Why Are Fewer Young Japanese Studying Abroad?


Many experts have attributed the decline in the number of young Japanese studying abroad to a trend toward introversion. In this article, however, Associate Professor Kobayashi Akira of Meiji University points to more systemic obstacles and calls for an expansion of the definition of foreign study.

Turning Away from Overseas Study

According to figures published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese studying abroad dropped by almost a third to 57,501 in 2011 from a peak of 82,945 in 2004. Although this can be attributed in part to Japan’s population of 18-year-olds falling by around 20% in the same period—as data published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows—there remains a clear trend of young Japanese turning away from overseas study. If numbers continue to dwindle, there is a risk it could spark a crisis equivalent to or even worse than the country’s “lost 20 years” after the collapse of the bubble economy. If in the face of greater globalization Japan loses its ability to make its ideas known to the international community, it runs the real risk of being forgotten by the world. Despite attempts to promote study abroad and concerns from industry, government, and academia about its decline, why are fewer Japanese students choosing to head overseas? Here I consider the causes and future prospects.

Japan over its long history has never suffered colonization and only come under another country’s control during the seven postwar years of the Allied Occupation. While it has maintained its independence and developed its own distinctive culture and society as an island nation, it has also looked outward when faced with unprecedented national challenges and major social change. Japan sent students on missions to China from the seventh to the ninth centuries, on embassies to the West after Commodore Matthew Perry forced the country to open up diplomatically in 1853, and on trips to the United States funded by emergency aid and Fulbright scholarships in the postwar period. During these historic periods, there was an urgent need for young people to travel overseas and learn about new social systems and cutting-edge technologies. While US study after World War II was not based on a Japanese policy, students of their own volition still chose to travel and study overseas, returning to support reconstruction and development in a wide range of fields.

Four Reasons for the Decline

The prime driver of study abroad today is individual interest, not government policy. The bubble economy in the late 1980s boosted Japan’s influence in the world, propelling the number of students learning overseas toward its 2004 peak. Media pundits have attributed the downturn from 2005 to an inward-looking tendency among young people. However, I believe the main obstacles are economic restraints, conflict with job-hunting activities, linguistic anxiety, and fixed ideas among educators.

Tuition and living fees for study in the United States and other countries averages ¥2 million to ¥5 million per year and continues to rise. Disposable income in Japan, however, has declined over the last two decades turning study abroad into a significant economic hurdle for households. From the number of university students applying for exchange programs with tuition exemptions, I sense the desire is there, but many balk when faced with steep fees on top of their already high Japanese tuition. Surveys conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology and the Japan Student Services Organization indicate a recent rise in participation in short linguistic and cultural training courses, mainly in other Asian countries. Some may dispute whether these programs fall into the same category as regular foreign study courses, but the uptick in participation suggests that economic reasons are a major factor in the overall decline in long-term foreign study.

Another factor is a conflict with job hunting. Japanese companies prefer hiring new graduates, and economic factors may affect when firms release recruiting information and begin selecting candidates, influencing students’ academic situations. The ideal time for foreign study is thought to be during the third or fourth year with the aim of accumulating knowledge in a specialist field. This, however, is the same time that students begin job hunting, which discourages them from taking up overseas study opportunities. From the 2018 academic year (April 2018 to March 2019), companies will release recruitment materials starting from March of students’ third year, opening a window for foreign study. However, as some companies post information early or have internship programs during summer vacation in the third year, the clash between study abroad and employment prospects remains.

Linguistic anxiety is another obstacle. Despite spending years learning English at school and enduring grueling language exams, many students feel anxiety about their linguistic ability. They are not confident about taking regular courses for credit or even getting by in everyday life in a foreign country. As they have no practical experience of using English, they worry about applying their ability, regardless of their test scores.

The fourth and final issue is the latent belief among educators that studying abroad is only for elite students. Under this anachronistic thinking, overseas study is a special privilege that is only for exceptional students taking credit programs at four-year universities. The more of these educators there are, the more likely study abroad numbers will fail to increase despite many young people wishing to take the opportunity to study overseas. This problem may be the hardest of the four to solve.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Although obstacles like young people’s concerns over communicating in a foreign language and adjusting to another culture stand in the way, study abroad is the most efficient and effective way for Japanese people to become internationally minded, as the country needs. Most Japanese people have never lived abroad and are culturally isolated. While they understand the idea of other cultures, they have not personally felt the difficulty of communicating with someone from a different background. Given the globalization of the economy and Japan’s aging society, Japan may inadvertently become multicultural through needing to adopt policies encouraging immigration. The greater the scale and speed such change takes place, the more difficult adjustment will be. There might be a day soon when Japanese find themselves falling behind culturally even in their own country, making it all the more vital that Japanese students learn to function in a diverse society if they hope to take the lead in the coming age. Now is the time for industry, government, and academia to provide systems to support them.

Expanding the Definition of Study Abroad

Universities have been trying out a range of approaches to meet the diversifying needs of students. Of growing interest are programs for gaining work experience in a multicultural environment. Through regular interactions, students can boost their communication skills and understanding of another culture, creating more internationally minded people to support Japanese society.

At the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, where I work we have added a paid five-month internship program at Disney World in Florida along with new corporate internship programs in Hawaii and Bali lasting six to eight months. We are also pushing forward with programs at US community colleges, which have lower tuition than four-year universities, and offer credit for around 800 kinds of overseas voluntary activities through tie-ups with international education groups. By diversifying opportunities for foreign study and working to keep costs down, the percentage of Meiji students completing overseas study is steadily rising. Many other universities are also applying flexible thinking to create their own programs.

Even so, Japan’s international presence is diminishing as its population shrinks. If young Japanese turn inward they risk being written off by the rest of the world as cultural recluses. Now is the time to give Japan’s students an international outlook through study abroad.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 11, 2018. Banner photo: Japanese students after the orientation for a Disney internship. Courtesy School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University.)

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