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HOME  >  International Grant Program  >  2017  >  Comments by Selection Committee Chair

International Grant Program 2017

Comments by Selection Committee Chair

Selection Committee Chair Prof. Akira Suehiro

Outline of Fiscal 2017 International Grant Program “Cultivating Empathy Through Learning from Our Neighbors: Practitioners’ Exchange on Common Issues in Asia”

Since its inception in 1974, the Toyota Foundation has been administering international grant programs with a focus on Southeast Asian countries. Starting in fiscal 2009, it has provided grants through its Asian Neighbors Program to projects aiming to solve specific problems in countries and regions in Asia.

Across Asia, economies have developed and living standards have improved. At the same time, though, many countries and regions face the same challenges as Japan, including aging societies and lower birthrates, growing economic inequality, and frequent natural disasters. In fiscal 2013, the Toyota Foundation changed the name of the program from the Asia Neighbors Program to the International Grant Program, and in fiscal 2015, adopted an approach of actively supporting projects seeking to propose future-oriented policies on these issues.

However, as a result of the decision to focus the target themes on two fields of an aging society and a multicultural society and setting fieldwork and mutual exchanges of local practitioners as essential requirements, the number of applications declined to just 68 in fiscal 2015. In addition, project designs also showed a tendency to move toward content that stayed away from originality and risks. Given these circumstances, the Foundation decided to comprehensively review the policy in fiscal 2016, after discussions with stakeholders. Specifically, while maintaining the policies on the theme (Cultivating Empathy Through Learning from Our Neighbors: Practitioners’ Exchange on Common Issues in Asia) and the target countries and regions (a total of 18 countries and regions in East Asia and Southeast Asia) in fiscal 2015, the committee has decided to expand the thematic areas into three: (A) Multigenerational and Multicultural Inclusion in Communities, (B) Creating New Culture: Toward a Common Platform for Asia and (C) Open Field.

There were two factors behind the expansion of the thematic areas: One is that an initiative to review traditions and create a new culture has gotten underway in areas such as film, music, theatrical performance and food culture in Asia, and the other is that a new movement that could be called the “creation of culture common to Asia” has emerged due partly to the rise of social media. We thought that these developments would provide a common base for people to address issues facing Asian societies with empathy.

Below, let me explain the three thematic areas briefly. In area A, the Foundation intends to select projects that will address a group of pressing issues facing local communities in Asia, including, but not limited to, the two themes which the we have been focusing on since fiscal 2013; that is, the aging society and the multicultural society. Next, the Foundation has defined area B, expecting highly motivated projects that will present a fertile vision of Asia’s future in fields such as film, music, theatrical performance and food culture. Lastly in area C, we had it in mind that applicants themselves would freely select an area and make proposals about issues that are not included in the other two areas or that would straddle them.

The basic policy in fiscal 2017 is the same as that in fiscal 2016. However, as mentioned in the comments by the chair of the fiscal 2016 International Grant Program, there were relatively few applications that truly impressed committee members with their unbridled and groundbreaking ideas in fiscal 2016. Based on our reflection that the Toyota Foundation failed to adequately convey the goals of the program, the Foundation has clearly stated its purport of “hoping for more challenging projects” in the proposal guidelines in fiscal 2017.

Overview of Applications

As a result of inviting applications by clearly stating the intentions, the Toyota Foundation received 328 proposals in fiscal 2017, a significant increase from the 211 proposals received in the previous year. By thematic area, we received 84 proposals (26%) for area A (Multigenerational and Multicultural Inclusion in Communities), 86 proposals (26%) for area B (Creating New Culture) and 158 proposals (48%) for area C (Open Field). While the number of proposals was up 55% from fiscal 2016, the distribution of thematic areas has changed little. As in fiscal 2016, many of proposals in the open field overlapped social themes also covered in thematic area A, including disaster prevention, environmental conservation, and the construction of an inclusive society.

What were different from fiscal 2016 were the use of social media in mutual exchanges and the presentation of deliverables. These were found in expressions such as “building of platforms using the Internet” in an application form. This was a dominant form of dissemination common to almost all selected proposals, whether or not they use existing patterns such as the holding of an international workshop and the preparation and printing of its record (publication).

