During the holidays, our students can get extra credits by studying at our sister college in the US. I interview them before they go. They sidle, giggling, into my office and with little eye contact whisper that their goal is to understand others’ world view and talk with foreigners. When I ask them if they have any concerns about going abroad, they reply that foreign food is “high calorie”. Then they bow and shuffle away to pack their Hello Kitty cases with packet miso soup.
A couple of months later, I am accosted in the corridor by large, loud women who throw their arms around me, call me by my first name and gush that their study abroad was “Just awesome!” But “Oh my God, I gained weight - 10kg!” Apart from the excessive tactility, I am happy to see them. In a country with a foreign-born population of less than 2 per cent, having returnee students is one of the few ways to bring foreign influence into the classroom.
Japanese and American class styles are so very different. As returnee students note in their essays: “In Japan, most classes are passive as the teacher is just talking”; “students are allowed to speak when the professor gives permission”; “most students don’t raise their hand during a class even though they didn’t understand”; “some people sleep, check their mobile phones, have a make-up and chat with their friends at class, sadly”.
In Japan’s hierarchical society, education is a given thing to be accepted without question or much enthusiasm. But in the US, our Japanese students gain a different experience of academia. One of them notes: “Students talk a lot in class. If they disagree with something even a teacher says, they say ‘disagree’. Students are assessed by not only going to classes, but by saying opinions and talking. I thought that is [a] very nice way.” Another writes: “It is obvious that more American students work harder than [the] majority [of] Japanese college students. Moreover, almost all…were eager to learn.” And also: “I was surprised at [the] aggressiveness of American students…because most of them have their own opinion and raise their hand and say their opinion without fear.” Or, as one student puts it: “Japanese think before speaking; Americans are the opposite.” Returnees realise that studying at university is a precious experience and that learning is a valuable tool, not something they are forced to do because their parents have paid for it and companies require it on their résumés.
“[The] aggressiveness of American students acted as a good stimulus to me. I decided to act like an American student in Japan,” one student says. To the shock of their peers, returnees raise their hands in class, shout out answers and freely disagree with the lecturers.
It is a pity we can’t ship all English-language students to the US for a compulsory semester, but the number of Japanese studying abroad has dropped from 82,945 in 2004 to 59,923 in 2009. As the former education minister Masaharu Nakagawa has noted, students are increasingly hesitant to go in case they lose job opportunities and feel that society (in particular the companies to which they are applying for jobs) may not value their overseas experience.
And it’s not all positive. Soon after their return, administrative staff complain that returnees talk to them as equals without using deferential Japanese while instructing them how things are run better in the US. And cliques form in classes when returnees sit and reminisce in almost fluent English and show photographs of the ultimate study-abroad souvenir, the American boyfriend.