Founder and president of Setouchi Global Academy Dr. Hiromi Nagao visits one of the school's ... Founder and president of Setouchi Global Academy Dr. Hiromi Nagao visits one of the school's three farms. The properties are used for hands-on, interdisciplinary learning, education in sustainable business, and as sources of income.

Picture an intentionally small college, located on a rural, forested island with the ocean on one side and a national park on the other, that takes a progressive, cross-disciplinary approach to education. If you were to think this sounds a lot like College of the Atlantic, you’d be right. Setouchi Global Academy (SGA), located in Osakikamijima, Japan, has embraced the COA model of human ecology in its mission to remake Japanese higher education.

I have been working for the betterment of Japanese higher education for many years, and after I became familiar with COA I began working on a new, fundamental educational model in Japan to let people know that education is not just paperwork done in the classroom, but in an environment full of nature, and that students need to touch the soil and live with nature,” said Dr. Hiromi Nagao, professor of socio-linguistics and the founder and president of SGA.

“I view my time spent at SGA and COA as a period of enriching my soul.”

Established with a mission to bring interdisciplinary thinking into Japanese higher education, SGA’s educational approach focuses on learning how to think critically and creatively, connecting to and contributing positively to the local community, learning about Japanese cultures, history, and traditions, and growing intellectually and emotionally through interactions and experiences.

“They are using problem-based learning to understand applied human ecology,” said COA provost Ken Hill.

In 2020, SGA enrolled the first year-round students to its 1.5-year program where students take a series of nine human ecology-related courses that can be considered one whole academic year at COA, allowing SGA students to transfer to COA as second-year students. So far, eight students have completedthe SGA program, with three coming to COA to complete their degrees. At the same time, COA students have participated in SGA pilot programs, several have gone to SGA for internships and residencies, and more opportunities are in the works.

Of the three students recently enrolled at SGA, one was in the SGA nine-course program, one a high school student, and one was COA student Aniruddha Jaydeokar ’23, who did a residency to learn Japanese. There are currently three COA students who came from SGA—Sora Kawamoto ’24, Kizuna Shintani ’24, and Yuri Tsuji ’25. James Russell Wiggins Chair in Government and Policy Jamie McKown, Hill, and Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business Jay Friedlander, visited SGA recently to plan for a potential term-long, three-credit “monster” course in Osakikamijima that could involve doing micro-internships with people on the island, such as the fisherman.

Setouchi Global Academy students spend time working at one of the three organic citrus farms owne...

Setouchi Global Academy students spend time working at one of the three organic citrus farms owned by the school, doing public service, and living in a communal space. COA student Aniruddha Jaydeokar ’23, right, participated in a Japanese language residency.

Friedlander explained that there have already been numerous lengthy internships, COA students that worked at Okamoto Shoyu factory—a third-generation soy sauce maker, at the IB school in Osakikamijima, and in the tourism sector on the island.

“I view my time spent at SGA and COA as a period of enriching my soul,” Kawamoto said. “Studying classes in a wide range of fields with unique friends in a small community provides a good opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and think about one’s own life. I look forward to seeing what plants will grow in the soil of experience gained at SGA and COA.”

Growing up in the countryside of Kyoto prefecture, where he developed a love for nature, Kawamoto recounted that his experiences at SGA and COA have continued to uplift this feeling. While COA stands adjacent to Acadia National Park, SGA exists inside of Setonaikai National Park.

“We are almost identical twins.”

Nagao’s connection to COA and interdisciplinary human ecology started in 2014 when she went to the Ashoka conference at Brown University. There she listened to a presentation by COA president Darron Collins ’92 and Friedlander about COA’s education model. Nagao contacted Friedlander soon after about collaborating on the school she was hoping to start in Japan, and a few months later Friedlander was on a plane, ready to work with the unique, tiny school some 6,500 miles away.

“You never know when a door will open up,” Friedlander said. “When I first went to Japan, I didn’t even know who I was meeting when I got off the plane in Hiroshima, after an 18 hour trip. It’s been enriching to watch that relationship grow into a partnership and a friendship.”

