Criticizing Youth Will Not Make Them Go Abroad

Society Culture

Overseas Interest Remains Strong

A report earlier this year that the number of Japanese students at US universities had dipped below 20,000 for the first time in a quarter century unleashed a flood of articles lamenting an alleged decline in interest among young Japanese in the world around them.

One newspaper carried the headline “Students staying in Japan,” while a commentator writing earlier about the same phenomenon stated, “Young Japanese are not interested in going abroad.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Of nine Japanese university students I led on a trip to Europe in 2008, four had either studied abroad or would return for a year or more to a foreign institution of higher learning. It is significant to note, however, that the United States was not the destination of choice for any of the four. One is now in Winnipeg, Canada, on a two-year working holiday visa. Another had spent a year in Toronto. Yet another went to Britain.

To assume that Japanese youth are lazy couch potatoes just because they are not heading for US colleges fails to take into account the increasing diversity of overseas studies opportunities available for Japanese students at institutions outside the United States. Whereas the 47,000 Japanese students on US campuses in 1997 accounted for three out of every four Japanese studying abroad that year, today students from Japan are enrolled at universities in China, Britain, Australia, Germany, Taiwan, Canada, France, South Korea, and New Zealand in that order. In fact, when the number of Japanese students at these destinations is tallied, the combined total is greater than at US universities.

It is good to keep in mind that the decline in numbers of Japanese student at US schools is the result of many different factors, most significantly the sudden, steep rise in tuition costs there. One reason for the increased popularity of study in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain is the work holiday visa available to Japanese young people heading for those countries. Foreign students wishing to go to the United States do not have the option to combine work, vacation, and study in the same way.  At the present time, about 20,000 young Japanese are on extended stays at the above four countries, hardly an indication of apathy about the rest of the world.

Pessimists point to the future weakening in US-Japan ties due to the replacement of Japanese students on US campuses with those from China. Between 1994 and 1997, Japanese students comprised the largest number of foreign students enrolled at US institutions. At present, students from China hold that position. In fact, as of 2011, more than a quarter of the US foreign student population is Chinese. Fewer than three percent are from Japan.

More Options for Students Today

But the figures fail to tell the whole story. Even a cursory look at easily available statistics shows that Japanese young people are going abroad in greater numbers than ever before. When the 30 percent decline over the past 15 years in Japan’s university age population is taken into account, on a per capita basis, young people today are far more likely to go abroad to learn foreign languages and live in foreign countries than at any time before.

As for the 200,000 Chinese students at US universities, the majority are studying abroad because China’s 2,000 universities simply cannot accommodate 30 million young people vying to obtain degrees. And that number will soon rise to 40 million. The conditions that force Chinese students to go abroad for education are very different from anything experienced by Japanese students at the present time.

It should also be noted that Japanese university students no longer have to go overseas to take part in international educational exchange. For example, at Dōshisha University in Kyoto, Japanese students can take courses in English offered by foreign professors, either at the university’s own English language programs or as auditors of foreign university overseas programs hosted by Dōshisha. Japanese students can form friendships with foreign students—in large part from US campuses—without paying $50,000 a year in tuition, as they would have to in the United States.  The average annual cost of education at some of Japan’s best universities comes to about one quarter that amount. 

There is still much that can be done to inspire Japanese students to return to US campuses. For example, the poor English-language scores on international tests of Japanese students are often cited as a reason why Chinese and Korean students are winning the competition to gain entrance into elite US graduate schools. If this is true, then why not allow Japanese students time off during summer to return to English language schools in the United States and elsewhere that they had to abandon when Japanese education authorities put pressure on universities to increase class hours, thereby extending the Japanese spring semester into late July and even early August?

While the decision to lengthen the period of instruction was taken by well-intentioned bureaucrats, the quite predictable negative consequences for study-abroad programs were not taken into account. There are many policy options open to encourage and assist Japanese students to go abroad especially to the United States. Coordinating the Japanese academic year with the rest of the world would be a step in the right direction. Providing financial assistance to offset the high cost of tuition at US schools would be another. And introducing a visa that would allow Japanese students to do in the United States what working holiday arrangements permit them to do in other countries would do much to tip the balance in favor of the United States. But blaming the young for actions beyond their control will not be of much help.    

(Originally written in English on December 17, 2012.)

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