Winter in Japan is an interesting experience after the dull greys of the UK. Bright blue skies and sunshine, and highs of about 14C filled my Christmas weeks in Tokyo! Just like the weather, everything seemed sharp, and gleaming, with perfect restaurants full of customers celebrating the new year, and immaculate subway stations.

I was there to run some reputation workshops for Japanese universities keen to improve their image, and attract more international students, plus present findings of a study for the British Council in Japan on how UK universities made the most of the Olympics.

The latter topic is of course pertinent as they approach their own sports fest for 2020 in Tokyo. The British in many ways set the standard for integrating higher education into the Olympics. Research by Podium had already shown that 94% of UK universities been involved in Olympics. Our own Knowledge Partnership research into higher education and the Olympics showed that the top three activities for universities involved in the Olympics were: Communications/marketing activity, Student/staff volunteering and Community and business engagement. Guest speakers at the reporting conference in Tokyo including UEL’s Dusty Amroliwala and Bournemouth’s Dr Deborah Sadd, described the imaginative and strategic ways they had hosted teams, raised their brand profiles, and involved their students in volunteering. We also heard how sport is taken very seriously by Professor Shimizu from Tsukuba University, which offers one of the top sports in the country.

Visiting Japan makes one feel their universities should be really good at the volunteering aspects of Olympic engagement, and community and business engagement. They are more organized and efficient than any other country. Their transport system is second to none, it is, without doubt, the safest place I’ve ever been and the food is probably the best in the world. In addition to that, when they do something, they do it really well – packing a gift in a shop usually involves two people with lots of sophisticated paper, origami folds, labels and gift tags. Bows punctuate every transaction, even for a spend of few hundred yen on a card.

But despite this enormous emphasis on quality of product, delivery and customer service, they are rather out of kilter when it comes to reputation management so I guess they will probably struggle when it comes to making the most of marketing their universities through the Olympics or amplifying their brand. The job title of marketing director or communications director doesn’t exist as it might do in a British, Australian or American university. They still lead this function with an academic professor, and then have low budgets and little strategic input for recruitment or reputational activities. They don’t invest much in marketing research, and many of their courses (certainly in the humanities) are dominated by niche studies of Japanese literature. They are also hampered by the language, which is only spoken by a small proportion of the world. Unlike the Netherlands or Finland, they haven’t chosen to make English their language of instruction for master’s and only tend to teach a few courses in English. There is also quite a wide cultural gap. Japanese students tend to live at home, and they still operate in quite a deferential way, avoiding open discussions or challenging peers or instructors in meetings. It is not clear how this would work for the bolder and most social students of the west.

So if the Japanese universities want to improve their brand performance, and recruit more students using the Olympics as a lever, they need to make some major changes to their university culture, without throwing out the very elements that make them one of the most seductive places in the world.