Culture, cost and proximity draw Chinese students to Japan


Ever at the mercy of waxing and waning diplomatic and economic conditions between the two nations, there have been ebbs and flows of Chinese student migration to Japan since the late 1800s. For most of the past decade, around 60 percent of the international students in Japan have come from China. At present, Japan hosts 94,000 Chinese students, meaning they make up just over half of the 184,000 international students in Japan.

But who are these Chinese students? How do they get into Japanese universities, why do they come, and where do they hope to go after they graduate?

According to Gracia Liu-Farrer, a specialist in international education at Waseda University, “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chinese migrants to Japan were mostly economically motivated.” However, with China now having overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, the new generation of Chinese students coming to Japan are more affluent and aspirational. Many are supported financially by their parents and do not require part-time jobs to get by.

“China has been changing so fast, you can see that the students have been changing as well,” says Liu-Farrer. “They have choices. They could go to Europe and they could go to the United States. But many chose to come to Japan because they like the culture and the pop culture. Many of them have a fantasy of Tokyo life.”

This new crop belies the widely held belief that many Chinese students are in Japan to fill enrollment gaps at financially troubled private universities with lower admissions standards. Indeed, even at prestigious national universities such as Hitotsubashi University and Hiroshima University and private Waseda University, Chinese students make up the largest contingent of international students.

Typically, Chinese students begin the migration process by working with one of the hundreds of agencies throughout China that assist students with obtaining study visas, housing and placement at a language school in Japan. Generally, students study at the language school for 1½ to two years to prepare for the Japanese university entrance exam.

Yukiko Shimmi, assistant professor and international education adviser at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, explains that although more than 100 courses at the university are offered in English, no undergraduate program at Hitotsubashi can be completed without submitting at least some coursework in Japanese. This is the case at many other universities too.

Agencies and their associated language schools run the gamut in terms of quality and cost, and top agencies and language schools tout their university placements. “Our students have entered the top 50 universities in Japan, including University of Tokyo, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Chuo University,” boasts the website of Huaqiao, a student agency based in Shanghai that focuses exclusively on bringing Chinese to Japan.

Having to learn Japanese does not seem to act as a deterrent to many of these students, who are pursuing a higher education in their second or third language. These Chinese students are confident, and they have an advantage over many of their other foreign counterparts learning the Japanese language because they can read and understand the meaning of most kanji characters.

At the same time, some Japanese universities, such as Waseda, which also has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, recruit top Chinese students straight from high school. This fall, 10 such students, who will have just graduated from Shanghai’s High School Affiliated to Fudan University, will matriculate at Waseda. Roughly 20 Fudan students applied to the program in November 2014 and 10 were accepted the following month. They were required to submit an essay in English, their academic records and recommendations, before being interviewed.

It seems competition for mainland China’s increasingly global-savvy college-bound population is heating up.

“A lot of the higher education institutions of East Asian countries are competing for the top mainland students. All have targets. Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong are competing,” says Liu-Farrer.

Many of the Chinese students believe they will receive a comparatively higher quality of education in Japan and that this education will be a steppingstone toward graduate study elsewhere before possibly returning to China.

“It is very meaningful to go to Japan to study at university because it is a dual language program — English and Japanese. It’s more meaningful than studying in Chinese university. And there are more community and club activities than in China,” says Yang Yichun, who will attend Waseda this fall directly from the High School Affiliated to Fudan University. Chinese high school graduates possess a solid English foundation because the subject is compulsory starting in grade one of elementary school throughout most of the country.

Chinese students’ motivations for choosing to study in Japan vary a great deal.

“I will study the social sciences and the environment and technology,” says another soon-to-be-freshman at Waseda, Qiau Lin Chi. “The environment in Japan is very good; it has a strict system to sort rubbish. I want to go to Germany to continue the study of the environment. And then after my graduate study, I will work at an energy company in China.”

Hao Mingfei, a 21-year-old from Beijing, is studying engineering at Hokkaido University.

“Most of the students studying engineering attend graduate school, so I will go too,” he says. “Although remaining in Japan is a good option, going to another foreign country to study would be a good experience for me. Especially a country like the U.S. — it leads the work in higher education, and I wouldn’t have to learn another language from zero. After graduate school, I would like to work abroad, in Japan or the U.S.”

Hao is open to the idea of returning to China if he can fully take advantage of his trilingual abilities.

Another major reason Chinese students are attracted to Japan is the affordability of tuition and the scholarship opportunities. Though studying at a U.S. university may be an enticing prospect, average annual tuition for four-year colleges runs between $32,000 (¥3.8 million) for public out-of-state students to $41,000 (¥4.9 million) for private nonprofit schools — the elite Ivy League schools are even more expensive. In Japan, on the other hand, average tuition at national universities is just over ¥535,000 per annum while tuition at private colleges can run up to ¥1.4 million for nonmedical majors.

