Japan and US Consider Ways to Encourage Students to “Go Away:” Study Abroad Numbers Show Decline in Japanese Students, Too Few Americans


Tokyo University, or Todai, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, made waves recently when a University panel proposed that the school shift its enrollment date to the fall, to correspond with international practice. The proposal’s aim is to further internationalize Todai by removing what the panel named as a major impediment to incoming international students and outgoing study abroad opportunities.

The United States is the largest host nation for students studying abroad in the world, with over 720,000 international students enrolled last year alone. According to the 2011 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the majority of these international students in the US came from the Asia Pacific. This included 21,290 students from Japan, which represents the 7th largest sending nation overall. Japanese students studied at higher education institutions in every state in the union, with California, New York and Washington among the most popular, and some less commonly visited regions, such as Alaska, Vermont, and North Dakota, growing in popularity over the past half-decade.

America is the most popular destination for Japanese students abroad; Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) reported (日本語, in Japanese) that in 2009, 44% studied in the US. Among G20 nations, only Canada narrowly sends a greater share of study abroad students to the United States, according to the 2011 OECD “Education at a Glance” project. Nevertheless, the number of Japanese students in the US has precipitously dropped since the 1990s. While over 21,000 Japanese students in the US is impressive, the number marks a 14% decrease from the year before and a 37% fall from five years ago.

Japanese Students in US by State 2010-2011 and Top 5 Fastest Growing Destinations. Data Source: IIE, Open Doors Report. Image Source: Grace Ruch, the East West Center

Meanwhile, the number of American students studying in Japan reached a new record in the 2009/2010 academic year of 6,166 students, according to IIE figures, which do not include Americans pursuing degrees at foreign institutions. This nearly 7% year-to-year increase continues an upward trend that has rocketed the number up 95% over the past decade. According to Japanese government statistics, the US is the largest sending nation of students to Japan outside of Asia.

While the rate of growth in American students studying in Japan is considerable, actual numbers are still quite small. The number of Japanese students in the US outnumbers their American counterparts in Japan by over 3 to 1. As US Deputy Secretary of Education Anthony Miller remarked recently, while the trend is good, the scale remains “insufficient” given the importance of our bilateral relationship.

Considering Causes and the Search for Solutions

The causes of these downward trends are many and often hotly debated. They include difficulties of studying in a language of instruction that students lack proficiency in (Japanese is not taught in many American primary schools and Japanese students at large have demonstrated low English-language capability), a declining population of school-age Japanese as a result of the country’s low birth rate, and a limited share of American students going abroad for education overall. Japanese students also face a rigid academic and post-graduation recruitment system that puts study abroad participants at risk for missing the traditional narrow hiring window for Japanese firms in the early spring (while most schools overseas are still in-session). And some Japanese feel that education abroad is not rewarded in the Japanese job market (despite business trends beginning to suggest otherwise), especially, as the president of Shiga University proposed in the Japan Times, compared with China and Korea, where an advanced degree from a good US school often translates into choice careers.

Some in Japan have bemoaned a generation of insular Japanese youth. But Japan’s Ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki, disagrees, wryly noting that youth have been accused of being self-absorbed for generations. He says today’s students are more self-aware and only go abroad if it offers a clear advantage. For example, in the early 1990’s, nearly half of the Japanese students enrolled in the US were going to junior colleges as a kind of perfunctory finishing school, says IIE President and CEO Allan Goodman, but today the majority of students are participating in degree programs and graduate study.

The US and Japan, and institutions in both countries, are taking steps to increase the exchange of students. In 2008 the Japanese government launched the Global 30 initiative, with the goal of increasing the number of Japanese students abroad and international students in Japan to 300,000 each by 2020. US officials have been promoting educational exchange as an important element of the US-Japan partnership, largely through existing programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship, and other public-private programs, but also though the new ExchangesConnect community of the US department of State. Secretary Miller explained that to increase the number of American students in Japan, more needs to be done in promoting Japanese language study, flexible programs to allow a larger number or students are participate, and continue to promote the value of skills gained through study abroad experience.

In the private sector, the Japan Business Association, Keidanren, has established a new scholarship program to support Japanese students overseas, and developed a list of guidelines for Japan’s business community to promote international experience among young recruits. The Sony Corporation has been one of the largest firms to take this to heart, announcing in December they will do away with the traditional Spring-only recruitment process, allowing students who study abroad a better chance at the prestigious company.

Ambassador Fujisaki says he appreciates these efforts, explaining that “we need to prepare the ground” for this generation to successfully venture abroad. He was impressed by Todai’s proposal. Tokyo University has since called on other institutions in Japan to act in concert to make study abroad easier. As university president Junichi Hamada told the press following the announcement, “I believe by establishing fall enrollment, Japanese universities can stand on the same ground for the first time with universities overseas. It’s not merely about schedule adjustment. It’s about speeding up the internationalization of [Japanese] universities and society.”