'Galapagos syndrome': Japan's gaze turns inward

Castigated for its timidity, a 'risk-averse' generation shuns study abroad, Michael Fitzpatrick writes

January 27, 2011

Credit: Eddie Gerald/Alamy
Too scared to jump: Japanese children keen to stay at home

The yen has never been mightier and their country never more tied to the global economy, but Japanese students increasingly are turning their backs on studying abroad.

Figures for the UK show that the number of Japanese students has fallen by more than a third in five years, from 6,800 in 2003-04 to 4,505 in 2008-09, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

In a country with a shrinking population - the number of children under 15 has declined for 28 consecutive years - some of the fall can be attributed to demographics, but analysts in Japan see the trend as part of what has been termed "Galapagos syndrome".

Originally said of the country's highly advanced mobile phones that failed to find buyers outside the domestic market, the term is now also applied to a country said to be isolating itself from the rest of the world.

As commentator and blogger Mariko Sanchanta writes: "An official at one of Japan's leading banks recently confided that it was impossible to get young employees to study abroad - fully funded by the bank - or even to do an international stint. They feel like they'll fall behind their peers if they go overseas. 'It's so stupid,' grumbled the official, who came from a generation when Japan's best and brightest were dispatched to (the US) to learn English and gain perspective by living overseas."

The decline in the number of Japanese students in the US is even more pronounced than in the UK. According to the US-based Institute of International Education, the country had 30,000 Japanese students in 2008, approximately 60 per cent of the number studying in the US a decade earlier.

Many in Japan are worried about what the figures mean for its export-driven economy, and there is much soul-searching in the media. This has focused on what such reticence says about the country's young - particularly men, who have been variously labelled as "herbivore males", "grass-eaters" or simply Ojo-man ("girly men").

A study by university researchers for the publisher Benesse on the attitudes of children seems to support some of the speculation. It says that Japan's young are less adventurous than previous generations.

"Children fear that in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor, making a big mistake will prevent them from moving up in the world, which diminishes their ambition," said Kiyoshi Takeuchi, a professor of educational sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Not only are young people more risk-averse, a belief that home is safe (anzen) and abroad dangerous (abunai) is gaining traction.

Meanwhile, books such as the sensationally titled Don't Let Your Daughter Study Abroad (2007), aimed as an antidote to the unrealistic expectations of young Japanese hoping to study English abroad, do little to promote overseas education.

It is one of a number of books that detail the "horrors" of studying abroad. Its author, Mitsuko Takahashi, a coordinator for overseas Japanese students, paints a dark picture of life outside Japan.

Other texts about foreign perils include the Manual for Women Students Regarding Depravity (1995), published by the Research Institute on the Delinquency Problem. It warns Japanese women to avoid men while studying abroad because "they don't have money" and "want a lot of sex".

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