One thing is clear when I look at university students in Japan. They are too individualistic. Their greatest interest is themselves and they are the center of their individual lives. The lifestyles of the individuals exist in single units. Individuals compete with individuals next to them, and they defensively protect themselves.
During their third and fourth year at university, students’ lives become centered on job-hunting activities. It is the most nerve-wrecking time in their lives when students are required to write eye-catching application forms, and they are continuously worried about which company they will hear back from. They associate with and battle with other students who they meet for the first time on the recruiting front. They waver between hope and fear on the results. However, this may be something that students are already used to, as they have already experienced the examination battle a few years earlier.
Student job-hunting activities and cramming for exams could even be generalized as a “competitive society.” Living in a competitive society is not necessarily all bad. However, I never cease to wonder why the students entering and graduating university have such gloomy expressions on their faces. Despite working hard to enter university, they most likely lose energy after a few months. After the ups-and-downs of job-hunting activities, many head off to work with the same depressed look on their faces.
I have a message to these students, in hopes to enlighten them. I always tell them that there is a different world outside their world that is centered around them, and from their perspective, the outside world will seem like a difficult and complex place.
I was trained as a sociologist in the United States. Sociology is a field of study that examines the mechanisms and processes of a society, based on a certain society. Consequently, sociology is about taking a look at a certain society inwards. However, somewhere along the line, I began to take a look at what was occurring outside the society. This happened to coincide with the period when the idea of Global Sociology was beginning to develop. I was attracted by this new concept and began to analyze each phenomenon that was occurring in global society. During this process, I began to notice that they were occurring in complicated mechanisms that were different from before with multilayered structures. I will not touch on details about the academic integration at this point, however I was able to find many things that I felt I should convey to students who are studying sociology.
What does the equation “356 people = 2.6 billion people” mean? Recently, the word “gap” has become a key word in Japan. However, before talking about the “gap in Japan”, there is an even harsher reality in the world. The above equation refers to the world’s richest 358 people having about the same amount of value in total assets as that of the world’s bottom-ranked 2.8 billion people. 2.8 billion people amounts to 45% of the total population in 1996 when the figures were taken. I imagine there would be a bigger gap today.
In the so-called poorest countries, the reality of poverty is hitting hard. They cannot afford to produce products that can be sold to make a living. From the lack of revenue and ballooning debts to developed countries, national budgets have fallen into impossible states. One third of the national budgets that was made with great difficulty are used for repayments. However, these repayments are used for the interest on the debts to developed countries. This is how countries with poverty issues have no other solution but to cut costs in medical care, education and culture. Cutting costs result in lack of schools, a chronic lack of doctors, and the lack of ability to provide proper medical care. This becomes a part of everyday life for the people in poor countries.
Now, let’s shift our attention to the global environment. In so-called island countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, the people are confronting the situation where the land they live in is disappearing. If the sea rises 1 meter from the current level, a majority of the land will be submerged. The people in these countries must consider to migrate. In the example of Tuvalu, youths have been devoting themselves to bonito pole-and-line fishing training to become fishermen in Japan, despite the fact that there is no guarantee whether they will be able to migrate to Japan. In Kiribati, the President is negotiating with neighboring countries to find land that they can buy.
As described above, there exists a different world outside Japan, totally indifferent of the life of Japanese students passing their entrance exams and working hard at their job-hunting activities. There are various ways to deal with this reality, including accepting it as a completely different environment and placing the reality outside the consciousness. However, this is not the type of individuals I wish for my students to become. My mission is to develop students into responsible individuals who have the ability to possess compassionate feelings toward others facing difficulties. We are all the same human beings who need to sleep, eat and learn. The people in difficulty have no reason to be placed in such situations. By learning that we are the same people, I hope my students will become individuals who understand the plights faced by others, and possess the heart to help others.
Let’s call this compassionate awareness. My first priority with my students is to plant the seeds of growth to develop their ability for compassionate awareness. Unfortunately, however, having this ability alone does not help those in need, nor can it change society immediately. In addition, students need to gain the skills to become change agents. Only becoming change agents will there be reform.
Currently in Japan, knowledge is overemphasized in almost all educational institutions and not only in universities. Entrance examinations test how precisely students possess their knowledge. However, the fact is that no matter how much quality knowledge they have, they are not agents. To become agents, students need to be oriented towards behavior. Agents take action by themselves with a purpose to make a change. Through their actions, they attempt to reform society. They possess competency skills and believe that their actions will cause a ripple for social reform. Surely these actions may only bring minor changes to remote regions of the world. However no matter how small, people who think they have brought some kind of change are agents of reform.
My focus in teaching students about gaining compassionate awareness and becoming change agents pretty much summarizes my mission at university teaching. I wish to continue teaching students never to degrade others or belittle themselves, to treat everyone equally, be open to hear people’s voices and have the ability to show sympathy and empathy. Furthermore, I expect my students to feel that they can help others who are living in a harsh environment, and grow to become change agents with competent skills to contribute to the world.