EDUCATION | LEADERSHIP
Taking the World by Storm
Three students from Japan find new opportunities at US colleges
By Teru Clavel
Finding Japanese college graduates who can speak English, let alone function across cultures, is an ongoing challenge for multinational companies.
In the late 1990s, Japan was the top source of study-abroad students in the United States. Now, the country has fallen to seventh place, coming in after China, South Korea, and India, among other nations.
But there are a handful of young Japanese who found their way to competitive US universities and represent bright possibilities for this nation’s future. One can only hope that these three students represent the vanguard of a more international Japanese leadership.
Brown University, class of 2015
Tomonobu Kumahira is majoring in international relations with a focus on economics and China. A Tokyo native, Kumahira attended Toin Gakuen, a private middle and high school in Yokohama.
Perhaps it was fate that took Kumahira to Brown. As valedictorian of his class of 1,800, he had planned to attend Japan’s top public university, The University of Tokyo. However, due to a careless error in the entrance exam, he was not accepted, and, instead, went on to matriculate at Keio University.
Not feeling sufficiently challenged there, mid-way through his first year he decided to apply to universities in the United States.
This significant shift in thinking was probably influenced by his home environment; his father is a graduate of Brown, and both parents are alumni of Harvard Business School. Yet, at the age of five, he had told his parents that he would never go to an international school—because he is Japanese.
When planning an alternative to Keio, Kumahira commented that, “[it] turned out that I could only apply to three schools because I could not get through more applications. I had this constant feeling of frustration, not being able to express myself—yet needing to learn how.”
In Japan, there are limited resources to support students who, educated here, wish to apply to competitive US universities.
Coming from Japan’s regimented education system, Kumahira was attracted to Brown’s more liberal academic policy, which, he said, “emphasizes freedom and responsibility.” However, Kumahira admits, “Nobody knew if I could survive my first semester.”
At Brown, Kumahira founded the Brown Bears Japan, an information and recruiting organization to encourage more Japanese students to study abroad and apply to Brown.
The club, which has grown to 15 members, sent 10 representatives to 10 Japanese cities this summer, to share information on US college life and the application process. In many cases, the Brown Bears plant the seed to inspire others to study abroad. The club also operates a blog, with each article receiving about 5,000 hits per month.
The club’s overall efforts appear to have succeeded, the university this fall having welcomed four students from local high schools in Japan. Moreover, Kumahira has stepped down from the Brown Bears presidency, so that fellow students can learn to run the project, and ensure that its legacy continues long after he has graduated.
Harvard University, class of 2016
A native of Oita Prefecture, Kyushu, Sumire Hirotsuru is a third-year music and sociology major at Harvard College.
At age 15, the violin prodigy was awarded the IBLA Grand Prize at the International Music Competition in Ragusa Ibla, Italy. The annual contest, organized by the IBLA Foundation in New York City, is held for pianists, singers, instrumentalists, and composers.
The following year, she performed at Carnegie Hall and toured the United States. The turning point for Hirotsuru came during her tour, when she visited college campuses.
She learned that in the United States, she could pursue both academic studies and music, unlike in Japan, where she would need to select a single focus. The broader US possibilities, she believed, would open up more career options and offer multiple perspectives through a liberal arts education.
Hirotsuru started playing the violin at age two, and by the time she was in middle school, she flew twice monthly to Tokyo for studies with a music professor at Toho Gakuen School of Music, the alma mater of world-renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.
A product of Oita’s public school system, she never attended a juku (cram school) and credits her rapid mastery of the English language to the discipline she cultivated through her dedication to the violin.
At Harvard, Hirotsuru—who had previously been a solo violinist—is a member of a chamber orchestra and has been the concertmaster of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra since her first year. “It’s a different feeling playing with other students. We can inspire each other, and the musical level here is really high,” she explained.
Hirotsuru is also involved with musical and opera productions, and is producing the school’s opera for this year, Acis and Galatea. “Since I usually perform onstage as a violinist, I wanted to know what it’s like to organize an entire show,” she said.
And, just to make sure she’s adequately occupied, Hirotsuru also serves as president of the Harvard Early Music Society, through which she learns about the business and entrepreneurial side of the music industry.
Recognizing the lack of international exposure available to students in Oita, Hirotsuru co-founded, with her mother, the two-week Summer in JAPAN program. This brings 10 to 12 students from Harvard to Oita, where they teach up to 70 students (aged seven to 18), in subjects ranging from writing and public speaking, to the English language and drama.
She wants students to experience extra-curricular activities besides juku. “I really want to give something of the precious experiences I have had [at Harvard] to future students in Japan,” she explained.
Columbia University, class of 2015
Though Kazuma Takimoto is now a senior at Columbia College, he started his university career at Waseda University in Tokyo. Having attended a private high school in Kyoto, Takimoto was following what he calls “the expected academic path.”
“I had always thought myself to be an average person without any special talents. I have no experience such as playing the piano in a Chopin competition, or anything like that. I thought I would live an average life and have an average career,” Takimoto explained.
“I did not go to an international school or English cram school, but just went through the compulsory education system, according to the Ministry of Education’s guidelines. That is all the English education I ever had.
“At Waseda, I was leading the typical life of an ordinary college student: working part-time, attending club activities, taking classes—though not very enthusiastically—and just taking notes on what the professors were saying … a normal Japanese college education,” he said.
Then, everything changed when Takimoto attended Shanghai’s Fudan University as an exchange student in the summer of his freshman year. “I did not know that Japanese universities were behind,” he said. From this experience grew his determination to make a significant change in his life.
When Takimoto returned to Waseda to live in a college dormitory with international students, he had a newfound perspective. “One student was an ambitious, talented Singaporean who had learned to speak Japanese fluently in Singapore and passed The University of Tokyo entrance exam. There were students from China and South Korea, too, who spoke English fluently. TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] scores of around 115 were not rare,” he said. The maximum score possible on the test is 120.
“I thought that, when I graduated from Waseda, I would probably get a job with one of Japan’s respectable companies. However, I wondered if I would become as competitive as those students in the global business arena. After learning that we must compete with people like the students I had met at Waseda and in Shanghai, I had doubts about Japan’s college education. I suspected that it was leading us in the wrong direction, and was a mere extension of high school education,” he said.
Just after the start of his sophomore year, Takimoto left Waseda to spend six months studying English for the TOEFL and SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Text] exams.
He applied to the National University of Singapore, to stay close to home yet receive a global education. However, he was not accepted due to his low test scores.
Unable to return to Waseda, Takimoto instead decided to attend a community college in California, in the hope of being able to transfer to a University of California (UC)school, such as UCLA or Berkeley. Takimoto was at the community college for a year-and-a-half, during which time his TOEFL and SAT scores improved.
Although he was accepted to UC schools of his choice, on the advice of his academic adviser, Takimoto applied to, and was accepted at, Columbia—the only non-UC school to which he had applied. “The decision [to attend Columbia] was easy,” he related.
Nevertheless, Columbia is challenging, Takimoto conceded.
“I am in the library all the time on weekdays. It is open 24 hours, and people are there at all hours, especially during the test weeks. Watching others working hard drives me to do the same.”
Although the various twists and turns it took him to get to Columbia have added two years to his undergraduate experience, Takimoto has no doubt he made the right decision. “Having a diverse group of people around you makes a difference. These experiences enrich my life, and will continue to do so in the future,” he added.
Teru Clavel is a consultant, writer, speaker, and researcher with a focus on international education.