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May/June 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 3 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.
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Japanese Culture Meets Online Education
by Steve McCarty

Japanese educators considering distance education as an alternative learning medium face many obstacles in what is traditionally a face-to-face social system. Periods of foreign borrowing have alternated with long periods of Japanese national isolationism, reflecting an ambivalence toward Western ways that still remains. Some Western culture had been adapted from the U.S. following its generous treatment of Japan after World War II, yet during the 1970s and '80s, Japan's remarkable economic success revived old notions of Western technology with an exclusively Japanese spirit. But the children for whom the post-War generation worked so hard now have grown too complacent to rebuild the economy from the unexpected recession of the 1990s. Enter the Internet, and Western assumptions will continue to be confounded as new media are adapted in terms of Japanese culture.

Japan currently ranks second only to the U.S. in the number of Internet users, but very few of those more than 8 million people are communicating with the outside world. The Japanese-language Net is huge and has its own Web search engines for those who can read Chinese characters and have the appropriate software. Although writing English is not as difficult for the general public as speaking it, the language barrier will continue to be the most intransigent obstacle to using the Internet for outside communications.

Industry observers have predicted that the number of Japanese Internet users will rise to 30 million, but the big question is how to reach these users in terms of their own language and values, which are reflected in a communication style that prefers the diminutive to the demonstrative. The economic decline of the '90s is restricting the spread of luxuries such as Internet use, which is expensive and made more so by the per-minute online charge.

A more subtle obstacle to the spread of Internet use, ironically, is the post-War democratic ideology of equality. The ostensibly harmonious and monocultural Japanese society is liable to become divided into information haves and have-nots. If both computer and English literacy are demanded, most non-Westerners are excluded, leaving only those with the interest, the motivation and the wealth to master both. In addition, the new media run afoul of many taken-for-granted assumptions about human relations, including proper introductions, in an elaborate face-to-face social system. Communicating through a terminal may be more comfortable to those used to an abstract way of thinking and an independent learning style, but both are alien to Japan historically. The Internet may become more acceptable to the ideology of harmony when it more closely resembles TV, which is already ubiquitous in Japanese society.

Correspondence schools in Japan illustrate some relevant trends, although none is yet accredited to offer online courses. Japan is a credentialistic society, as people are judged more in terms of their affiliations or relations than for their individual qualities. Post-War Japanese culture assumes that people differ only by effort, not by ability -- illustrated by the popular saying that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The educational system rewards those into which the most information can be crammed. They in turn become the public officials who maintain the system that favored their learning style. But correspondence or online education requires a self-motivated approach that is not demanded in the Japanese educational system where the teacher usually motivates through pressure on the students, who work together to support each other. Thus, fewer than 10% of the total graduates earn their degrees from the correspondence division of Japan University. Even among those, many would credit their perseverance to local chapters meeting face-to-face for information exchange and mutual encouragement.

In Japan and many countries in Asia, colleges need accreditation from a national government agency like the Ministry of Education before they can set up a program in the first place. No online classes can be offered for credit yet in Japan, but there is a proposal to accredit some courses televised at a distance. At this stage some teachers are introducing the Internet into face-to-face English or computer-related classes. Pioneers are still in danger of being the protruding nail that gets pounded in, so the Web sites of educators are often housed on independent ISP servers, even when their school or government agency has its own Internet domain.

Private schools and colleges have somewhat more freedom with the curriculum, but private companies probably will be the first to go strongly into online education. This is a logical extension from current after-school cram sessions that use computer-assisted instruction or televised lectures from Tokyo. There are elaborate credentials for most occupations and skills in Japan, with tests at three or more levels for each, so correspondence courses are a big business, many publishing their own textbooks.

Compounding the problems inherent in bringing the Internet into the classroom is the lack of awareness of its educational potential. Magazines recommending Web sites are replete with entertainment or adult sites. Recently there was the news of simultaneous arrests in several countries of online child pornography purveyors. An editorial in the daily vernacular Asahi Shimbun warned that no laws stop Japan from becoming a haven for such practices. Yet many non-Westerners are disturbed by the content of news that they find shameful, so there is a legitimate concern about letting in all that Westerners seem to find entertaining.

Eventually, people involved in education will see the merits of online media, but right now they are concerned about how the dark side can be avoided. At my college in Japan, for example, many spam messages soliciting porno or other money-making schemes were sent to an e-mail address that was available but had never been used. This indicates that spammers are developing algorithms to collect the world's e-mail addresses. As another example, Chinese scholars may join a mailing list that seems academic; however, if the list is unmoderated they are liable to receive messages that are illegal to keep on their hard disks. Non-native users of English may also misunderstand a message or its motives. Those seeking distance education online are targeted by bogus diploma mills that sound very similar to famous universities.

There are plans afoot at a number of Japanese colleges to offer online courses in the future. As reported in the 19 August, 1998 Asahi newspaper, Tezukayama University in Nara City announced that anyone could join some of their classes through their Web site. It is free of charge and non-credit by necessity, however, because online education has not been approved yet by the Ministry of Education. Tezukayama University expects that credits can be offered in the future, and that other universities will soon unveil online services as well.

Late last year, Kyushu Institute of Technology hosted the annual research meeting on information processing education, sponsored by Japan's Ministry of Education and a consortium of national universities. A special session held for the first time on distance education was a striking example of changing attitudes toward information technology, with broadcasting by two-way satellite to 15 other universities. Most of the presenters at our session were not present at the meeting, but rather beamed in from their own universities. As the only non-Japanese, I was invited to make my oral and written presentations in Japanese. Representing the World Association for Online Education, I offered to serve as a bilingual conduit to foster collaboration with distance educators abroad.

A nascent trend toward digital education is emerging, but no one in Japan presumes to map the future. Authorities have traditionally sought reliability to the point of predictability. While the Internet infrastructure is in place, no one knows what it is to be used for. It may be just as well that in Japan people develop a tolerance for ambiguity, for not having things explicitly stated, and for things not being what they seem. But across borders it becomes all the more difficult to communicate. Among the paradigm shifts prompted by the new online world is therefore the necessity for intercultural adaptation skills. In academic terms the interdisciplines of computer-mediated communication and intercultural communication need to be brought together and applied to world issues. In a small but multicultural world, educators could take the lead by developing intercultural sensitivity while growing accustomed to remote communication in order to overcome distance psychologically.

Steve McCarty is a professor at Kagawa Junior College in Japan and president of the World Association for Online Education (WAOE) His multilingual Web site is an Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library 4-star site:

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