Small Numbers but Steady Growth of US Students in Japan


This is the second in a two part report on the current state of student flows between the US and Japan; focusing on American students abroad and the role of student exchange the US-Japan relationship.

American Students in Japan. Source: IIE; Ministry of Justice, Japan Government. (Click to Enlarge)

In contrast with the dwindling number of Japanese exchange students, as covered in part 1 of this series, more Americans studied in Japan in 2009 than ever before; 5,784 contributed to a steady upward trend. The number of US students in Japan has increased 57% over the course of the decade. According to Japan’s immigration data on incoming foreign students, more student visas are granted to Americans than any other non-Asian country. The US is 4th overall after China, Taiwan, and South Korea. The true number of US students is likely even higher, due to US students on summer semester or other short-term programs who do not need to apply for a student visa.

While some Japanese students fear going overseas as a hindrance to securing a job, in the United States study abroad has been heavily encouraged as value-added to any student’s resume as globalization has taken hold. In the 2008/2009 academic year, 260,327 American students studied abroad for college credit, according to the 2010 Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education. This was a slight drop of 0.8% in the total number of US students abroad, the first time in the 25 years since the data has been recorded. However, the decrease was modest considering the economic unrest of the last few years and does not diminish the exponential rise in US study abroad participants since the 1980s.

Japan’s popularity among American youth has puzzled some commentators. After all, the upward trend in American students studying Japanese and traveling to Japan has run counter to Japan’s economic and political fortunes in the past few decades. One driving factor may be the increased reach of Japanese “soft power,” as greater exposure to Japan’s popular culture has sparked interest in a new generation of American students. At a panel discussion as part of the US-Japan Institute’s USJI Week, several undergraduate students in attendance from Georgetown University cited an interest in anime and manga (Japanese animation and graphic novels, respectively) as a common impetus for studying Japanese language and culture more broadly.

An Eye-toward the Future

Tokyo's Waseda University hosts the largest number of foreign students in Japan. Image Source: Kure, Wikimedia Commons

While it is impossible to predict how US-Japan student exchange flows will change in the years to come, there are some indications of positive future growth. Renewed emphasis on study abroad in Japan’s universities along with the preponderance of English as the lingua franca of global business may encourage more Japanese students to take the plunge and study in the U.S. Meanwhile, growing interest in Japanese culture and enrollment in Japanese language courses can help lower the cultural/linguistic barriers that keep American students from studying beyond North America or Western Europe. The popularity of all things Japanese among a growing segment of American youth shows no signs of slowing and, as such, the rising trend of American students studying in Japan is likely to continue.

This is a good sign for the future of the US-Japan relationship. Student exchanges are an important element of cross border relationships, which are strengthened and enriched by person-to-person interactions. Study abroad experiences forge long-term relationships in politics, business, and education, and the US-Japan relationship has benefited from these linkages, not only in the contribution these students make to their host economy, but in the friendships and understanding they create.