Japan sends fewer higher education students to the UK than Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, South Korea or Malaysia – a remarkable fact given that it has a much larger population than these East Asian neighbours and it is at least as wealthy.
And for every Japanese student in the UK, there are more than 26 from China, according to Higher Education Statistics Authority data for 2012-13.
This was the backdrop to a summit of UK and Japanese university leaders at University College London earlier this month, attended by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Mr Abe told delegates that for Japanese universities the “promotion of globalisation is an urgent challenge”.
Speaking through an interpreter, the prime minister explained that his national growth strategy involves increasing Japan’s “global human resources” – something that would be “strongly” boosted by increasing the number of Japanese students and young scholars abroad.
It is also pushing Japanese universities to accept more foreign students and scholars, he added.
Addressing Mr Abe, Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, noted a significant decline in the number of young Japanese studying abroad in the past decade (although some reports suggest that this trend may have reversed).
One reason for the drop, Professor Hamilton suggested, was that Japanese companies may have failed to emphasise the importance of overseas experience for graduates’ future career opportunities.
Anthony Smith, UCL’s vice-provost for education, pointed out that although “current flows between our two countries are relatively low” there were still more students from Japan in the UK than the other way around.
While the “obvious” barrier is that of language, Professor Smith said, UK universities are now providing better Japanese language tuition and Japanese institutions are delivering more programmes in English.
There had been “a lot of enthusiasm” for “taster sessions” that allow UK and Japanese students to study overseas for less than a year – possibly during the summer, he added.
Responding to the comments by university heads, Mr Abe was enthusiastic about undergraduate exchange, but explained that Japanese postdoctoral students might find study abroad difficult because the time spent overseas could impede their transition to a job in a Japanese company.