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The new faces of international exchange at Kobe University

  • April 10, 2019
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  • Keywords: Info, International relations, Students, Education, People

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From April 2019 Professor Masahiko Yoshii (Graduate School of Economics) and Professor Hiroko Masumoto (Graduate School of Humanities) will take on challenging new roles in Kobe University’s top administration. We spoke to them about the Trans-Siberian Railway, Scandinavian fairy tales, and the vital relationship between universities and globalization.

To start with, could you introduce yourselves and explain your new roles at Kobe University?

Prof. Yoshii: I was born and raised in Kobe, but I don’t speak the local dialect because I lived in Tokyo for a while. In 1976 I began studying at the Kobe University Faculty of Economics, and since 1985 I’ve been a teaching member at the Faculty and Graduate School of Economics. My original field was Russian socialist economics, but from 1990 to 1992 I worked at the Embassy of Japan in Romania, and my research interests broadened to include Central and Eastern European economic systems. After coming back to Japan, I began working for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Then in 2005 the EU Institute in Japan, Kansai (EUIJ-Kansai) was established, and I’ve been involved in Kobe University’s collaboration with the EU ever since. After experiences as Dean and Vice-President, now I will take on the role of Executive Vice President in Charge of International Exchange and Evaluation. The former Executive Vice-President’s initiatives have increased our partner universities dramatically in Europe, East Asia. Following his policy, I will also make efforts to expand or establish collaboration with other areas such as North Americas and ASEAN countries. 

Prof. Masumoto: Doing all that work by yourself is superhuman, I’m very impressed. As for me, I was born in Hiroshima, and the first time I left home was to study abroad in Germany during graduate school. I began work at Kobe University in 2007. I served as the Dean of the Graduate School of Humanities, and from April I’ll be the Vice President for International Collaboration and International Education to support Executive Vice President Yoshii. International collaboration includes academic exchange and research collaboration, while international education is about initiatives like the Global Studies Program, which sends all students from the new faculty abroad. Part of my mission is to look at all the university-wide international education programs.

Why is international exchange important for universities?

Prof. Yoshii: Firstly, it’s become far easier to study abroad, and with the Internet it’s easier to connect with the wider world, but that’s not happening. Instead, people are becoming more insular, and our societies are becoming fragmented. Through international exchange, by visiting other countries and accepting visitors, we can interact with different societies and cultures. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on and reconsider our own ways of living.

Japanese students at Kobe University have good English skills, but most of them aren’t planning to be linguists – they want to use other languages as a means to an end. Different languages are linked to different thought patterns, and students can expand their worldviews by asking why people from different countries express themselves in these ways.

Secondly, scholarship in Japan used to be “import-focused”. In my research the works of Soviet scholars were interpreted for a Japanese audience. But the conversation ended in Japan – we couldn’t send our responses to Soviet scholars. Now times have changed.

I’ve been involved in Kobe University’s exchange with Europe, and as a Dean I also engaged with Asia, so I can say that in the past ten years Kobe University has expanded and evolved in its international exchange. Having said that, we are still missing links with the US, ASEAN and African nations, so I’d like to fill those gaps. Of course we can still expand and develop our relations with Europe, but we need to create more links with other regions too. That’s what I’ll be working towards for the next two years.

Prof. Masumoto: My research focus is German literature. To be more specific, German-speaking Swiss literature. This bases me in Europe, so when I’m asked “why do universities need international exchange?” I think about the origins of European universities in the middle ages, and I conclude that the answer is, “because universities have always been international”. Scholarship has always demanded internationality. In order to pursue knowledge, you have to be on the front lines. Even if you study really hard, if you don’t communicate with the outside world, you may end up reinventing the wheel. Universities should be places at the cutting edge of knowledge - they can’t be closed off from the world.

The internationalization of scholarship is not a recent phenomenon. In the middle ages it wasn’t just Italians attending Bologna University – the top minds of Europe taught there, and people gathered there from all over Europe. It’s been happening in Japan too, since our envoys to China in the 7th century. Chinese was a type of scholar’s lingua franca in this region, just as Latin was in Europe. These languages were important tools needed to access the forefront of knowledge.

So as far as I’m concerned, a university without international exchange isn’t a university. With world-class professors teaching and doing research at Kobe University, people who want to learn from these professors will come from all over the world. In the Bologna University of the middle ages, there probably wasn’t anyone from China. But now our horizons have broadened, so when we think about international universities by today’s standards, the ideal is a Kobe University where students and professors come and go on a global scale. This is already happening to some extent, we just need to be more deliberate about it and make it our mission.

You both focus on other countries as part of your research. Why did you first become interested in other cultures and societies?

