Why it's sayonara, Japan

November 6, 1998

Trisha Walker looks at why more and more Japanese students are choosing to study abroad

Although the Japanese have been going abroad to study since the first century AD, it is only since the mid-1980s that significant numbers of them have chosen to do so, primarily to the United States.

American dominance of the Japanese market persists, but it is weakening, with fears about safety and racism on US campuses making Britain the preferred alternative for nearly 3,000 Japanese at the last count. These include growing numbers enrolled on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in addition to the traditional year abroad or short course.

More mature students are also in evidence and women are beginning to dominate as increasing numbers use study abroad to prepare for professional careers and escape the stifling conformity of much of Japanese society.

Historically, there has been a noticeable asymmetry between the import and export of students, which has led to some criticism of Japan as an exploiter of other countries' education systems. Until recently Japan has shown little inclination to make her long-established and well-financed system of education accessible to foreigners. But now the country has set itself the target of welcoming 100,000 foreign students by 2000. This is an ambitious project since there were only 10,428 of them in 1983.

Japan is second only to China in numbers of students studying abroad, but she is rapidly moving up the ranks of leading host nations. The country is the sixth most popular destination in the world for overseas students.

Whether the composition of the student body can be widened to include Europeans and Americans remains to be seen. Some 91.5 per cent of the foreign students in Japan are from Asian countries, predominantly China, South Korea and Taiwan.

The internationalisation of the campus is a firmly held aspiration in Japan. Many universities are eager to forge links with higher education institutions overseas, especially in the English-speaking world, to improve their curricular offerings and their chances of winning a greater share of the shrinking pool of domestic students.

Ironically, since the market for higher education is increasingly a buyer's one, Japanese consumers are returning a verdict on the home-grown product by going abroad in ever greater numbers. Some 60,000 of them studied overseas in 1995. An examination of the factors propelling these students abroad tells us as much about Japan as the foreign alternative.

The majority of Japanese want to study in English. Some 47,370 of 59,468 in 1993-94 went to English-speaking countries, predominantly the US. But by the following year, the rate of increase to the US had slowed for the first time, whereas Britain's numbers of Japanese have been rising annually since 1981.

The Japanese consumer buys designer label and the UK still has an aura of quality. This cachet is enjoyed by British educational institutions by extension. There is evidence that serious students are coming to Britain with long-term educational objectives and not simply to take "time out" from Japanese universities.

The power of the yen against sterling made British education an affordable option for growing numbers of Japanese. It used to be cheaper to pay for an education in almost any British city than in Tokyo. The effects of the economic crisis in Southeast Asia are as yet unknown. But it is a matter of fact that the Japanese (in common with most Asians) see education as an investment for which they have customarily paid and are prepared to continue so doing.

The fact that many British universities offer foundation courses during which students can acculturate and orient themselves to British higher education is an added attraction. While fear of the unacceptability of foreign qualifications, long a disincentive to study abroad, is now much less of an issue in Japan.

Paradoxically, as foreign destinations have become more attractive, domestic institutions have become less so. Parents, as well as the young, are beginning to reject the "examination hell" and the lottery of university entrance exams, "a game of Trivial Pursuit writ large" according to the Economist. Failure to obtain a place at a Japanese university after two, three or more years of trying, is a strong incentive to study abroad.

Universities in Japan suffer too from not being comprehensive. Student inquiries to the British Council in Tokyo reveal an interest in curricula choice and level unavailable inside the country. And they have an image problem: universities are seen as cocoons providing respite from the privations of high schools and the demands of companies. Students are increasingly renouncing this sedentary role in favour of a challenging educational experience outside the country.

Women in this traditional society have felt the impact of the recent recession more acutely. Growing numbers of them are going abroad to enjoy the opportunities denied them at home.

Young Japanese are conscious of the need to be more pro-active on the world stage and to repair Japan's image as a xenophobic nation. There is also a growing reaction against what has been described as the country's empty materialism, and a desire to acquire alternative value systems.

Although the number of Japanese overseas students is small, their swelling ranks are sending a strong message to the education ministry. In an age of recession, critics ask, why should the country support, and Japanese youth want, a university experience in which education is absent?

Tricia Walker teaches at the international English language service office at Oxford Brookes University.

Japan reform, page 16

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