Looking at the distribution of applicants (representatives) by country, 107 proposals (33%), the largest number among the 328 proposals, were from Japan, followed by 75 from Malaysia, 50 from Indonesia, 13 from the Philippines, 12 from Thailand, 10 from Vietnam, 8 from South Korea, 7 each from China and Australia and 4 each from Taiwan, Myanmar and Singapore. By region, 170 proposals (52%), more than half of the total, came from Southeast Asia, 23 from East Asia excluding Japan, 4 from South Asia and 24 from North and South Americas and Europe.

Compared with fiscal 2016, the absolute number of proposals from Japan increased from 84 to 107, but its percentage declined from 40% to 33%. The main reason for the particularly large number of proposals coming from Malaysia and Indonesia appears to be that a track record of applications for research grants (whether they are accepted or not) has become an important factor in evaluating the academic work of researchers at universities, etc. in the both countries, in addition to the efforts of program officers (POs) of the Toyoda Foundation. For this reason, we did not necessarily receive many high-quality proposals from the both countries, and this has resulted in a large gap between the distribution of applicants by country and that of selected proposals by country.

Selection Results

The Selection Committee comprised six members including the committee chair, as in fiscal 2016. As in previous years, the committee gave particular attention to the following points when screening proposals: (1) whether and to what extent the project fits the thematic focus; the adequateness of the theme set up, (2) the significance of mutual exchange at the practical level, (3) the soundness of the project’s implementation structure and members, and (4) the impact of deliverables and policy recommendations. In addition, regarding thematic area B, the committee decided to take a flexible approach for each project based on its content without setting uniform standards when considering such factors as the member structure and how deliverables are to be announced.

Based on the above guidelines, the Selection Committee met after each committee member conducted a peer review of the application forms. As a result, 16 projects were selected, and the selection rate was 4.9% (8.5% in fiscal 2016), reflecting a stringent process given that the number of applications had increased. In terms of the thematic areas covered by the projects, five projects were in A, five in B and six in C. The choice of an almost equal number of projects for each thematic area was purely a result of discussions based on the content; the committee did not make any adjustment.

With regard to the target countries and regions covered by the projects (multiple countries and regions involved in a single project are counted individually), 11 were focused on Japan, followed by 6 on South Korea, 4 on Indonesia and the Philippines, 3 on Taiwan, 2 on China, Vietnam and Myanmar and 1 each on Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Timor-Leste.

In addition, the vigorous efforts of the POs of the Toyota Foundation to identify potential projects, consult applicants in advance of their application, and collect additional materials and seek out opinions about project candidates were of great help. It was a demanding task to carefully scrutinize the paperwork for over 300 proposals, and I take this opportunity to sincerely convey my appreciation for their efforts.

Examples of Selected Project

Of the 16 projects selected in fiscal 2017, here I would like to introduce one project for each of the three thematic areas, briefly discussing their characteristics and the significance of the grant.

1. Thematic Area A: Multigenerational and Multicultural Inclusion in Communities

Dipesh Kharel, Researcher, The University of Tokyo
“Capturing Multiethnic Japan: Foreign Students and Japanese Learning to Live Together”
Target Countries and Regions: Japan, Vietnam and Nepal
Grant Period: two years
Grant Amounts: 7.5 million yen

Under the “300,000 Foreign Students Plan” announced by the government of Japan, the number of foreign students studying in Japan has increased significantly in recent years. Among them, Vietnamese and Nepalese have shown a particularly large increase. In fact, the number of Vietnamese and Nepalese has grown by leaps from 2012 to 2016, rising from 4,373 to 53,807 for Vietnamese and from 2,451 to 19,571 for Nepalese. These numbers include not only students studying in Japan from both countries, but also those who have come to Japan for purposes other than studying, as they are sometimes called “dekasegi foreign students.” The purpose of this project is to depict in detail the realities of study, work and life of the students from these two countries through video images. Cities covered by this project are Tokyo as well as those in Hokkaido, Akita, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

The number of surveys of foreign students in Japan has been increasing of late. This project is distinctive in its intent to promote mutual exchange through video in this context. The project members include a documentary film maker, a journalist, a film director and visual editor from Japan, Vietnam and Nepal. However, the problems that confront foreign students are wide ranging, and some expressed an opinion that cooperation of experts in this area would be essential. So the committee has decided to communicate this point to the representative.

