Getting More Young People to Study Abroad—and Companies to Hire Those Who Do


The number of Japanese studying in the United States is continuing to decline. This phenomenon is frequently cited as manifesting the inward-looking tendency of today’s Japan. One organization that has been working actively to reverse this negative trend is the US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON).

Concern About the Status Quo

The CULCON symposium on “Enhancing US-Japan Relations and Educational Exchanges in a Globalized Society” was held at Waseda University on May 17, 2013.

Though the Fulbright Program promoting international student exchanges is well known in Japan, surprisingly few Japanese are familiar with CULCON. This bilateral panel was established on the basis of an agreement between Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato and President John F. Kennedy at a Japan-US summit meeting in 1961, and it was officially inaugurated with the first meeting of the Joint Committee on United States-Japan Cultural and Educational Interchange in Tokyo the following year. Since then the joint committee has met biannually. And last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the panel’s launch.

Starting in 1983 CULCON conducted a three-year project under which researchers from Japan and the United States examined the educational systems of each other’s countries, and the results of this mutual study had a major impact in Japan. And in 2001 the panel came out with a set of recommendations for promoting a large-scale increase in the number of Americans studying in Japan. But as the slump following the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy at the beginning of the 1990s dragged on, not only was corporate vigor sapped but the flow of young Japanese heading overseas to study also lost momentum. As of 1997 there were some 47,000 Japanese students in the United States, but in 2011 the number had plunged to 19,900, a decline of almost 60%.

On May 17 this year, CULCON held an international symposium at Waseda University in Tokyo on the topic “Enhancing US-Japan Relations and Educational Exchanges in a Globalized Society.” Many of the speakers from both the United States and Japan expressed concern about the sharp drop in the numbers of Japanese exchange students.

The Flow of Japanese Students Shrinks While Other East Asians Flock to US Schools

Why are fewer Japanese going to study in the United States? One of the participants in the May 17 symposium, Harvard University Professor Susan Pharr (a member of the Japan-US joint committee), cited a number of factors: For one thing, though students’ international experiences are considered to be a valuable addition to their educational careers in countries like China, South Korea, and India, in Japan’s case foreign study earns virtually no positive evaluation—and if students spend over a year abroad, it is liable to have a negative impact on their prospects for finding a good job after graduation. In addition, Pharr noted that the high tuitions charged by US universities discourage Japanese students, but she pointed out that 64% of the students at these institutions are receiving scholarships or other forms of financial assistance and suggested that Japanese should make more use of these support systems.

And why, by contrast, are young people from China and South Korea, Japan’s East Asian neighbors, eager to study at US institutions? Kathy Matsui, managing director and chief strategist for Goldman Sachs, explained that the economic crisis that struck South Korea in 1997 caused many corporations to go under, making it hard for graduating college students to find jobs; meanwhile, many of the remaining corporations saw their survival as depending on development of overseas operations, and so they sought a high level of English-language ability among the students they hired. Even getting admitted to a university in South Korea requires taking a test of proficiency in English; Japanese universities do not impose such a requirement, and Japanese students are clearly deficient in their ability to communicate in English.

In China’s case, the number of places in universities is insufficient to accommodate the fast-growing numbers of those seeking admission, and this contributes to the popularity of studying abroad. It also bears noting that overseas study for many Chinese involves bearing a heavy financial burden and staking their survival on the results.

 Nurturing Global Human Resources

Another speaker at the symposium, former US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, identified the low level of Japan-US student exchange as an issue for the cultivation of the next generation of global leaders, and he stressed the need for increasing both the quantity and the quality of the human exchanges between the two countries.

The Fulbright Program has developed leaders in various of fields, including academia, business, the arts, media, and science, and some 300,000 people around the world have participated in it. Fulbright Japan has been operating since 1949, and over this period it has produced about 6,300 Japanese and 2,500 American graduates. It has been the largest-scale program providing opportunities for the development of global leaders. The spirit on which it is based is one of encouraging each new generation of young people to vie with each other, take interest in each other, and direct their gaze toward global issues. Experience gained by living, studying, and working in societies with different cultures from one’s own, is crucial for this purpose.

The process of nurturing global human resources, however, can no longer be accomplished just through agreements and exchange programs at the country-to-country level. In today’s world this has become a mission for individuals to undertake on their own initiative, and the interaction among young people from different cultures has become a source of new value.  It is essential to recognize that monocultures do not give rise to innovation (creative destruction) and, furthermore, that diversity itself is not a given but needs to be cultivated.

Calling on Japanese Businesses to Tap International Talent

One additional problem relating to student exchange in Japan’s case is that many of the students who come to Japan from other countries are unable to find jobs and return home after completing their studies here.

Speaking at the May 17 symposium, Maehara Kaneichi, vice chairman and president of the business association Keizai Dōyūkai, noted that of the roughly 140,000 foreign students in Japan, about 80% are from China or South Korea; only 2,100, or 1.5% of the total, are from the United States. And he reported that among the 38,000 foreign students who graduated from Japanese institutions this spring, only 7,900 got jobs within Japan. Japanese corporations need to adopt a more positive approach to building up their pools of global human resources through the use of internship programs and the introduction of special hiring tracks for foreign students graduating from universities in Japan.

Meanwhile, about 60,000 Japanese are currently studying overseas, and some 10,000 of them return to Japan every year. Japanese businesses should probably also work harder at tapping this pool of talent. According to one recent survey of Japanese who have gone abroad to study, 35% were concerned about their employment prospects even before they headed overseas, and 34.3% reported experiencing difficulty finding jobs after they returned. (The survey, conducted via the Internet by Disco Inc., was directed at 7,414 Japanese who are studying or have studied overseas; 342 replies were received.)

 (Originally written in Japanese on June 6, 2013.)

CULCON Fulbright Susan Pharr Kathy Matsui Norman Mineta