Embracing diversity: Urging students to experience being a minority | Diversity and UTokyo 02 | Vice President Takane Ito

September 6, 2021

This series looks into diversity-related issues and initiatives at UTokyo, through interviews with faculty members. The university strives to create a place where people with diverse backgrounds can thrive.

Vice President Takane Ito urges students who grew up in the majority to experience being a minority. @freshidea/Adobe stock

Professor Takane Ito is an educator who has taught English and linguistics at the University of Tokyo for more than 30 years. In April 2021, she was appointed UTokyo vice president in charge of diversity education.

Ito notes that from her time teaching undergraduates at the College of Arts and Sciences on the Komaba Campus, she realized many UTokyo students are cut from the same cloth: An overwhelming majority of them are male, of which a large number attended an all-male junior high and senior high school, and their parents tend to have in common similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.

“I think it’s a huge problem that many of the students not only grew up in a similar environment, but they also have little or no experience of interacting with people of vastly different backgrounds,” Ito said.

In other words, they have been “deprived of important opportunities to learn (about diversity),” and “I want to provide them with education that would make up for that loss,” she said

Diversity education for university students

Learning to appreciate diversity is crucial to nurturing the ability to engage in dialogue with people of different backgrounds and those espousing different values, in order to participate successfully in a globalized society.

Vice President Takane Ito photo
Vice President Takane Ito  

But how can you teach about diversity issues effectively to students who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about them until entering college? Ito believes the important thing is to start by explaining theory, and coupling that with an interactive, seminar-style session where students receive hands-on practical training.

“It’s like learning a foreign language,” the linguistics expert said. “If you grew up mingling with children from completely different backgrounds or cultures, you acquire the knowledge naturally without even thinking about it. But when it comes to teaching adults, it’s important to convey the knowledge in a systematic way.”

Although she explains that her plan is still in the working stage, Ito hopes to create a set of lectures to impart knowledge on diversity in a structured manner. She said it would be ideal to have professors who specialize in diversity- and inclusion-related fields give lectures, and to create classes for students to actually turn at least some part of the knowledge they have gained into practice. Ito said she would like to work on building a structure and environment to realize such programs.

As a new initiative, UTokyo launched video content in July 2021 for first- and second-year undergraduate students to learn about and deepen their understanding of diversity and inclusion. The five videos, each around 10 to 20 minutes long, cover topics such as barrier-free accessibility, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual consent. From lecture-style videos prepared by leading professors in the relevant fields to animations created with the help of student groups, the content can be viewed via the university’s online learning management system ITC-LMS.

“I imagine there are many students who never gave thought to these subjects before,” Ito said. “For such students, this would provide an impetus to start thinking about these topics.”

Questioning norms that are taken for granted

A native of Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, Ito initially came to UTokyo as an undergraduate student, enrolling in one of the humanities and social sciences division programs. As a woman coming from a public high school in a provincial city, Ito would be considered a minority compared to many of her classmates. Noting that the experience made her understand there are people with differing perspectives, Ito has urged students to experience being a minority before they enter the real world.

“When you are in the majority, what you regard as common sense is also taken for granted by your peers, and there is a tacit understanding and assumption that this is the norm. But if you shift your focus to a different group, the premise is totally changed,” she explained. “It is important to fully understand the need to question your assumptions. If you hold on to the belief that your common sense is the norm, that will limit the scope of what you see.”

Ito said an effective way to fully comprehend and gain the ability to have dialogue with people from different backgrounds is “to put yourself in the position of a minority.” While studying abroad would be an ideal way to experience this as students immerse themselves in a different culture and encounter different values, they can still have valuable experiences at home, such as by attending events where international students get together or visiting a cafe where sign language is the main means of communication, she said.

“When you break down your common sense and go through various experiences, you start to see things in a much broader way than being confined by yourself,” Ito said. “I think that’s the most important thing, both in terms of being able to play an active role in society and broadening your own horizons.”

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