Chapter 65 – Breaking with the Sophia Alma Mater.


Bad Education in a Top-Ranked University

1. Stimulus Lacking
2. But One Very Satisfying Course
3. The Brave French Student
4. The Derelict American Student
5.  Living with Legalism
6. Tama University – An Attractive Offer

By 1996 my relationship with the International Department (later Faculty of Comparative Culture) at Sophia University was becoming strained. True, the job had given me a visa, an income and a nameplate for almost twenty years. But not much academic stimulus. 

1. Stimulus Lacking

Some of the classes came close to being meaningless. Lecturers sometimes seemed chosen for political or church connections.

My plans for have a separate Japanese studies unit, with intensive teaching of the language for foreigners coming to Japan and wanting not just to learn Japanese but also to use the language in their studies, had largely failed.  

I had tried to set up ‘work-in-progress’ seminars for the teaching staff – something that any self-respecting university takes for granted since it allows teachers to get to know what each is doing and to bounce ideas of each other. But that project did not get very far either. 

At the first seminar I tried to float my idea that Japan’s growth, and its management systems, owed much to the feudal heritage. I had thought that genuine academics would welcome some new and provocative ideas into which they could chew on.

But all I managed to do was provoke a contemptuous outburst from one of our faculty, the long-standing Japanese management guru, James Abbeglen. (His ‘Japan As a Model for All of Us’ theories were to go into some decline later, but only after the Bubble economy collapse). 

No one else showed any interest in debating the point. The seminar project was canned. 

Teaching too was not very exciting.

Students varied from the very weak to the very good, with standards seeking mainly to please the weak. 

I was regarded as strict, I am told, simply because I had demanded the amount of study and attention that any normal Western university would want.

But I did have one very successful course, and I pass on the technique now to help other teachers working in the same area.

2. But One Very Satisfying Course

The course was called readings in Japanese economics. But first some background.

I had become obsessed with the realisation that the only problem with Japanese education was the lack of challenge.

Elsewhere there is no lack of challenge – difficult term-end exams with severe threats if results poor, job recruitment based on final year results, short tests, and so on.

But in Japan the only challenge was the university entrance exam. And that was an examination of the worst kind of ability – ability to memorise high school textbooks.

But one person alone cannot force these changes (though as I relate later, I did try, when president of Tama University). 

The whole Japanese education system has to be reformed from the bottom up and the bureaucrats make sure that will never happen.) 


To continue, this was one course where challenge could easily be introduced, without any intervention from outside.

My self-appointed aim was to bring students with some Japanese language ability to the point where they could read Japanese economic texts with some fluency.

Anyone who has studied Japanese will realise this is not easy. Far more than with other languages, even with Chinese, when you read Japanese – formal Japanese especially – you feel you are fighting a fog of long, convoluted, back-to-front sentences. 

Making sense can be mind-breaking. Worse, the sentences are written in a mixture of kana script and kanji (Chinese ideographs). 

They are also written with no gaps to show where words begin or end.

As mentioned earlier, the only way to decypher this jumble is to turn written script into sounds so that the meaning emerges in the same natural way as it would emerge if you were hearing the same thing being spoken to you.

Our instinctive ability to unravel the meaning of spoken sound is much stronger than our conscious ability to unravel the meaning of jumbled written script. But for that to happen, of course, you need to be familiar with the spoken language.

Each week I would set for homework a recording of several pages of text from some standard document – an economic magazine article or a White Paper on the economy.  

At the class the next week the students would have to read in turn sentences from the text.(We would also discuss the economics involved in the text.)  

Unlike with English or any other phonetic script, you cannot just look at the script and hope to be able to read it. You have to prepare. You cannot fake reading ability.

And by far the easiest way to prepare is to listen repeatedly to a recording, checking the meanings of the words you do not understand. (Using a Japanese dictionary is much easier if you know the pronunciation of the word you are seeking.) 

If a student had not prepared, then when it came for him or her to read a sentence in the text, and to translate it, he or she would be left tongue-tied in front of the class. 

To avoid that disgrace some of the weaker students would spend up to 10 hours a week listening to the tape repeatedly while checking the meaning of each word.

It was the ideal way to provide students with a study challenge and an incentive. 

Usually that is not easy in Japan.

I had also found it was the ideal way to handle students with different levels of reading ability. Those who started out with weak ability could catch up simply by spending more hours each week in preparation.

3. The Brave French Student

I had one course with a French student who started out with less than the very bare minimum of the 600 kanji I had set as needed to join the course.

But she begged admission and I accepted her as an exception.(To read Japanese well you need to have at least 1,000 – 1,500  kanji, a severe burden for most foreigners coming to Japan to study.)

