September 27, 2017 4:18 pm JST

Thailand and Mongolia embracing Japanese 'Kosen' schools

One hopes to avoid middle-income trap; other seeks modernization

Students learn electric circuit design at a Kosen vocational school affiliated with the Mongolian University of Science and Technology.

TOKYO/BANGKOK -- Japanese kosen are designed to turn teenagers into professional technicians through five years of intensive training. Established after World War II to help industrialize Japan's economy, the vocational high schools are now attracting attention from emerging Asia for much the same reason.

In Japan, kosen's primary role, to nurture young engineers, seems to be diminishing, but the school's unique teaching system endures. So add technical training schools to the list of Japanese exports.

Among the importers are Thailand and Mongolia. The Nikkei visited both countries to see how things are going.

In Thailand, we found a country worrying about the so-called "middle-income trap." Now there are hopes that kosen can help the country escape this fate. After all, back in Japan's post-war heyday, they were integral in feeding the country's economic locomotive.

At Suranaree Technical College in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, a four-hour drive from central Bangkok, we watched as new students who had entered the school in April were somewhat awkwardly tackling welding machines. When a machine shot out sparks, students watching the process backed up a bit.

In another class, students were using metal fragments to practice soldering. As a small plume of white smoke rose, the smell of flux wafted up. Jiranuwat Chornkrathok, a 16-year-old student, perfectly pulled off the trick. Later, Jiranuwat said he wanted to become an engineer at an electric appliance maker or at a power generation plant.

Suranaree Technical College is one of the two model schools in Thailand backed by Japan's Kosen National Institute of Technology, an independent administrative body on a mission to establish and operate national kosen colleges. It is to be transformed into a kosen come spring. As it prepares to make the switch, it is working out a new curriculum and training teachers with the help of the kosen institute.

The kosen institute offers eight training programs for Thai kosen teachers. While The Nikkei was visiting Suranaree Technical College, teachers from three other schools were on hand for a course being taught by a Japanese lecturer, dispatched by the National Institute of Technology, Kumamoto College, in Kumamoto Prefecture.

The one-week class was designed to help students learn the basics of Python, a general-purpose programming language often used to operate artificial intelligence.

Surapun Junsavut, a 36-year-old teacher at Chonburi Technical College who attended the course was struck by how differently Japanese and Thais approach teaching. Japanese methods are more practice-driven, he observed. The kosen program, in particular, places great importance on practical training.

In Thailand, the hope for kosen is that the schools help keep the country's economy from losing steam.

The project there is being spearheaded by Thailand's Ministry of Education. "We are seeking to introduce the Japanese kosen model to raise the educational standards in our country," said Jerdruedee Chinvaroj, director of the Bureau of Vocational Education Standards and Qualifications.

Thailand has developed a range of thriving industries; its auto sector is especially strong. But the country faces growing competition from lower-cost Myanmar and Cambodia. At the same time, it is struggling to upgrade its industrial structure.

In short, Thailand is staring into the so-called "middle income trap." To avoid the fate that has befallen so many developing nations, the government has launched "Thailand 4.0," an initiative meant to upgrade its industries.

Crucial to this drive is the development of sophisticated workers who can technologically create and innovate.

The Thai business community is holding out hope that kosen can do something about the country's lack of skilled and knowledgeable engineers.

"The establishment of the kosen system will probably boost the country's industrial foundation," the executive said.

But the truth is, these institutions are having difficulty attracting students. This is because Thai technical college students are generally perceived as boorish, Thais harbor a strong preference for white-collar professions and lack respect for those who toil on the shop floor, and because Thailand has a low birth rate.

In Mongolia, the hope is that kosen can help modernize the country.

In 1992, the late Aleksei Ganbayar entered the National Institute of Technology, Tokyo College, known as Tokyo Kosen. He was among a second group of students to be sent to a Japanese kosen under a scholarship program.

He earned a degree in electrical engineering and worked for 20 years as an engineer on projects with SonyFujitsu and other companies. He was content with his life in Japan but began considering his own country's modernization.

Mongolia is rich in natural resources and earns foreign currency by exporting them. Japan imports and processes raw materials to make goods. Ganbayar thought that with enough skilled engineers, Mongolia could also get into the value-added game.

Other Mongolian kosen graduates who found jobs in Japan shared the dream of establishing these schools in Mongolia. They started a "kosen club" and began working to bring the academies to Mongolia.

Japanese kosen officials welcomed the idea and in 2009 set up the Society for the Establishment of Mongolian Kosen. With the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Tokyo Kosen and other parties began sending teachers to Mongolia and welcoming education officials from the country.

Things moved quickly. Luvsannyam Gantumur, a kosen graduate, became Mongolia's education, culture and science minister, and in 2014 three kosen opened in Mongolia -- one at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, another affiliated with the Institute of Engineering and Technology and the third at the New Mongol Institute of Technology.

Why is Mongolia interested in kosen? Partly because its gross domestic product, at $3,686 per person in 2016, is roughly the same as that of Japan back when kosen graduates began contributing to the Japanese economy. In 1973, for instance, Japan's per capita GDP was $3,977.

There is a hope of history repeating itself.

Ulaanbaatar is home to half the country's population. The capital urgently needs engineers to improve hygiene and infrastructure, Mayor Sundui Batbold said. The metropolitan government of Ulaanbaatar has partnered with Tokyo Kosen, and its leaders are confident of success.

Before the two parties reached their cooperation agreement, Tokyo Kosen opened an office in Ulaanbaatar. The office is headed by Tsagaan Baigalmaa, a city council member. Baigalmaa entered Tokyo Kosen in 1991, a year before Ganbayar.

In 2014, after she had heard Mongolia was trying to set up kosen, she returned to her homeland from Harvard University, where she was a researcher, and offered to help.

Baigalmaa said owners of textile, food and construction businesses tell her there is a shortage of employees who understand both engineering and management to serve as factory managers. 

The Mongolian University of Science and Technology's kosen is training engineers who understand manufacturing and refrigerated transportation of dairy products. If the industry can ramp up sufficiently, it could help alleviate much of the need to import these products.

At the school, there are about 50 students in each class, about a quarter the number at Japanese kosen.

A 17-year-old student in his fourth year of studying machine engineering at the school said he wants to open his own auto repair shop. After graduation, he hopes to get a job at an auto parts plant.

The school has 20 Japanese teachers. Their expertise ranges from welding to computer-aided design. The great advantage of Japanese teachers, Sergelen said, is that they tell students it is OK to fail. They have failed themselves, have learned from their failures and have gone on to make new things.

This is the true value of Japanese kosen, Sergelen said.

This story was compiled from reports by Nikkei senior staff writer Yo Tanaka and Nikkei staff writer Akihide Anzai in Tokyo as well as by Nikkei staff writer Marimi Kishimoto in Bangkok.

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