Japan struggles to keep up as China woos international students


Japan’s efforts to increase the number of international students coming to its shores are being dwarfed by similar initiatives in neighboring China. Lofty goals such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to attract 300,000 foreign students by 2020 appear to be struggling to gain traction.

While few, if any, nations can compete with the deluge of financial investment and hordes of students China has fed into the global education system since the early 1980s, the Asian giant’s strategies and ambitious approach can offer pointers to Japan about what more it could be doing to catch up.

While China now hosts 8 percent of the world’s 4.3 million international students, it accounted for less than 2 percent just a decade ago, according to the Institute Of International Education (IIE). During this time, Japan has remained fairly constant with a 3 percent market share. Globally, China has become the third most popular destination for higher education after the United States and United Kingdom, with an international student body that has been growing by 10 percent annually. Meanwhile, Japan has fallen from sixth to eighth place in the rankings, trailing France, Germany, Australia and Canada.

Of course, Japan’s booming economy was once the main draw for international students coming to Japan. Now, China is benefiting from the same phenomenon.

“In the 1980s, when everybody was studying Japanese, it looked like America’s future was going to be tied to Japan’s economy, but now that’s not the case,” says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the IIE. “America’s future is now tied to the Chinese economy, as will the economies of many other countries.”

At Dartmouth College, for example, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, while first-year enrollments to study Japanese were slightly higher than those for Chinese in the late 1990s, Chinese enrollments are now two to three times those for Japanese.

So who still comes to study in Japan?

“When the downturn of the Japanese economy sank in, the enrollments were really supported by the anime, manga, J-pop crowd,” explains James Dorsey, chair of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth, where 65 percent of undergraduates participate in study-abroad programs. “Any student who matriculates at Dartmouth today has grown up playing ‘Pokemon.’ I call them the Pokemon generation.”

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has pledged to invest $500 million over a 20-year period in its Cool Japan global PR campaign, partly with this demographic in mind. Connie Zhang, a student from Beijing studying business and commerce at Keio University in Tokyo, fits this characterization.

“I was interested in Japanese culture, drama, movies, fashion, food and idols,” she says. Her family, however, wanted her to study in the U.S. because she had been studying compulsory English since primary school.

Some have criticized Japan’s higher-education sector for its narrow international focus, arguing it has undergone an “Asianization” rather than internationalization. Of the 135,000 international students in Japan, 90 percent come from Asia. Chinese represent 60 percent of the total, South Koreans 11 percent, followed by Vietnam with 5 percent and Taiwan with 4 percent, according to the Japan Student Services Organization.

Meanwhile, China has a more diverse international student body. According to the China Scholarship Council, of the 300,000 international students in China, 21 percent hail from South Korea, with 8 percent from the U.S., 6 percent from Japan, 5 percent each from Thailand, Vietnam and Russia, and 4 percent from India. That total is likely to top 500,000 within the next two to three years, believes IIE President Allan E. Goodman.

A commonly cited obstacle to studying in Japan is the predominance of classes conducted in Japanese. Because of language similarities, this is a less intimidating hurdle for students from Northeast Asia.

“Chinese students that have a Chinese-language background tend to have less difficulty mastering Japanese,” says Yukiko Shimmi, assistant professor and international education adviser at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Law in Tokyo. “Also for Korean students, their grammatical similarity helps them study in Japanese.”

On the other hand, says IIE’s Blumenthal, “China’s great success in attracting international students has come from offering full degrees in English.” But, she adds, “Many students from Korea and Japan and other parts of Asia are studying in China, and studying in Chinese, to prepare themselves for careers that will be linked to China’s booming economy.” Learning the Japanese language no longer holds such promise.

Another consideration is the classroom learning style. Students from within Asia “are willing to accept the Japanese style of teaching in traditional huge lectures where a professor is lecturing and reading,” says Blumenthal. “It’s different from the American style of education requiring students to challenge the professor.” And though many universities in China still teach in the traditional way, more Chinese professors are studying abroad and then incorporating more Western styles of instruction into their teaching upon their return.

A decade ago, inspired by venerable cultural organizations such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise and Goethe-Institut, China began subsidizing Mandarin language and Chinese culture study through the establishment of Confucius Institutes at partner universities and Confucius Classrooms at primary and secondary schools. There are now over 1,000 such programs globally, including at top-ranked universities like Stanford in the U.S., the London School of Economics, the University of Melbourne, Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Waseda here in Japan.

“The Japanese have not really stepped up and said, ‘We are going to subsidize it,’ ” says Blumenthal, referring to Japanese language study. “It’s hard for schools to decide to keep on offering Japanese when the Chinese government is offering to pay for Chinese. . . . To be realistic, the Japanese will have to subsidize it.”

