Japan, 9 December 2012. Preconference day of the World 100 and British Council in Japan conference and study tour. A day to relax before the conference starts tomorrow and take in some first impressions of Japan. Bright blue skies, sunshine, hot in the subway, but cold when the wind whips below the bridges supporting the overhead superhighways that cut through the city. Shops play carols quietly but insistently, trying to make you think that Christmas really is important in a country that doesn’t have a public holiday on the 25th December or indeed much Christianity. But Christmas lights look good as the dark falls, and the shops are full of luxury knitwear, leather bags from the UK, Italy, and Scandinavia. The Imperial Gardens, which dominate the centre of Tokyo, are full of Sunday joggers completing the 6 odd-mile circuit in co-ordinated Lycra. It looks like the Japanese take their sport very seriously. But there are a few things that I notice about this ritual. Firstly, there’s not an inch of wobbly flesh in site; the joggers are all Japanese, and they are all running around the park in the same direction. A lot of them are quite old. Finally, the park is planted with only one type of tree – the pine, a Japanese symbol of happiness.

Later that day, we (myself, communications, marketing, and international directors from Helsinki, HKU, and the UK) meet to discuss Japanese higher education with the British Council in Japan at the famous Gonpachi restaurant, renowned for the fight scene in Kill Bill. Despite the lack of any obvious crime lords or sword fights, the sashimi and black sesame ice cream are spectacular.

Over dinner we learn how Japan’s government has insisted that research universities vastly increase the number of foreign students and start learning to be much more proactive in terms of engagement and marketing. Not to bring in more money, but to step up and change its culture. Japan realizes that it needs to be global in more ways than just selling Gap T-shirts and Conran dining furniture. Its higher education is already excellent with several universities in the World 100, but its student population, like the joggers, is distinctly mono-cultural. It doesn’t engage well with other countries, or other universities (not much sign of the partnerships or offshore campuses in Singapore or China). The THE reported this year that 66,833 Japanese students went abroad in 2008-09 – down from 82,945 in 2004-05 – from an overall student population of 3.5 million. 1.25% in all. The OECD Education at Glance figures show the figures to be a little higher at 3%, but still much lower than the UK, where 15% of students are international or Australia, where 21% are international. However, what’s interesting is that Japan’s recruitment is the same as the US’s. Neither has been very interested in making their campuses international. But Japan is keen not to be coupled with the US in this insularity.

In a world that demands cultural connectivity, a well-rounded student needs to have worked with others from other countries, other faiths, and other perspectives. Only meeting Japanese students will limit an individual’s ability to compete in the workplace in the future. This affects Japanese campuses too, where the students only learn to compete in Japanese style and run in the same direction. The Japanese are very very good at so many things (cameras, cars, customer service, street cleaning, cloud pruning, warm toilet seats), but they don’t like moving beyond their cultural milieu, and they are not good at reading people other than themselves. Apparently, they don’t do ‘irony’ and other countries can also be a let down after the smooth running of their native systems. Japanese girls get offered counselling when they come back from their first trip to Paris because they can’t cope with how the reality of this iconic capital fails to match their cultural ideal. Parisian toilets don’t have seat warmers and are not steam cleaned.

Japan also suffers issues with creativity and burn out. We learn that students in Japan underperform in university because they don’t have the same final exam system. Employers offer them jobs on the basis of which university they are at, not the class of degree they achieved. Entry exams, not exit exams are all important. Its famous hot housing pushes school children, with those at middle school attending Saturday and after school classes to get into the best senior schools, and from there university. Moreover, learning by rote gives them an impressive grasp of numbers and grammar, but the Japanese themselves are now worried they lack the creativity. The issue continues into working life, as Japanese professionals are expected to stay at work well into the evening. My brother in law (who has a Japanese wife) lives in Tokyo and gets home around 10 pm most nights despite having two young children. He says there is no way he can leave ‘early’ when everyone else is working. Most people also only take a fraction of their holiday allowance for fear of not being seen to be pursuing the work ethic. No one seems to have calculated that if they knocked off at a reasonable time, to do something fun, unwind, or spend some time with their families, they might actually be a bit more creative the next day at work.

So we wind up our discussions on Japan. Having scraped the flesh off the last crab claws from our ‘Kill Bill’ gastro stop, we return to our splendid 1950s Hotel Okura, with a lobby decorated in the tones of chocolate mousse and mustard. I’d say retro but it’s the original decor. Women in kimonos wave us into the lift; an anti-static notice above the call button warns guests that pushing the button may cause a shock. It feels like it all needs Uma Thurman in her yellow jumpsuit.