Since their founding in the early 1960s, technical colleges have played an important role in Japan's rapid economic growth with their hands-on approach to education.
Now, other countries in Asia are beginning to follow the Japanese example.
Jakarta's University of Darma Persada is a mid-sized private institution whose founders include an Indonesian with experience studying in Japan. In November, a ceremony was held to commemorate the university becoming a member of the Asia Professional Education Network. University President Oloan P. Siahaan, speaking in fluent Japanese, told the audience, “We will turn our university into one of Indonesia's centers of manufacturing.”
APEN was created three years ago to spread new human resource development systems based partly on teaching techniques used at Japan's technical colleges. It has 14 member universities in 13 countries, including ASEAN nations, China, South Korea and Japan.
APEN's headquarters are located at the Advanced Institute of Industrial Technology, which shares a campus with the Tokyo Metropolitan College of Industrial Technology.
Technical colleges, which provide practical specialized technical education, first came into being in 1962 at the request of the business community. Students enroll after graduating from junior high school and are given a head start with teaching that hones their technical skills, then sent out into the workforce five years later.
There are currently 57 technical colleges in Japan. In comparison with institutes of technology, their curricula emphasize practical hands-on training and experimentation, and deepen understanding of the basics of manufacturing, such as lathing and welding, as well as advanced theory. However, there is little public awareness of their existence. Due to factors such as a preference for mainstream education and the reduced birth rate, the ratio of applicants to places is less than 2-to-1 in the last 10 years.
Nowadays, however, these technical colleges are attracting the attention of other Asian countries, which face a pressing need to develop their manufacturing sectors and cultivate engineers.
"Japan's economic growth has been bolstered by its technical colleges, which supply a rich pool of mid-level engineers," said APEN secretariat executive director Mitsuhiro Maeda. "They also hold the key to providing the personnel needed in developing Asian nations."
The University of Darma Persada plans to create a course based on Japanese technical college-style education next year. Electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are being considered as specializations, in light of the promising prospects for growth in the local automotive industry. The Bandung Institute of Technology, a prestigious Indonesian school and also an APEN member, is planning to provide assistance by sending teaching staff.
"For the development of a country, middle class support of the industrial world is indispensable," said vice dean Ade Sjafruddin. "However, Indonesia has no capacity and no place to train such human resources."
For the University of Darma Persada, this is also a survival strategy. At present, there are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in Indonesia. Many leading private institutions also have a Japanese language department, so that alone is not enough to set it apart from its rivals.
"There is a lot of interest in Japanese-style manufacturing in Indonesia," said Darma Persada instructor Naoshi Uda, who came from Japan to take his current post last May. "This is the greatest opportunity the university has ever had."
Intense interest in Japan's technical education can also be found in Mongolia, where mineral exports are driving significant economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund, Mongolia was ranked first in the world in growth rate of real gross domestic product in 2011, and third in 2012.
"We must develop more specialists and engineers," said Minister for Education and Science Luvsannyam Gantumur. "One sure way of doing that is to introduce Japanese technical education."
In October, a "model classroom" incorporating Japanese technical education techniques was created at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) in Mongolia. Thirty-three students are participating. Its program has been provided by Tomakomai National College of Technology in Hokkaido, and two emeritus professors from the Tokyo Metropolitan College of Industrial Technology serve as instructors.
"The development of human resources for industry is the kind of education that enables Japan to be a world leader," said APEN's Maeda.
Asia continues to grow, as symbolized by the regional economic integration of ASEAN members by 2015 that will create one of the world's largest markets.
"Japan will support the development of human resources for that market," Maeda said. "This will also benefit Japan."
(This story was written by Asahi Shimbun Staff Writers Tomoko Yamashita and Ryuichi Kanari.)