As a further incentive for foreign students to study in China, Chinese universities are forging partnerships with globally renowned universities. Students can enroll in the MBA programs of Tsinghua University or Fudan University and graduate with a degree from the host school and a course certificate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, for example. These programs are taught entirely in English and in the American style.

Another route for international students and Chinese nationals alike is to matriculate at the branch campus of a Western university in China, such as New York University in Shanghai, the soon-to-be-opened Duke University site in Kunshan, or the University of Nottingham campus in Ningbo.

“Although this recently became one of the trends, it is still considered a peripheral issue,” says Hitotsubashi’s Shimmi. “So the challenge is how to make these issues part of the central mission.”

Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University Japan, the Tokyo campus of the university based in Philadelphia, recalls that there were about 40 foreign U.S. institutions with Japan campuses in the 1980s. Most closed, he says, “because of two basic factors: faulty business plans and no real sense of mission. Their business plans really depended upon continued funding from the Japanese side, and that dried up over time in the post-bubble era. They never really designed their programs to be self-sustaining with study abroad and domestic students.

“The other thing is that although there was an attraction to developing programs in the leading country in Asia and the second leading economy in the world, few had any real sense of mission — and here’s the important part — a real sense of commitment on the home campus,” Stronach says.

China is also investing heavily in scholarships for incoming students. According to Blumenthal of the IIE, 50,000 scholarships are available annually through the China Scholarship Council, a nonprofit institution affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. In tandem with Beijing, the U.S. is promoting the use of these scholarships by American students. In 2009, President Barack Obama announced the 100,000 Strong China initiative to increase the number of U.S. students studying in the Asian country. The Chinese government offered an initial 10,000 Bridge Scholarships just to get the program started.

Meanwhile, the already low and decreasing number of Japanese students venturing abroad for study may influence the low numbers of international students coming in, as the former act as ambassadors for Japan overseas. Between 2006 and 2010, Japan’s outgoing numbers have fallen 10 percent annually, dropping to 40,000 in 2010. Though data is not available for the years since, it is believed that the numbers have continued to fall.

In contrast, China — with an overall population 10 times that of Japan — sent 340,000 students abroad in 2011, and the number is growing, a trend that is unlikely to end anytime soon considering the aspirations of the burgeoning Chinese middle class.

To be sure, Japan is making greater efforts to send more of its students overseas on scholarships, through initiatives such the Ministry of Education’s Tobitate! Japan project, established last year. And Kyoko Shibata of the ministry’s Higher Education Bureau says efforts are being made to introduce joint degree programs and increase the number of courses taught in English.

However, alarmed by the reduced flow of students to and from Japan, the United States-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange convened a task force last year that came up with a comprehensive 33-page document outlining specific recommendations to be put into place to halt the rot.

“The problem is that some of this will not be done and will be talked about for years,” says Blumenthal, one of the experts who advised the committee. “And, if these things don’t happen, it will be very hard for Japan to change the numbers.”

Whether projects like the recently announced Super Global Universities project, which will subsidize 37 universities’ efforts to internationalize, will make a difference remains to be seen. If all goes according to Abe’s plan, Japan will have 10 universities within the list of 100 top-ranked higher education institutions within a decade. Conversely, the worst-case scenario is that a lack of investment and initiative will leave Japanese universities lagging behind their up-and-coming competitors in emerging countries such as China.

Regardless, Japan will be forced to shift its focus and cast its net wider because incoming student numbers from China are falling, Blumenthal says, amid a “diplomatic and strategic struggle” between the two countries over issues of territory and history.

“With over 60 percent of Japan’s international students from China . . . Japan will be hard-pushed to have their total international numbers double when the largest sending country is becoming reluctant to send,” Blumenthal warns.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Steve Jackman

    The question Japan needs to ask itself is, why would foreign students be attracted to study in Japan? I think there should be no mystery as to why foreign students are not interested in coming to Japan, since it is mainly for the following two reasons:

    1) If foreign students decide to stay in Japan after graduation, they will be marginalized in their daily lives and at work. They will face racism, prejudice and discrimination in housing and employment, and will never be allowed to integrate into Japanese society. They will forever be thought of as outsiders by the Japanese. At work, they will be treated as second-class disposable workers with little career development or advancement opportunities and will have no job security. They will likely be bullied and mistreated by their Japanese employers, since the employers know that foreign workers have no recourse against them. Employers will ignore and violate labor laws, since they know that the MHLW and the corrupt Japanese judicial system will always side with Japanese employers and against foreign workers. On top of all of this, Japanese salaries are not competitive with other developed countries, especially given the high cost of living here.

    2) If foreign students decide to return home or go to a third country after graduation, they will find that most of what they have learned at Japanese universities and any skills they may have picked up here are of limited use outside of Japan. Japanese universities and companies operate in uniquely Japanese ways and have not globalized at all. The teaching methods used in Japan and the ways of doing business here are rightly likened to Galapagos, since they are so different from global norms. What makes someone succeed at a Japanese university or at a Japanese company is often the total opposite of what it takes to succeed globally, so the skills learned in Japan are not transferable to a place of employment outside of Japan.

