Japan school aims to create 'Asian leaders'

Asia may be driving growth in the world economy but a Japanese businesswoman behind an innovative new school believes the region is over-reliant on Western-style leadership. Lin Kobayashi hopes her foundation outside Tokyo will help change that by breeding a wave of political and business leaders -- but with what she sees as a more "Asian" way of thinking. Building work on the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK) began in September. The launch of classes, all taught in English, is planned for 2014 making it Japan's first international boarding high school. Kobayashi, 38, a former investment analyst at Morgan Stanley, said the school will bring together students from a wide range of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, with scholarships for poor students funded by donations. But she said she wasn't aiming to simply rival elite schools such as Britain's Harrow or Dulwich College, which have set up Western-style campuses in places such as China, Hong Kong and Thailand. And she added she wanted to change what she sees as an assumption in Asia that it was preferable to seek out education systems in which Western-style leadership was taught. "Asia is already at the centre of the world's economy, but is still relying on Western-style leadership that thinks charisma is only to be found in a loud, top-down approach," said Kobayashi, formerly of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and also the UN Children's Fund in Manila. "I think we need Asia-oriented leaders who value consensus and harmony and can combine that with deep background knowledge about the complicated history and diverse cultures of Asia." The foundation has so far collected 1.5 billion yen ($19 million) in donations and private funding to cover initial costs, while inviting prominent business figures to come on board as advisors. In July it opened its third annual 10-day summer school, with 53 students from 14 countries. The course cost 300,000 yen. Kobayashi said the school will place particular emphasis on regional history, a subject that divides a continent where narratives differ widely from country to country and are at the root of various territorial stand-offs. Tensions have recently flared between Japan and China in a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea, with trade between the two countries looking set to suffer. The relationship was worth well in excess of $300 billion last year. "We don't teach one-sided history. It is important to learn about diversity of historical perspectives and the multi-ethnic structure of the region," Kobayashi said, adding that she wanted to bring in teachers from many different backgrounds. Lzaw Saw Nai, a 14-year-old student from Myanmar who joined this year's summer school, said he was "very much interested in leadership". "We have political and many other problems in my country," he said. "I feel I should do something, but first I need to learn. So, I came here." Tareq Habash, 13, from Palestine, said: "My country is in need of leaders who can understand the need of the country and not just for what they want for themselves." Kobayashi said she hopes potential future leaders of Japan, a place where politics is often criticised for its lack of talent, will also benefit. "Japanese education does not do enough to train people to lead," she said, adding that this was something the country desperately needed in a region increasingly dominated by a rising China. In the wake of defeat in World War II, Tokyo fashioned an education system that prized uniformity. While observers say this was one of the things that helped drive the miracle of recovery, they also argue that uniformity is now hampering progress, amid calls for strong, free-thinking leaders who can drive the country forward. Yoshiaki Nomura, an expert in leadership education at Osaka University, said the idea of the new Asian school was timely. "I think a curriculum that will foster a new elite is needed," said Nomura. "We have learnt a lot about classic theories of Western leadership, but I often feel that what we need in Asia may be different." Jun Nakahara, associate professor of higher education at the University of Tokyo, agreed that leadership is not always an innate quality but rather "something you have to learn about". But he said on-the-job experience may be more valuable than classroom-based learning. "They have to provide students with opportunities for practical experience in which they can exercise their own leadership," he said. He added that the school could be a ground for future networking opportunities but that it would "take some time" before it enjoyed the kind of influence of its established rivals in the West.