The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology: Pork barrel boondoggle in the Ryukyu Islands?
by Charles Jannuzi
In December 2006, the Japanese government (at the ministry level) decided to put the construction and certification of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) on a privileged fast track. The OIST was conceived in the 1990s and put forward as an official proposal in June 2002 to help mark the 30th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa from US control to become the 48th prefecture of Japan. Its proponents within the national government and in Okinawa had hoped that the proposed institute would open for teaching and research by September 2006--or earlier. That target has long been been missed, and efforts to speed up the process have been clouded by serious oversight issues involving the specification of research program, taught curriculum, and codes and regulations. Construction of the campus, currently in progress, could also cause considerable environmental destruction because of its location in what is now a communal forest near the coast.
Lack of realistic proposals and little innovation
Initially, a predictably low and unrealistic estimate of $600 million was put forward as the amount required to build, furnish and staff the campus and its research facilities. Also according to the original proposal, annual bloc grants of $160 million were supposed to guarantee the minimum necessary to run OIST, with more possible based on competitive awards and infusions from the private sector . However, from the very start of the project, skeptics thought the amounts were too low while some also questioned the appropriateness of placing a graduate university with pretensions of being 'world class' in the rather remote island location of Okinawa.
At the time it was first proposed, this 'new style' university seemed notable for aspects that were supposed to exemplify key reform goals for Japan's tertiary education and research. Such measures included: (1) hiring a non-Japanese scientist of world repute to be the first president, (2) requiring English to be the official language of instruction while also encouraging its use for internal communications, (3) exempting the faculty from civil service status and its onerous duties and restrictions, (4) pursuing ambitious, integrated, multi-disciplinary research and advanced teaching in science and technology, and (5) enrolling top international post-graduates from all over Asia and the world.
However, most of these so-called innovations, at least in theory and policy statements, are no longer so novel if one looks at the 1250 plus universities and colleges already in existence in Japan.
First, amongst the recently privatized (or 'corporatized') national, public and municipal universities and colleges, the faculty are losing their historic civil service status.
Second, about 4% of the 2,810,000 students (nearly 120,000 total) receiving university or college educations are foreign nationals. (The largest group by nationality is from China).
Third, many tertiary institutions have proclaimed that they will pursue multi-disciplinary research and integrated approaches to instruction; the problem is achieving such goals meaningfully and in a sustainable manner while being able to document such achievements to attract world recognition. Only a small handful of universities and institutes in Japan can do this currently, with perhaps only Tokyo University being a 'global brand'.
Fourth, the need for graduate universities catering to research and advanced instruction is already being met. This is because many private and formerly public universities all over Japan have already established new graduate program over the past decade, including doctoral ones. Moreover, three institutions that follow the same mandate given to OIST (graduate and research only) have been established for well over a decade: the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa Prefecture (est. 1988), the Japan Advanced Institute for Science and Technology in Ishikawa Prefecture (est. 1992) , and the Nara Institute for Science and Technology in Nara Prefecture (est. 1993).
Scaling back to what?
OIST's potential for redundancy does not end there. The once expansive plans for a multi-disciplinary approach in pioneer sciences have been scaled back to three faculties: a Faculty of Neuroscience, a Faculty of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, and a Faculty of Molecular Sciences. The areas of research and instruction that might be pursued by these faculties are already well represented by established research universities and institutes all over Japan, most especially at the 87 newly corporatized National University Corporations (NUCs) as well as the numerous incorporated research institutes funded by the current 5-year plan for science and technology that started in April 2006.
Little consideration of what Okinawans might need or want
A final aspect of OIST that deserves attention is the role it might play in regional development. While proposed as a way to kick start reform and innovation in tertiary education and research, it also could be seen as just another example of unnecessary expenditure in unreformed Japan. That is, it is still yet another hugely expensive infrastructure project initiated by the national government in a country and prefecture that have had no shortage of them. So why is the national government now all but guaranteeing that this new graduate university will at least make it into a campus form, regardless of whether or not the faculty, program, research laboratories, or students even exist? The answer may not be so much a desire for sustainable reform as it is 'pork barrel' spending as a sop to scientists and Okinawans, the sort of which has ballooned the government's annual deficits to 7-8% of GDP.
Okinawa, Japan's smallest, most southernmost, and most densely populated prefecture, is really a group of islands that still are the historic center of a distinct Ryukuan language and culture. Since Japan emerged as Asia's first developed country and the world's number two political economy, Okinawa has often lagged behind in its economic development. The biggest reason is that it only reverted to Japan's control in 1972. But Japanese attitudes toward the prefecture can be prejudicial and unhelpful, since they are somewhat analogous to how Northern Italians view their country's South.
Okinawa's economic woes have been made worse by the end of Japan's bubble economy of the late 1980s and the last decade and a half of nationwide economic stagnation. Moreover, since 2001, the prefecture's mainstay, its tourism industry (developed mostly for vacationers from the four main islands of Japan), has been hard hit as well. There is a specific connection here because Okinawa is seen as an essential part of the projection of US military power in Asia and worldwide. Many Okinawans simmer with resentment over the huge US military presence in their homeland. US bases still occupy 20% of usable land, which is already in short supply. As the US government and military pursue their worldwide 'war against terrorism', there have only very recently been any concessions at all that could lead to any significant reduction in the military presence in Okinawa. Moreover, much of that 'reduction' in the south of the main island will actually lead to a corresponding base expansion in the north of the island.
Given the advantages to tourism that Okinawa's island settings, sub-tropical climate and distinct Ryukyuan culture create, the OIST project could use a major re-think to avoid a boondoggle. That could be avoided, if it is not too late to set up a far different sort of institution and faculties at the campus that will almost surely get built. Instead of a graduate university for advanced research and integrated teaching, Okinawa and its neighbors in S. Korea, Taiwan, China, and SE Asia (all of which Okinawa has historic and cultural ties to) might instead be better served by an Asian institute for eco-friendly tourism, travel, and hotel and restaurant management.