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Avoiding Inferiority: Global Engineering Education Across Japan

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Making Students Aware of Their World: Five Perspectives

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.273.1 - 22.273.21



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Paper Authors


Gary Lee Downey Virginia Tech

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Gary Downey is Alumni Distinguished Professor in Science and Technology Studies and affiliated Professor in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. A mechanical engineer (Lehigh) and cultural anthropologist (University of Chicago), he is co-editor of What Is Global Engineering Education For?: The Making of International Educators (Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010). Author of The Machine in Me: An Anthropologist Sits Among Computer Engineers, he is Editor of The Engineering Studies Series at MIT Press and Global Engineering series at Morgan & Claypool, as well as the Engineering Studies journal. He is also founder and co-developer of the Engineering Cultures course (ranked #2 of 190 multimedia contributions to

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Masanori Wada Tokyo Institute of Technology

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  Avoiding Inferiority: Engineering Education Serving JapanThroughout the world, educators are working hard to reform engineering education and training.At first glance, the most prominent activities across different countries look remarkably similar:they aim to prepare mobile engineers for a globalized world. Scratching beneath the surface,however, reveals activities in different countries to have significantly different meanings.Making visible important contrasts demonstrates that preparing students for mobility necessarilymeans preparing them to work with both engineers and non-engineers who understand the largersignificance of their work in very different terms. It also shows that the technical contents ofengineering education carry broader value commitments, which they challenge student to adoptand enact.This ethnographic study accounts for contemporary reform activities across Japan as efforts tohelp the Japanese “household” avoid inferior status vis-à-vis other countries. We first outline keyactivities over the past decade undertaken by the new Japanese Accreditation Board forEngineering Education (JABEE) and the re-formed Japanese Society for Engineering Education(JSEE). This outline draws on interviews undertaken in 2004 and 2010 as well as documentaryevidence. It calls attention to the fact that the first learning criterion for engineers in accreditedprograms is not to demonstrate ability in math and science or engineering analysis but,surprisingly from EuroAmerican points of view, “the ability and intellectual foundation forconsidering issues from a global and multilateral viewpoint.”This objective performs in a new way a persistent fear of Japan becoming, or appearing tobecome, inferior to powerful Western countries, especially the United States. Avoidinginferiority rose to become the dominant image of progress across Japan when the MeijiRestoration transformed it into a country among other countries. Calculations of inferiority drawupon the dominant, yet evolving, Japanese image of the family as a “household” (ie) consistingof both people and property.The balance of the paper draws on the work of historians to produce a retrospective ethnographyof the evolution of engineering education as responses to this dominant image of progress and itschanging metrics. It considers four episodes: (1) before progress: Rogaku/Kogaku learningduring Tokugawa; (2) import and replacement at the Imperial College of Engineering; (3)privatization in service of a military metric; and (4) dramatic expansion following the PacificWar and rise of the commercial metric. Every time the country changed direction, educatorswent to work reforming engineering education to help forestall the latest risk of inferiority.Contemporary struggles among Japanese engineering educators are competitions to help avoidinferiority for the country as its corporations increasingly participate in joint ventures.We conclude by briefly assessing the significance and challenges of making more visible inengineering education the value commitments that bond engineers to their countries.   1  

Downey, G. L., & Wada, M. (2011, June), Avoiding Inferiority: Global Engineering Education Across Japan Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17554

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