, however, the request had become: would I agree to be the vice-president of the university he planned to establish.
This time I tried to say no, but ended up saying yes – partly because of the Nakajima relationship.
My connection with Nakajima had been curious.
Although a China scholar of reputation he was also well-known as a conservative activist, enjoying good ties with the Japanese rightwing, the Sankei and Yomiuri media stables especially.
He was part of the never-ending rightwing clamor predicting China’s impending economic collapse and the need to rescue Taiwan from Beijing’s clutches.
All that normally would have been a good reason for me not to want to get too involved with his new university.
But many years earlier he had suddenly contacted me, saying he had just read my chapter on the Sino-Soviet dispute in the Japanese translation of my ‘In Fear of China’ book.
He congratulated me on my research, saying that my theory about the true origin of the dispute - the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis – rang true, and that so far no other researcher had got on to this very important fact.
Could we meet and talk about it?
(I should add that even now few seem to realize the amount of work and research I put into that chapter, or the way the mistaken version of the dispute led directly to the tragedy of Vietnam.)
Some time later he had asked me to join the shimon kaigi (advisory council) of his Gaidai university.
There too I had developed some sympathy for his efforts to cope with the Gaidai factionalism and inertia.
b. Present at the AIU Creation
But while I appreciated the past attention, now he wanted me to become the vice-president of a university in distant snowy Akita when all I wanted to do was to start to enjoy post-Tama life.
I still had to remain Tokyo based, even if only to take care of my Boso land and house business. I could hardly ask for the normal vice-presidential salary or responsibilities on that basis.
But I was promised a fairly easy advisory and titular role, with only some teaching, and on a reduced a salary.
Eventually and after repeated requests I agreed, mainly out of curiosity to see how the experiment would turn out.
I also managed to invent a rather uninspiring English name for the new university - Akita International University or AIU. (In Japanese it was Kokusai Kyoyo Daigaku –literally International Liberal Arts University)
Teething problems were ugly.
The prefecture had insisted that Nakajima try to retain as many as possible of the original Minnesota staff, mainly as English teachers.
That in itself was reasonable; many had families and were settled into the Akita scene.
They were offered three year contracts. And some were good experienced teachers.
They played a role in helping the new university get up on its feet.
But they had their ideas of how to run the university, and Nakajima had his ideas.
I inevitably ended up as the meat in the sandwich.
(Nakajima tried once to have me address them on my ideas about language learning – with which he agreed strongly on the basis of his own problems in overcoming the bad effects of textbook learning.
(Their looks of pure hostility and contempt were impressive, especially since many of them had already spent years in Japan and could not speak any significant Japanese.)
As their three year contracts ended Nakajima felt free to push them out, with the excuse that Japan’s education ministry now wanted all university appointments to have PhDs.
Most were very unhappy. Some sought revenge with vicious postings on a US university education website, the Chronicle of Higher Education, predicting darkly how AIU would be a total failure and warning foreign academics not to apply for positions we advertised.
(Meanwhile I also found myself having to vet many of those applicants, sometimes in the hundreds, all seeking positions advertised.)
(The glut of unemployed or unhappy PhDs will take years to exhaust, if ever.)
d. AIU – A Success?
As an experiment in the power of publicity and novelty to attract students in Japan, even when student numbers are declining and other universities are collapsing, AIU has been an outstanding success.
Nakajima was able to use his good contacts with the media for free publicity. Japanese fascination with anything new did the rest (as I had discovered earlier at Tama).
Somehow he was able to find funding to put up some attractive buildings to supplement the grim utilitarian structures inherited from Minnesota.
As the initially small student numbers gradually increased so too did student quality.
We were to end up with ten to twenty, sometimes over thirty, applicants for each slot available – something quite rare in Japan, even in the good times.
On the lists of university rankings that the media like to prepare we were close to the top in many categories, even though we had only a few years in operation and were competing with the long-established elites.
But as an experiment in turning out fluent English speakers equipped with the education needed to function on the world stage, we still have to wait for results.
I got almost nowhere trying to persuade our PhD saturated English-language division that language teaching should focus on concentrated listening to content-filled materials, rather than lectures on English grammar and composition.
Meanwhile Nakajima was to become even more conservative. Encouraging students to study of Bushido values was one of his favorite tasks.
He remained deeply critical of Beijing, even as it was obvious that China had become a key player in world economy and politics.
But I never suffered from the fact that politically Nakajima and myself were poles apart. On the contrary, he was later to defend me from rightwing attack.
We related to each other as academics should, with respect for each other’s professional qualities – something that quite a few around us seemed unable to understand.
I also respected him for his skill in maneuvering through Tokyo’s education politics and bureaucracy, and in establishing student exchange links with foreign universities.
Mainly on that basis I was able to accept my rather artificial connection to the new university.
Another reason was Nakajima’s willingness to implement two of the education reforms I had been suggesting over the years – provisional entry and September university entry.
3. New Directions?
With the lecture/interview circuit drying up even more abruptly than it should have (for a reason explained in the next chapter) I found myself with a lot of spare time.
a More AIU?
AIU only required me to show up as needed, mainly to give some courses there, to help in personnel selection, and to attend management conferences.
The commuting from Tokyo – the air travel and overnight stays in a bleak nearby hotel – was unpleasant. So too was the initially cold, raw atmosphere of a brand-new university in Japan’s far north (true, it has since improved greatly but it still remains distant even from the unexciting atmosphere of Akita city).
Personnel squabbles were bitter and exhausting. And I was very disappointed by my inability to improve language teaching there (changing language teachers fixed in their ways – the PhD crowd especially – needed much more time and effort than I had available).
True, the quality of some of the students, drawn from all Japan thanks to the publicity Nakajima had gained for his experiment in international education, was a compensation.
The mix of foreign and Japanese teachers was attractive, with tenure being offered to foreign teachers as their initial contracts ended.
(See my website for a reference to that blabber-mouth, phony Japanese, Debito Arudou, claiming AIU should be put on his arbitrary black-list for refusing tenure, even when tenure was its declared policy.)
If its foundations had been more solid I could have felt AIU had a real chance to become a tertiary education leader for Japan.
Nakajima had asked me to remain as trustee, attending monthly management conferences. I could, if wanted, have also been able to stay around as a Tokyo-based visiting professor.
b. Beyond AIU – Latin America?
But visits to China to recruit partner universities had opened my eyes, again, to the dynamism and progress of the new China – so very different from the Cultural Revolution chaos and backwardness I had seen only a few decades earlier.
Returning to Japan with its negativism, its struggling economy, its apathetic students and its backward politics I began to feel it was time for me to start to move in some new directions.
I was starting to come under vicious attack from the rightwing for my views of Japan foreign policy mistakes (more later)
Meanwhile the economy seemed determined to continue its firmly downhill course.
True, I had already found that getting to resume my China or Russian connections would not be easy.
But fortunately something equally challenging was soon to emerge - the chance to get involved with a new language, Spanish, and a new frontier, Latin America.
That would make Five Worlds and Five Languages. Maybe that would put an end to my peripatetic urges.
Details to follow.