In July of 2016, COA and SGA kicked off their official collaboration with the Human Ecology and Island Odyssey (HELIO) summer institute, a 10-day, proof-of-concept program in Osakikamijima to test out the ideas for SGA. Three more HELIOs followed, each one with different activities, all focused on teaching Japanese culture and history through place-based learning, field studies, and projects.

Dr. Hiromi Nagao, professor of socio-linguistics and the founder and president of Setouchi Global...

Dr. Hiromi Nagao, professor of socio-linguistics and the founder and president of Setouchi Global Academy.

“It was not us directly teaching, but making the connections and facilitating what the students would like to do. It was the research to revitalize the island and how to make a new style of educational institution, so we were trying to collect the student’s ideas,” Nagao said.

“There have probably been over a dozen universities involved in HELIO with COA leading the program. Universities from Australia to Ireland to the UK, to Mexico, Japan and the US have sent over students to participate in this COA program. HELIO has resonance well beyond our shores,” Friedlander said.

COA and HELIO helped to create SGA’s educational foundation, but the story begins long before Nagao had ever heard of COA. On March 11, 2011, Nagao attended a meeting in Tokyo for the educational council of Japan, the same day as the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Nagao remembered feeling the shaking even in the tall building in Tokyo. Due to the disaster, the meeting was postponed for a month. On April 11, 2011, Nagao listened to Yuichiro Anzai, the chancellor of KO university of Japan and chair of the meeting, speak about the failure of Japanese higher education. He said that the first failure was that learning had been siloed, with no interconnections made between disciplines, and that this had contributed to the nuclear accident because people were not taught, nor encouraged, to think outside of their training. The second failure, he said, was that college had become about teaching the correct answer, which discouraged students from thinking critically to learn for themselves.

Osakikamijima, Japan is the home of COA's new affiliate school, Setouchi Global Academy. Osakikamijima, Japan is the home of COA's new affiliate school, Setouchi Global Academy.Before this meeting, Nagao’s vision for Japanese higher education was not concrete, but after Anzai’s talk it became crystal clear, and from then on Nagao was set on reforming the Japanese education system. She went back to Hiroshima Christian Women’s college, where she was president of at the time, implementing reform and nurturing creativity. She turned the school into a liberal arts institution where students focused on multiple disciplines and subjects at once. But changing the school’s 130 years of history was not a popular move, so Nagao felt she had to start somewhere else. She needed to start a school from scratch. And with that was born Setouchi Global Academy, nestled wonderfully on a quiet island in the Seto Inland Sea.

SGA’s interdisciplinary program is broken up into three main components: classes, social business, and public service.

SGA students take one class per month, for nine months. These classes range in topic from sustainability and nature to art, the cultures of peace and war, and much more, all under the broad umbrella of place-based, interdisciplinary human ecology.

It’s not like a classroom with a blackboard,” said Nagao, emphasizing the approach to learning that involves what’s outside of the classroom at least as much as what’s inside.

SGA students spend time working at one of the three organic citrus farms owned by the school and renovating old traditional Japanese farm houses, doing public service, and living in a communal space with the other SGA students and Nagao. The citrus farm and farmhouse renovations are part of SGA’s social business model; they are ethical, sustainable businesses and all profits go towards support the school.

“It’s a way to keep costs down for the program, a kind of work college model,” explained Hill.

“It’s not like a classroom with a blackboard.”

The public service component of SGA presents plenty of opportunities for learning experiences for students, but also ways to give back to the broader community, Nagao said.

“The students are accepted by the town because they work with the farmers. We do the beach cleaning, we join and help organize the town festival. We are commingled with the town, and we are very much accepted after three years. In this town the average age is over 65, so the young people are very much valued,” explained Nagao.

“Helping to grow SGA has been exciting and extraordinarily enriching,” Friedlander said. “If the academy grows and continues to succeed it could be a new example for Japanese higher education, a place where education is embedded in the community context and students practice human ecology in action.”

“The size of the island is almost the same as the island where COA is, and the population is almost the same, around 7,000. And, how it started, the colleges are very much alike, and what we are aiming at, human ecology, means trying to live harmoniously with nature,” Nagao said. “We are almost identical twins.”

To learn more about Setouchi Global Academy, visit