    Studying in a foreign country is a huge investment of time and money by foreign students and they often do a careful cost-benefit analysis in choosing the foreign country they want to study in. Japan is increasingly losing out to other countries in this analysis and the reasons for this should be obvious.

    • phu

      “Limited use” is an extremely generous portrayal of the skills international students stand to gain from living in Japan.

      I believe experiencing any foreign culture for an extended period of time is valuable for personal development, but as far as places to do so with an eye to future prospects of any sort, Japan is not currently a rational choice.

    • Gordon Graham

      I see you’re not very familiar with China.

    • MéliMélo

      I slightly agree except for the fully integrating party, because you’ll remain a foreigner in China too.

    • Lộc Luyến Hàm Teo

      I’m kinda lost here. Is Japanese really racist?

    • Enkidu

      If foreign students decide to stay in Japan after graduation, they will be marginalized in their daily lives and at work.

      Your use of “will” is incorrect. I see former foreign students buck your assertion every day; I’ve even hired some of them.

      They will likely be bullied and mistreated by their Japanese employers,
      since the employers know that foreign workers have no recourse against

      Your use of “no recourse” is incorrect–foreign workers do have recourse. (Have you ever tried to terminate one of them?)

      Employers will ignore and violate labor laws, since they know that
      the MHLW and the corrupt Japanese judicial system will always side with
      Japanese employers and against foreign workers.

      Your use of “will ignore and violate” and “will always side with Japanese employers” is incorrect. Many employers don’t ignore and violate labor laws, and the MHLW and judicial system are more than happy to side with employees (including foreign ones).

    • Steve Jackman

      Given some of the abuse, personal attacks and negative reaction I’ve been getting to my comment by a handful of the regular posters to this site, I think the article by Martin Fackler just published in The New York Times is very timely and makes for good reading.

      The article talks about the increasingly aggressive nature of Japanese right-wing internet activists and their online movement to stop what they see as negative portrayals of Japan in the media. I highly recommend reading the article, since I think it also applies here. It is titled, “Japanese Village Grappling With Wartime Sins Comes Under Attack” (dated: Oct 28, 2014) and is available on the New York Times website.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    I love Japan but sadly, as this article demonstrates, it is in terminal decline, has no plan for addressing the decline and is becoming irrelevant.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    I love Japan but sadly, as this article demonstrates, it is in terminal decline, has no plan for addressing the decline and is becoming irrelevant.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Japan is doomed with Meiji Oligarchy wannabe’s like Abe and Aso.

    Japan’s strength is indeed cultural, and it used to have a huge pull in China, before the ultranationalists tried to steal the Diaoyu/Senkakus.

    Japan had the potential to be not only a major economic engine in China, but also a major cultural presence, which would have given her many advantages. It’s hard to see how that can be recovered at this point, absent a 180 degree reversal on the Diaoyu/Senkakus.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Look at that photo!

    People interested in manga coming to Kyoto do such poses…and they’re from Dartmouth!

    America, too, is doomed!!!

  • tiger

    I would still love to go to japan for studies – once I don’t need to study and have lots of free time and money.

  • rossdorn

    Of course it depends on what you want to study. Flower arrangement, shoba making and child porn are best studied in Japan….
    But, any subject that concerns the real world will make any thinking person choose China, of course. China is going to be the biggest economic power in a few years, while Japan….
    What sense does it make to learn a ridiculous language like japanese, that no one speaks, while Chinese will gain more and more usefulness, as already one third of consumers worldwide speak it, and the biggest corporations of the world will be chinese soon.

    Japan cannot separate itself from the USA. In any conflict for Super Power Status the US will sacrifice Japan in any war with China immediately. Everybody, and most certainly the chinese know, that there are stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Japan and the chinese would be idiots to not take them out at first sign of war….

    The people of Japan simply are not able to elect rulers that govern in their interest. That is a bad habit in most democracies, in Japan it is going to be deadly in the end.
    Japan is an obscure place at the end of the world, nice to visit, but study? How long did Japan think, it can get away with what it does, and still make people believe there is any future here?

  • Gordon Graham

    If you think the Japanese don’t speak English well, then you haven’t been to China.

  • Lawrence B Goodman

    Great article focusing on international education competition. I am disturbed by the US losing its education leadership after being number one for so many years.

  • itoshima2012

    The article is actually rather good, not balanced, but ok I would say. The racist slur from most in the comment section is just disgusting and a good example of their ignorance, especially Mr jackman, can’t get more racist than that!

  • zer0_0zor0

    What exactly do you mean by “international culture”?

