Leading liberal arts education in Japan – Reflecting on the history of SILS

Leading liberal arts education in Japan – Reflecting on the history of SILS

Wed, Apr 8, 2020
Leading liberal arts education in Japan – Reflecting on the history of SILS

Waseda University’s graduation ceremony was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. While this was disappointing for many graduates, this period of uncertainty makes us all the more grateful for what we have, including our education. For those of us who have just graduated, this time gives us an opportunity to reflect on our past and ponder what our experiences might mean to us and our future. What lies ahead? What will we do with our degree? How will we use our education? As a recent graduate of the School of International Liberal Studies (SILS), I’ve been inspired by alumni’s stories and the department’s history. By understanding our department’s history, we can further appreciate the SILS education.

In 2004, Waseda University established a unique educational program that modeled itself on a liberal arts education: The School of International Liberal Studies (SILS). Liberal arts, which was prevalent in other countries, was not yet common in Japan when SILS was founded. To this day, few Japanese schools offer liberal arts programs.

Since SILS was established, it has been at the forefront of a liberal arts education in Japan. Located on the main campus, the department opened new doors for both local and international students when it first started—and continues to do so. Unlike other specialized departments at Waseda and other Japanese institutions, the department allows students to diversify their fields of study. This open curriculum helps students pursue their interests without choosing a major, although students can choose from a range of concentrations if they wish to. Additionally, the diversity of faculty members with various backgrounds bring unique teaching styles to the table and enables students to understand not only what but also how they learn best.

SILS is a change from the status quo. The school was established for “an ambitious attempt to break the mold,” according to the department. “Waseda University is committed to producing graduates who can utilize both the university’s comprehensive educational program and their own individuality to make a pivotal contribution to global society,” according to the school’s overview. SILS was also the first department to start a Writing Center, in which students can improve their writing skills by brainstorming ideas and revising their essays or papers; Writing Centers are now available on all Waseda campuses.

Diversity at SILS is not limited to the various academic fields its students pursue. The student body and faculty members also contribute to the department’s diversity. A third of SILS students are international, representing more than 80 countries. The school defines the students’ categories here: SP1 students are students enrolled in Waseda whose first language is Japanese. Although at a small scale, they may be foreign nationals born and raised in Japan but speak Japanese as their native language. On the contrary, SP2 students are students whose first language is not Japanese, according to SILS. International students usually belong to this group. However, this category may also include Japanese returnees or students of Japanese descent who do not speak Japanese as their first language.

However, students from overseas per se do not make the department global. The diversity of thought and the ways in which students engage also add to the department’s and the university’s globalization. As with many liberal arts colleges, many of the classrooms in the building are seminar rooms that fit a smaller class size that facilitate discussion. Outside the classroom, some students join local families for homestay, while others join dorms, giving them exposure to the area.

Yukako Honda’ 12 is a SILS graduate. The opportunities the university offered her such as the class variety and study abroad programs drew her to SILS. From modern Islamic studies to traditional Japanese culture and journalism to social studies, she said her courses were an eclectic mix. Through the program, she studied at the University of Limerick in Ireland. “I appreciate the many clusters, as well, which allowed me to explore various fields,” she said.

Today, Honda works at the British Embassy Tokyo. (Her first job after graduating from SILS was at a Japanese material manufacturing company.) Seeing diplomats and civil servants on the frontlines of international relations inspired her to work at the Embassy, she said. In addition to the work, she said the British Embassy’s diversity and flexible working style were the reasons she applied for the position. Honda’s job at the Embassy reflects SILS’ education.

Honda’s work involves diplomacy, which the school fosters. As a political assistant, she supports diplomats and Embassy-related events. “It’s rewarding to be able to see the work that goes behind what we see on the news firsthand, as well as experience the flexible working style and diversity in the working environment,” she said. To prioritize taking care of her son and herself, she has slowed down her work pace. Having said so, she said she was open to new experiences. “I hope to one day work at a company or start my own with the values the Embassy has taught me,” she said. Despite the challenges that balancing work and personal life can bring, Honda said the flexible working style helps her put her son’s needs first.

As flexible working styles such as teleworking become necessary—especially during the coronavirus outbreak—Honda’s approach to work is a refreshing change from the status quo. Although in Japan, working long hours is a corporate norm, instead of allowing social pressures to dictate her, Honda chooses what is best for her and her family. “Ultimately, SILS seeks to raise a generation of global citizens with a strong desire, profound ethical sensibility, and robust international competitiveness needed to take on today’s worldwide challenges,” according to SILS. SILS is unique, and so are the graduates.

Understanding the department’s history gives us a greater appreciation for the program and the liberal arts education we were able to receive. 10 years after its founding, SILS alumni continue to reflect the department’s values. SILS continues to thrive, not despite but because it challenges precedents and inspires diversity.


*This article was written and contributed by the following student.

Student Contributor
Marina Yoshimura (4th Year Student)
School of International Liberal Studies

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