ASIA - Japan Treading New Horizons in Education

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By Ramesh Jaura | IDN-InDepth NewsFeature

BERLIN (IDN) - When I visited Japan five years ago and met senior representatives of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in Tokyo, I learnt about the educational activities of this faith organization and the underlying concept spelt out by its President Daisaku Ikeda: "Education that lacks an ethical or spiritual underpinning can warp our attitudes toward knowledge, allowing scientific research to run dangerously out of control."

Nothing demonstrates this more horrifically than the development of nuclear weapons, he said in an interview. "This is why I have put my energies into dialogues aimed at bridging differences of nationality, religious affiliation and ideology, and into promoting educational exchanges that foster people-to-people connections," stressed the President of SGI, a worldwide Buddhist network spanning the globe and promoting peace, culture and education through personal transformation and social contribution.

In 2010, I had an opportunity to visit the Soka University located in Hachioji City in Tokyo and speak to some 300 students on the significance of Ikeda's unflinching commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons, his peace proposals as viewed by me and my colleagues as foreign journalists, and the inspiring response we receive from readers to our reports and analyses dealing with those proposals. I was delighted at the deep interest young women and men from several countries studying at the Soka University showed in my talk.

In September 2012 I had yet another opportunity to meet Soka University students in Tokyo, who attended a talk given by a civil society leader and media specialist, Roberto Savio, on globalization – its origins, evolution, impact and ways and means of facing the challenges it is posing. We were captured by the enthusiasm for learning some 100 university students showed in the topic and related it to their daily lives.

'Soka Gakuen'

We found a similar overwhelming passion for learning during a memorable visit to the Soka Gakuen located in Kodaira City, Tokyo. Savio, who is also founder and President Emeritus of Inter Press Service (IPS) – an eminent international media agency – answered questions from students, and said: "Soka Gakuen has a value-based vision of society, people and the relationship between them. As Soka students, this style of education places you in a very advantageous position. . . . The creation of new society depends on your efforts."

For me too it was impossible to escape the impression that, nearly unnoticed by the global mainstream media, a system of school and university education hosted in two verdant suburbs of Tokyo has emerged as cradle of a new global culture aiming at humanistic education to foster genuine peace.

The core of the system is value-creating, abbreviated as 'soka' in Japanese. It has its origin in the thinking and concerns of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), an elementary school principal and the first president of Soka Gakkai. In fact, his crucial role as the father of Soka education is symbolized by a bronze inscription of the name of the university in Chinese characters in the calligraphy of Makiguchi, which stands at the main gate of Soka University in Tokyo.

Makiguchi's value-creation philosophy was inherited by Josei Toda (1900-1958), the second president of Soka Gakkai and, in turn, by Ikeda, Soka Gakkai's third president. In 1971, Ikeda founded the Soka University, based the ideals of Soka education. He put forth the following founding principles: (1) Be the highest seat of learning for humanistic education; (2) Be the cradle of a new culture; and (3) Be a fortress for the peace of humankind.

The importance of these principles is underlined by the fact that because of their uncompromising opposition to the militarist government of Japan during World War II, both Makiguchi and Toda were harshly persecuted and imprisoned. Makiguchi died in prison. Toda inherited Makiguchi's ideals, leaving prison with a fierce resolve to create a peaceful society.

This determination was captured in an historic public declaration, in 1957, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In order to pursue his predecessor's vision for peace, Daisaku Ikeda has engaged in wide-ranging dialogues with intellectuals and eminent leaders from around the world and has been active in developing grassroots exchanges for peace among people of different nationalities and cultures. The pursuit of peace is the soul of Soka education.

The philosophy of humanistic, life-affirming education is practiced from kindergarten to university and is gaining global recognition. While Soka University since its inception in April 1971 has continued to grow and expand rapidly, Ikeda has also taken Soka education abroad, opening Soka University of Los Angeles in 1987 and later, in 2001, Soka University of America, a liberal arts college in Orange County, California. Besides, Soka kindergartens have been established in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil and South Korea.

Exchange agreements

Concurrent with this development of the educational environment, the Soka University has signed exchange agreements with 141 universities in 46 countries and regions the world over as of November 2012. In 2006, the Soka University Beijing Center was opened, bringing a new dimension to Soka University’s efforts to strengthen exchange with China.

Since the university is committed to student-centered education, it invests considerable enthusiasm and ingenuity in developing educational content. It is not surprising therefore that many of the university’s educational models have been cited and recognized by Japan’s Education Ministry as unique and innovative approaches in contemporary education. The Ministry has also given due recognition to advanced research conducted in the university’s Faculty of Engineering.

The university's academic achievements are underlined by the comparatively high proportion of successful candidates for the national bar examination, the examination for certified public accountants, the teacher employment examination and other state and municipal examinations, which are among the most difficult qualifications to secure in Japan.

More than 50,000 students have graduated from Soka University since its founding and are now making their own contributions to Japanese and global society based on the founding principles of their alma mater.

On April 1, 2010, Soka University announced the Grand Design, an overarching series of concepts, strategies and initiatives to enable students to lead lives that are both creative and contributive, while at the same time ensuring that the university will continue its development towards 2020, when it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its establishment.

Soka’s Grand Design allows the institution to fully assess the institutional traditions and academic successes it has achieved over the first half-century. It will also establish a broader, better framework with which diverse and evolving needs of its students, along with the burgeoning challenges of the 21st century both at home and abroad, may be fully met.

The plan consists of three key objectives: 1) to foster individuals who will lead creative and contributive lives based on Soka's three founding principles 2) to create specific educational and research programs to facilitate the development of such students; and 3) to prepare a broad and robust framework with which to support such educational and research programs.

Under the Grand Design aegis, a special agency will be set up to evaluate and upgrade existing curricula and extracurricular programs, while introducing new courses and programs. The overall goal is to enhance each student's scholastic aptitude and capacity for creative and critical thinking. The process will be supported by a new learning center and calls for a phased reorganization of the university’s respective faculties and departments, according to the Soka University.

What distinguishes Soka's Grand Design from plans adopted elsewhere is its simultaneous focus on enriching the humanity of students. It includes programs to improve skills in communications, debate and leadership as well as to enhance awareness of global issues and perspectives, training students to think and act as global citizens in accordance with Soka's founding principles.

These and similar initiatives will be further advanced by providing Japanese students greater opportunities to study abroad, while actively expanding the university's foreign student enrolment and its academic exchange programs with foreign universities.

Over the next decade, seven committees and other agencies will be set up to develop specific strategies and solutions in the realms of education, research, international outreach, student support services and distance learning. These committees and agencies will be tasked to develop initiatives to upgrade Soka's campus facilities, finances, administration and public relations.

November 27, 2012 marked an important date. On that day, the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new General Education Complex (GEC) was held at the Soka University campus. The complex is comprised of four wings and features a broad range of facilities, including classrooms, student counselling and multimedia rooms, health centre, café lounge and 1,000-seat Main Hall.

In addition to having three basement floors, the complex's West Wing will stand twelve floors high, with the East and Central wings reaching nine floors and seven floors respectively. As part of the ceremony, badges representing the 62 foreign institutes and universities that have entered into academic exchange agreements with Soka University were buried with the cornerstone structure. The GEC will be formally completed in May 2013. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 28, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Bronze inscription of the name of the Soka University in Chinese characters in the calligraphy of Makiguchi | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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