  • KenjiAd

    I’m a Japanese national living in China. I work as a part-time teacher at a Chinese university, so I can offer some insight into the discussion.

    The major reason why Chinese universities have more international students than Japanese universities, I think, is a financial one. For the students from developing countries, Japan is still a very expensive place to live and study. China is not.

    Also the title of this article is a bit misleading. A large fraction of international students in China are from African countries with which China historically has a strong tie. Japan simply isn’t a destination for the students from these countries.

    • Elena Caselli

      Even for Southern European, because of the financial crisis, Japan is really expensive sadly! I can’t afford ATM to pay 10mila+ euro to study there and I didn’t find any convention even if I am studying Japanese at University. I am saving up but that’s quite frustrating.

    • Steve Jackman

      The article points out that at Dartmouth, enrollments to study Chinese are 2-3 times higher than Japanese now, whereas, in the 1990’s student enrollments to study Japanese were higher than Chinese. I wasn’t aware that Chinese language courses at Dartmouth are cheaper than Japanese language courses. As always, nice attempt to put a spin on the news, though.

    • Gordon Graham

      I’m curious to know how many foreign students in China have Chinese surnames.

    • itoshima2012

      China needs to catch up and needs “friends” and “buddies” in resource rich countries, so for them it’s a good economical and geopolitical investment, they obviously don’t do it out of pure love of the foreigner….

  • Elena Caselli

    I am saving up in order to study in Japan for 6-12 months after my bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages applied to Law and Economics but I think the same it is way too expensive.

    In my personal case, here where I live, in Milan, Italy, there are no conventions with University, you have to pay everything in Japan even if you’re have a degree in Asian Languages/Foreign Languages and so on: flight, rent, food, transport, medical assurance and so on.
    If you’re lucky you can go to a host family but it’s not very common in Japan (in other countries it’s way easier!) and save up a little, but not that much.
    Also, there are very few cultural exchanges with Japanese Universities, and they are always paid by the student. The only project where you don’t have to pay a lot is for Engineering Students, but for us that we study Japanese language and culture there’s NOTHING.

    The cousin of a friend of mine got her Master Degree in Languages and Communication in Business with Japanese and English as curricular languages, she also got JLPT N2, but she didn’t find any convention which could allow her to save up some money to study in Japan. The Japanese professor and the University suggested her to take a Doctorate in Japan, but payed entirely by her, for the price of 12.000 EURO + rent + food + flight… is this normal? Japan sadly is only for rich people, except some lucky case.

    (Sorry for my bad English!)

  • Elazar Goldstein

    I wouldn’t visit Japan even if the Abe lowers the value of the Yen. Oh wait a minute the clown keeps on doing that. So see I am not visiting.

  • Dave Jones

    Actually there are many great reasons for students to come and study in Japan (and live and work here following their formal education), not just in absolute terms but also relative to China. Try comparing quality of life: air pollution, quality of food and food safety, transportation/efficiency, a culture of respect, a collaborative approach rather than one of constant arguing… It is fair to say that for a foreigner, having a career in Japan at a Japanese company isn’t always straightforward, but life is not just work and for all the non-work aspects Japan can be a much more enriching place to live. And it’s not just manga, but rather a sophisticated and deep culture that respects its past and is much more attuned to its core than China which in many respects is laser-focused on “get rich at all costs”

  • Gordon Graham

    This “article” is tantamount to panhandling. I suspect Tera Clavel is looking for a kickback from Peggy Blumenthal who is clearly lobbying for subsidies from the Japanese, “Japan will be forced to cast its net wider because incoming student numbers are falling…amid diplomatic and strategic struggle between the two countries over issues of territory and history.” As if these “struggles” just cropped up yesterday! By “casting a wider net” it’s clear she means…send more money to American universities!

  • Gordon Graham

    I assumed the cost of living is a big factor, as is the fact that international students can study exclusively in English (kind of like eating at McDonalds and Subway when you go to Kyoto). I understand that China has a lot invested in oil rich countries in Africa which makes the influx of African students predictable. What I’m curious to know is what percentage of those international students constitutes Americans or Europeans with Chinese heritage.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Numerous errors of fact in the article. “Huge lectures” are very common in the US even at expensive private universities. You might get to challenge a teaching assistant, but not the professor. A number of American universities have been backing away from the Confucious Institutes because of concerns that the selection of faculty is political and not under the control of the host university. It’s far from obvious why any student would go to either China or Japan for a degree program taught entirely in English except possibly in science or medicine. Would anyone go to Spain, Italy, France, or Germany for an undergraduate degree taught entirely in English? More international students is not necessarily a “good thing.” The US hosted hoards of students from Iran. What did it get out of this? Students who study science and engineering subjects often return to their host countries with technology that ultimately results in job loss for the host country. Why should taxpayers in a host country pay to educate scientists and engineers for their foreign competition?