To catch up she was spending even more than 10 hours a week in preparation. But gradually she was moving ahead.

On the last day of the course she was able finally to stand up in front of the class and read her sentences well.

We all knew how hard she had worked to reach that level.  We all burst into spontaneous applause.  

It was a very satisfying moment in a less than very satisfying teaching career at Sophia.

Graduates from that course still come back to me saying how the reading ability breakthrough had been crucial to their later careers, many in the finance industry.

I did not tell them that it had been easiest of all my courses to prepare since the students did all the work.

 All I had to do was select the text, listen to their reading efforts in class and then follow up with an explanation of the economic/business significance in material they had just read. 

I would have been very happy to expand that kind of Japanese text reading course to cover other topics. But as mentioned earlier, the department/faculty was not very interested in my ideas for expanding Japanese-language based teaching.

 So I continued to concentrate on the many other distractions in my life. Until, once again, I was to hit yet another submerged  rock.

I had long felt an obligation to show students more of Japan than the inside of a classroom. I would invite them to enjoy my Chiba development, and even let them do some paid work there if they wanted.  

But it seems that the idea of a professor having the energy to develop land and invite students to participate was alarming to my conservative, stuck-in-the-Tokyo-mud colleagues.

That I could live with.  But I was not prepared for the blow about to descend.

4. The Derelict American Student

Among my students in yet another run-of-the-mill course was an older graduate student, S.  He was an American studying business and had a part-time job in sales of imported building materials.  

He had joined one of my student visits to Boso and came to me one day saying he wanted to get involved with the Lockwood franchise for Japan after graduation. 

I referred him to my brother (who had be offered the franchise) but he ended up causing great damage and confusion. 

He also demanded some money.

In the subsequent court case we discovered the student had, pro bono, the services of a lawyer active in a small ultra-rightwing group already making waves by seeking to have admissions of war guilt deleted from Japan’s school history textbooks.

Worse, the lawyer seemed to have been recommended to the student someone in the university administration.

5. Living with Legalism

The whole affair had been strung out over more than two years, with numerous court appearances.

True, towards the end I was beginning to live with it, even enjoy it. I learned a lot about the legal system. And I was able to move the case to chambers where I discovered I had a judge who had read one of my books. He was happy to dismiss the suit.

But the shock and psychological damage at the beginning – having to stand up alone in the very unfamiliar court atmosphere trying to compete with a lawyer experienced in the tricks and jargon of the profession – was great.The damage to time and commitments was even greater.

The shock of knowing my university had recommended this pro-bono, ultra-rightist lawyer was even worse. 

Needless to say, I was beginning to be keen to cut ties with Sophia. Fortunately I had convenient way out.  And the timing was perfect.

6. Tama University – An Attractive Offer

Many years earlier I had come across an activist academic, Noda Kazuo. He had befriended me, as he did several other foreign academics in Japan. 

He liked to have us appear occasionally before one or other of his clubby groups. (Japanese activists like to feel they have a group of colleagues, admirers and hangers-on around them and supporting their activities.)  

His activism focused on the alleged need for more internationalism and more venture spirit in Japanese business. I was able to chime in with my spiel about the opportunities in Japan’s neglected service sector.

He also liked my talk about Japan having more than enough unused land to burst any number of the spurious land shortage claims being used to promote Japan’s dangerously expanding Bubble economy.

Noda had managed to find a wealthy backer for a new private university he want to create on some excavated land at Tama, an upper middle class suburb on the Tokyo outskirts. 

It would develop a new generation of US-style venture businessmen, he said. To get things moving he would be the first president of the new university.

But soon it was clear that the university – Tama University – he had taken such pains to establish would end up as yet another very ordinary private university competing to attract very ordinary students.  

US-style, venture-seeking individualistic students are sparse in Japan. And it was unlikely that any university would be able to create them.

So Noda decided to move on; he had other things he wanted to do. And he had chosen a successor – an elderly professor of management science called Nakamura.

But the elderly professor collapsed with a stroke immediately on appointment. Noda and the university owner had to get a replacement quickly.

How about Clark, seems to have been their reaction. And ‘why me?’ was my reaction. I had had no connection with the new university.

Besides, how could a foreigner like myself hope to run an all-Japanese university, even if it was still quite small, with some 1400 students.

But Noda and friends were very insistent, and offered every incentive. I would have a nice salary. And if I so wanted I would not have to be actively involved in day-to-day administration. I had simply to act as a figure-head.

It was an attractive offer, even if I still had my doubts. And so, without tears or regrets I said goodbye to the university where I had worked for almost two decades and which initially had been so good to me.

I was happy to try out fresher, even if very different, pastures.