On the top floor of Mitsubishi Corporation building in the center of Marunouchi district, I interviewed Mr. Minoru (Ben) Makihara who graduated from Harvard College in 1954. Mr. Makihara is currently Senior Corporate Advisor to Mitsubishi Corporation. The interview consists of three parts: Harvard now and then, how to improve education systems and English learning in Japan, and messages for young people.
Sumire: Diversity is very important to institutions in today's world and Harvard is not an exception. I, too, have often had to consider this keyword when selecting applicants to Summer in JAPAN , an educational program in my hometown. I assume that things were very different when you attended Harvard around sixty years ago. What was student life like? How did Harvard as an institution regard diversity at that time?
Makihara: (Pointing to his tie) This is a school tie from Saint Paul's School. I attended Saint Paul's School for one year before entering Harvard because attending school in the U.S. was something of a prerequisite at that time. It was a very precious experience for me. There were many reasons why I chose Harvard College. For one, a very important person in my life, who had helped me in countless ways, was a Harvard Divinity School alumnus.
The biggest difference between Harvard now and then is the admittance of women to the school. This also applies to Saint Paul's School. I think it made a big shift.
Additionally, there were only one or two Black students on campus when I was a member of the Class of 1954 (Author's note: current Black/African-American student enrollment is about 10%). This is also a significant difference.
As for the school life, we used to refer to professors at Harvard or Saint Paul's with their proper titles. But when my son was studying at Harvard College, all the students called their teachers by their first names. When I visited Saint Paul's School with my son a few decades ago, I felt a little strange because I called one of my teachers, who had taken great care of me when I was a student, "Mr. Lloyd" while my son simply said, "Frank, how are you?"
Sumire: That's very interesting. As you said, we often call professors by their first names.
Makihara: It sounded as if my son were senior to me... This example shows how an informal and friendly atmosphere has spread across educational institutions. Harvard has always been a free-spirited university, and both gender and race issues have been largely liberalized.
Sumire: I guess there were huge differences in students' life on campus, compared to today.
Makihara: We used to wear a suit like this (pointing to his suit) or a blazer. About 20 years after graduation, I had an opportunity to pay a visit to Harvard and asked Mr. Hightower, a renowned scholar who specialized in China. "Looking around, I see so many students wearing informal clothes. What is the quality of students like, compared to our time? "
He replied, "That is a strange question. The level of current students is much higher than before." I asked him the reason and he said, "The answer is simple. There is competition. When you were a student, one out of four students got accepted, but now it's one out of 20."
I suppose the current acceptance rate must be even lower than that. (Author's note: Harvard's acceptance rate for the Class of 2019 is 5.3%.)
Sumire: I agree. Most of my friends at Harvard are really hardworking and competitive. How many Japanese students were there back then?
Makihara: During my time, there was only one Japanese student per year.
Sumire: Do you consider that to be large or small number?
Makihara: I would say it's quite large because it was right after the war. How many are there now?
Sumire: Currently there are about 10 Japanese undergraduate students in total. Only two or three Japanese high school students get accepted every year.
Makihara: There should be more Japanese students, but I'm sure it's hard to get in. I'm impressed you made it.
Sumire: Thank you. It was really hard for me too. Do you still have many friends from the school?
Makihara: I exchange Christmas cards regularly with around 20 school friends. My closest friends are the five to ten with whom I went to Saint Paul's and Harvard, as well as my roommates from that time.
Sumire: What's the best memory you had with your roommates?
Makihara: Well, I can't pick one because there are too many ... (everyone laughs)
Sumire: What is your favorite memory of school events? For me, Housing Day was the most memorable one. At the end of my freshman year, there was a big parade when I got assigned to my upperclassmen house. Did you have Housing Day?
Makihara: No, we didn't. We were allowed to make a request as to our preferred dorms. I chose Adams House for several reasons. First, Shigeto Tsuru, one of Japan's most prominent economists, had lived in Adams House. Second, there was a swimming pool. But now it's become a thing of the past.
Sumire: It was transformed into a theater.
Makihara: It is so wasteful to have thrown away that pool. Anyway, the third reason is that Adams House was very famous for its delicious food.
Sumire: I see. Today, my house, Dunster House, has a good reputation for food.
Makihara: And lastly, Mr. Reischauer was one of the non-resident tutors at Adams and I sometimes had opportunities to have a meal with him. It is one of the biggest features of Harvard College that all the students live in the dormitories. When I attended Seikei High School in Japan, some students lived in dorms too - although they no longer have them.
Sumire: Did you experience any culture shock when you first arrived at Saint Paul's School?
Makihara: Well, no. I had no time for that. (laugh)
Sumire: Neither did I. I had no time to get homesick in my first year.
Makihara: Your first year in the U.S. started at Harvard? That must have been difficult.
Sumire: I went to Harvard straight from Oita, a small town in Japan, so I was overwhelmed with work during my freshman year while adjusting to the new culture.
Makihara: Were you born and raised there before coming to Harvard?
Sumire: Yes. I spent all my 18 years in Oita.
Makihara: It's surprising that you were able to study English in such a small town.
Sumire: In terms of conversational English, I learned it mainly through my life here in the U.S., but back in my hometown, my life consisted of memorizing tons of English words and phrases for the SAT's.
(This is the sixth part in an ongoing series, please check back for the next installment)
SIJ is a non-profit educational organization established in Oita, Japan in 2013 to enhance good relationships between the youth of the U.S. and Japan. Every summer 8 to 12 Harvard students visit Oita to teach children, tour Japan and exchange ideas. The author is a co-founder of SIJ and producer/musician of the SIJ Music Concert Series.
March 6th: Senior Thesis Violin Recital at Paine Hall, Harvard University
April 3rd: Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta Concert at Boston Symphony Hall(supporting musician)
April 9th: Brattle Street Chamber Players Spring Concert at Paine Hall, Harvard University (premiering Violin Concerto, a student composition)
April 23rd: Mozart Society Orchestra Concert (soloist) at Paine Hall, Harvard University