Prof. Yoshii: Firstly, because I love trains, and secondly, because of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. Someone gave me the USSR pavilion leaflet, and I became interested in Soviet socialism. In the summer of my second year at university I took the Trans-Siberian Railway. Of course I was thrilled by the trip, but I saw the negative parts of society too. On the first day I looked out of the train window and saw farmers’ houses lit by a single bare electric bulb. In the seventies farmers in Japan were very prosperous, so the contrast was striking. I thought about it for the whole week until arriving in Moscow.

In Moscow I stayed in a hotel right next to the Kremlin. It was 1978, and at the time Japan didn’t have vacuum tube televisions any more, we had changed to transistors. I saw vacuum tube televisions lined up in the windows of the department stores. Of course in some ways Russia was doing better than Japan, but my general impression was of a lower standard of living. My dreams of socialism were destroyed. Why had their policies failed? I wanted to learn more.

Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me to work in the Embassy of Japan in Romania, and I expanded my research to include Central and Eastern Europe. Then EUIJ started, and I began to teach European economics. So my sphere of study has gradually expanded from East to West … in ten years’ time it will probably sink into the Atlantic Ocean [laughs].

How did your experiences working in the Embassy influence your career?

Prof. Yoshii: Hmm … it changed my style. Before the Embassy, I lived in a world of academics. It’s common for academics to write long, tricky sentences, and I was probably influenced by that pattern, but for embassy memos I had to write short, punchy pieces that anyone could read. In my two years at the Embassy the writing style of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hammered into me. After that experience my sentences began a lot shorter.

Prof. Masumoto: My interest in other countries started with books. There was a popular series, “Collected Works of World Literature for Boys and Girls”. It had about fifty volumes, and my parents bought one every month for my older brother. I was three, and my parents wouldn’t let me read the books – they said I’d get them dirty. I was dying of jealousy. When I started elementary school I could finally read them. I read and reread all fifty volumes, I don’t know how many times. My brother wasn’t interested in them at all [laughs].

The series was organized by region, starting from Greece and Rome, then to France, England and Germany, and so on, ending with Asia. So the first ten or twenty volumes were all Europe. Of course I read the Asian stories too, but the impact was bigger at the start of the series. This was probably what sparked my interest in Europe.

I’m often asked why I chose German literature. One big reason is a book of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen I received on my sixth birthday. I still have the book. It made me fascinated with northern Europe. I used to think, “When I’m grown up, I’ll go to Lapland”. But Hiroshima University didn’t have a Scandinavian Literature option – the closest was German Literature. German culture is similar to northern Europe, it’s close to Denmark, and their original myths and legends are linked to the Icelandic myths, so my instinct wasn’t wrong.

But the main root of my interest, the reason I became a scholar of German literature, is because when I was three my parents told me, “You can’t read these yet, you’re too young and you’ll just get them dirty”.

Do you have a message for students - of all nationalities - studying at Kobe University?

Prof. Yoshii: My homepage says “Think, and Think differently” at the top. As you probably know, I took this from IBM, and Apple’s slogan of “Think different”. The concept is the same for people everywhere –we must think deeply about various topics, then reconsider them from different perspectives. For example, I do comparative economic theory, so I try to imagine how people in other countries would look at a certain economic issue. I want Japanese students to consider an issue and then ask “how would people from other countries view this?” And for international students who study in Japan, I want them to compare what they learn in Japan with their original thoughts, and question the differences between cultures. I hope Kobe University can become a center for this sort of thinking.

Prof. Masumoto: I want students to learn many different languages. I’ve already talked about a lingua franca, but we need more than that. For example, the EU’s model. The EU realized that we have to preserve diversity, and they made the main languages of almost all the EU states into the EU’s official languages. There’s a policy of multilingualism - they are consciously educating children so that each person can speak multiple languages fluently. They invest in training professional interpreters and translators so countries that speak minority languages are not at a disadvantage.

There is no downside to learning another language - they are windows that open to the world and to society. If you only speak Japanese, your world is limited to Japanese. If you can speak English too, a window opens so you can access the world in English. Of course, the more windows are open the better. Then you can see how wide and full the world is. You realize how narrow your world was before, you can make different friends, and have new experiences. To live a fruitful and enjoyable life, I want you all to learn lots of languages. Universities offer many chances, you can learn a lot in four years, and I hope you will.

One more question, for Professor Masumoto: Kobe University is actively working to increase the number of women in top researcher and executive positions. From this perspective, do you have any comments about becoming a member of the University’s core leadership?

Prof. Masumoto: Speaking just from my personal experience, being female has had nothing to do with my success or failure. I want to carry on doing my job without thinking about it. But as we said, diversity is important, and in my first meeting as a Dean, I was shocked at the lack of women in the room. I’ve never had an unpleasant experience, everyone has been very kind and inclusive, but it’s better to have more women in the mix. With more diversity there’s a different atmosphere - it’s the same as Professor Yoshii’s “Think differently”. In that sense I hope that I can add something new to the team.

Note: this article is also available as a PDF in Vol. 06 of the Kobe University Newsletter "Kaze".