2. Thematic Area B: Creating New Culture

Kenichi Abe, Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
“Reclaiming the joys of agriculture through theater—connecting rural landscapes in Asia”
Target Countries and Regions: Japan, the Philippines and Timor-Leste
Grant Period: two years
Grant Amounts: 7.5 million yen

This project is a new attempt to give high school students in Takachihokyo, Miyazaki Prefecture in Japan, in the Ifugao region on Luzon Island in the Philippines and in a mountain region in  Timor-Leste the opportunity to experience the joy of farming in an environment that combines agronomic engineers and theater. There are many projects that seek to convey the importance of agriculture from the perspective of relationships with environmental protection and Green Growth. Indeed, it has become an international trend. Instead of taking that approach, this project is an extremely practical one that gives high school students in regions where they are most likely to become farmers in the future the chance to encounter the reality of agriculture (learning phase), express the nature of agriculture through a theatrical performance (creation phase), and share the challenges and the joys of agriculture through mutual exchange (mutual learning phase).

The representative is a university faculty member who belongs to the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto and has extensive achievements as vice president of the Partner for Peace and Environment NPO (Moyai Network). The participants in the project include university faculty and high school teachers in the three countries, producers of theatrical performances and music, and members of NPOs. As such, this project can be a model for a “new international exchange,” the aspiration of thematic area B. The committee also valued its public relations activities through the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) as a new form of dissemination, in addition to its production and release of video pictures.

3. Thematic Area C: Open Field

Hong-Gyu Jeon, Vice Director and Professor, Osaka City University Urban Research Plaza
“Establishing a Platform for the East Asian Inclusive City Network: From divided to inclusive cities”
Target Countries and Regions: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan
Grant Period: two years
Grant Amounts: 7.3 million yen

Recent international development theories argue that we should seek an inclusive approach that encloses everything when we implement policies, instead of taking an exclusive approach that will exclude certain groups by dividing society by ethnic group, religion, sex or income class. Similarly, in urban development theories, there have been calls for inclusive urban development policies that incorporate socially disadvantaged communities known as slums or squatters. This project is an attempt to compare four cities in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan in light of these new arguments.

An attempt to compare large cities in East Asia was also observed in several other proposals. A strength of this project is that it is currently trying to build the “East Asia Inclusive City Network (EA-ICN)” by holding regular meetings in Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong and Osaka over the past seven years. The committee selected this project based on this strong track record and the clarity of its activity objective. The project also presents a new movement in terms of building a network organization and a platform using social media, etc., instead of taking an existing approach of compiling and publishing research results.

Conclusion

In fiscal 2017, as in the previous year, the Selection Committee selected proposals, bearing in mind the aim of the International Grant Program of the Toyota Foundation, which aims to promote practical, future-oriented projects, distinct from grants-in-aid for scientific research of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), which aim to promote academic research. All the committee members had the impression that the quality of the content of applications had improved from the previous year, as a result of the decision to clearly indicate the objectives in selecting applications and the efforts of the POs of the Toyota Foundation to provide explanations in each location.

Here, allow me to mention two points that emerged in the selection process. The first is the bias of project candidates to Japan (or Japanese as an applicant representative), and the other is a tendency toward diversification in the form of dissemination using social media, etc.

The bias to Japan (Japanese) is also a reflection of the bias of application forms to the Japanese language. Except for some limited countries and regions, English is neither a native language nor an official language. For this reason, difficulty usually arises when it comes down to expressing the proposal in English, even if the idea is fascinating. Therefore, with respect to proposals in English, the committee has decided to place more emphasis on the distinctiveness and future possibilities of projects in the selection process in the next fiscal year in order to reduce any bias. In the final stage, however, the committee will focus on the content, including the clarity of methods and concept in the application forms.

Another point is that projects that would use the web and build a platform as a form of dissemination stood out in fiscal 2017. The problem is that a considerable amount has been budgeted in these areas. It would have been acceptable 10 years ago, but it is not so difficult in the present day to establish a website and build a platform, in terms of both human resources and production cost. What is more important is what the project tries to deliver and to whom and how by using the web and social media. The Foundation has decided to ask applicants to make this point clearer in their application forms in the next fiscal year.

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