Japanese Exchange Students: A Vanishing Species?


This is the first in a two part report on the current state of student flows between the US and Japan; focusing on Japanese exchange students and their falling numbers.

Japanese Students Enrolled at US Colleges and Universities 1996-2010. Source: IIE (Click to Enlarge)

Nearly 5,800 Americans studied in Japan in the 2008/2009 academic year, the highest number ever, according to the 2010 Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education. The number is 1.3% greater than the previous year, continuing an upward trend. Even with this increase, the number of Japanese students in the US is still four times greater at 24,842 students. However it is the fact that this marks a sharp decrease of 17.8% from the previous year that is garnering the most attention.

The diminishing numbers have less to say about the US-Japan relationship than about Japan itself. According to a recent report (in Japanese) from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) the United State still remains the most popular destination for Japanese students abroad. Therefore it is important to look at this information in a broader context.

It is not just the United States that is noticing a lack of Japanese students on campus; the trend here tracks with a sharp reduction in Japanese students studying abroad overall since a high in 2003. This drop off in students has sparked debate among scholars and policy makers on both sides of the Pacific, with responses ranging from alarm to acquiescence.

Some see this drop in students as a sign of normalization. At a panel discussion as part of the US-Japan Institute’s USJI Week, Takeo Mori, Minister for Economic Affairs at the US Embassy of Japan, commented that the drop off makes sense and that the proportion of Japanese students abroad is on par with other mature states such as France and Germany. A 2010 report on the changes in human flows between the U.S. and Japan by Mizuki Yamanaka points to the near parity in standard of living and educational conditions between the United States and Japan, suggesting that Japanese students can have as good of an educational experience at home without the trouble of a foreign language or higher rates of crime.

The Japan Club at Michigan State University is comprised of both local students and international students from Japan. While the number of international students at MSU has risen consistently over the past decade, the number of Japanese students in 2011 decreased nearly 50% to around 100. Photo by: MSU Japan Club

Others suggest socio-demographic changes in Japan are behind the reduced numbers. It is reasonable to conclude that a nation facing a crisis of a shrinking youth population such as Japan would simply have fewer students to send abroad; and this certainly could account for a portion of it. However, this fails to take into account the fact that South Korea, while also facing the challenge of a low-birth rate, has increased the number of students to the US by 37% in the past decade, becoming the third largest contributor of international students to American colleges. Commentators have begun blaming a more introverted and cautious mood among the current generation of Japanese students that has come of age during the dual “lost decades.”

A third reason may lie in a lack of jobs. Like their American counterparts, the threat of unemployment looms large for today’s Japanese students after graduation. But unlike in the US, where experience abroad has been encouraged as value added and a way to get a leg-up on the competition, traditionally this has not been so in Japan. According to a Japan Times editorial, students who study abroad and hope to find work back in Japan after graduation might be at a disadvantage in the rigid post-graduation hiring process. For instance, if they return from a foreign institution at the end of the school year May, they will have missed the brief window in March when Japanese firms hire new graduates. Moreover, Japanese employers appear to place more value on a degree from a prestigious Japanese University and socialization in the domestic system than the experience gained abroad. With a record 33% of this year’s graduating class without a job lined up in the Spring, it is logical that students are unwilling to take any chances.

However there are signs of that this sentiment among Japanese companies is changing. In a recent article in the New York Times, Miki Tanikawa reported that leading employers are increasingly seeking applicants with global experience as they turn their focus to international markets. Hitomi Okazaki of Japan’s top career search website said that “many [students] were caught off guard… when corporations began asking for ‘globally oriented talent’. Companies began saying that very recently, just this past year or so.” While it may be too late for this year’s graduates, it is possible that between the evolving demands of the job market and encouragement from Japan’s academic institutions, the number of Japanese students abroad could see a rebound in the near future.