Troubling Trends: More Japanese Students Opting out of Studying Abroad

The Washington Post reported Sunday on a “sustained and potentially harmful decline for an export-dependent nation that is losing global market share to its highly competitive Asian neighbors, whose students are stampeding into American schools.” This decline in Japanese students in American higher education has fallen by 52% at the undergraduate and 27% at the graduate level since 2000, the Post notes. But why the decrease? In last Thursday’s Japan Times Online, Glen S. Fukushima, president and CEO of Airbus Japan, cited several reasons. He argues that many young Japanese simply have a slighter interest in studying abroad compared to the generation before them, and that this same generation holds the general belief that technological developments make study abroad unnecessary. Furthermore, Fukushima posits that many organizations and companies lack the financial resources to send constituents abroad or have “consciously decided not to send their employees to study abroad, especially to MBA programs at business schools.”

The final reason to which Fukushima attributes this decline is the increasing competition from other Asian countries. This sentiment echoes Blaine Harden’s observation in the Washington Post. Harden offers a few more hard numbers: “Total enrollment from China is up 164 percent in the past decade; from India, it has jumped 190 percent. South Korea has about 76 million fewer people than Japan, but it now sends 2 1/2 times as many students to U.S. colleges.” Fukushima’s anecdotal numbers reinforce the larger statistics: “During a visit to Japan in March, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust disclosed that in the 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, the number of Chinese students at Harvard had increased from 227 to 463, and the number of South Korean students had increased from 183 to 315. By contrast, the number of Japanese students had declined from 151 to 101. There were only five Japanese undergraduates enrolled at Harvard, and only one in the current freshman class.”

There are also cultural forces at play in the decline in Japanese enrollment numbers, Harden implies, as the students who step out of the hierarchy of the Japanese corporate system to attend school in the U.S. don’t necessarily return to the same rung on the ladder.

Fukushima provides a few imperatives if this trend is to be reversed:

First, the Democratic Party of Japan leadership should explicitly encourage young Japanese to study abroad. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (Stanford), Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada (Harvard) and National Strategy Office Secretary General Motohisa Furukawa (Columbia) are among the DPJ leaders who have benefited from their study abroad. They should encourage young Japanese to follow their examples. Second, just as Japan has set targets to increase the number of foreign students who study in Japan (300,000 students by 2020), Japan should set targets to increase the number of Japanese students who study abroad. Third, additional funding should be provided to support promising Japanese high school and college students to spend one or two years studying abroad. Finally, schools and companies in Japan should create incentives to stimulate Japanese student to study abroad.

Just last month, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched their “Global 30” initiative, otherwise known as the Project for Establishing Core Universities for Internationalization. There is one major problem with this initiative, however. Its main purpose is to attract 300,000 foreign students to Japan over the next decade. This is a double edged sword. While the project may stimulate a renewed interest among Japanese students going abroad, it also operates under the insular rhetorical question “why go abroad when abroad comes to us?” Only time will tell the answer.

(This story was picked up from NAFSA News.)

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