“Attending university in the U.S. costs a lot more than in Japan,” say Hao. “Since Hokkaido University is one of the national universities, and the tuition is much cheaper than a private university to which I was admitted, I decided to go to Hokkaido University.”

And while his living expenses are being covered by his family, Ye Chuangping, a graduate student at Waseda from Dongguan, Guangdong province, says: “I have some scholarship funding from my undergraduate school — there is an overseas study scholarship. I also receive some scholarship from Waseda.”

Regardless of the academic and economic attractions of a Japanese university education, the initial draw for most Chinese students is the Japanese culture.

“I had the idea to study in Japan during my first year of high school because of the Japanese culture: the TV series and idols. I like Kanjani 8,” says Yang, referring to the Japanese boy band. “They can sing and dance and they give good performances.”

Similarly, Zhang Kangni, a recent graduate of Keio University originally from Beijing and now working in Tokyo at a U.S. finance firm, was attracted to Japan by the culture.

“During my second year in high school, I needed to decide if I wanted to stay in China or go abroad,” she explains. “At that time, I was interested in Japanese drama, movies, fashion, food and idols.”

Aside from the pop culture, Zhen Jiang from Shandong, who is currently studying at Shiga University, appreciates the kindness and mutual respect he has encountered here.

“A man not only needs to master technology but also to learn to be a warm-hearted person,” he says. “In China, I think everyone studies or works hard, but they need more education about how to care for others. For a society, it is very necessary.”

Japan’s proximity to China is another huge plus. Parents are often keen to visit Japan, a country whose popularity among Chinese tourists has soared to record levels. In 2014, 2.4 million Chinese visited Japan, an 83 percent increase on the previous year.

Xu Jiani, a third-year student at Tokyo’s Chuo University from Shanghai, says her parents come to visit her at least twice a year.

And being only-children, the family can remain relatively close while the child also experiences an international education. Zhang says she feels responsible for caring for her parents as they age and thus, despite being a fluent English speaker, going to the U.S. was not an option.

Political tensions between the two nations do not seem to be a major obstacle for these Chinese students, although over 80 percent of the public in both nations have an “unfavorable” impression of the other country, according to a poll conducted last year by Tokyo-based nonprofit Genron, the China Daily and Japan’s Cabinet Office.

“The numbers of Chinese students coming to Japan will increase,” predicts Xu from Shanghai. “Even if you say relations between China and Japan are bad, young people probably don’t think that way. But it depends on where you are from. Where the communist education is strong, there may be those who say they do not like Japan. But in the coastal areas, that kind of anti-Japanese sentiment doesn’t really exist. Around me, I haven’t really heard anyone say they dislike Japan. China is vast.”

Though some aspire to attend graduate school overseas, other Chinese students remain in Japan and go through the corporate hiring process with their Japanese peers.

“I secured a job the same way as the Japanese students,” says Zhang, a recent Keio graduate who now works in finance at the Tokyo office of a U.S. company. However, being female and having graduated at age 25 after spending two years at a Japanese language school, Zhang says that some Japanese companies did not welcome her.

The increased flow of Chinese students to Japan would appear to be a win-win for both countries. As Liu-Farrer explains, the linguistic, cultural and social skills these Chinese students acquire in Japan have increasing economic utility on both sides of the East China Sea. And these Chinese create transnational connections wherever they go, whether they remain in Japan, return to China or, ultimately, work or study elsewhere.

With the number of Japanese studying abroad having dropped sharply over the past decade, maybe the Chinese students here can not only positively influence Japanese views of their neighbors, but also inspire this generation of Japanese to think more globally. In contrast, with the middle class in China growing exponentially, Huang Futao, a professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Higher Education, believes the number of Chinese students studying abroad can only continue to rise.

“If there are no limitations to the number of incoming Chinese students,” says Huang, “I assume there will be more and more Chinese students coming to Japan.”

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Liars N. Fools

    Chinese students also are number one in America, with many fewer Americans in China. The number of Japanese students in China are also few, and there has been a huge decline in Japanese students in America over the last decade.

    What are the consequences of these numbers? Many Chinese stay in America to form a diaspora relationship that deepens ties over the long term. Japan, because of its far more restrictive laws and because a higher degree of ethnic friction, retains far fewer Chinese in Japan.

    Japan can be proud to be so attractive so that many Chinese come. At the same time, Japan can also benefit practically if it can find a way to more effectively exploit the size of this flow of people and minds.

  • Toolonggone

    Maybe it’s better for them to move to Japan for college education, perhaps because they don’t have to spend an extremely stressful time for torturous keju study prep for entrance exam in China.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Where does the 184,000 number come from? The government agency (Japan Student Services Organization) that deals with foreign students gives the figure as 135,000 in its latest data set published 2014.3.25.

    Recent changes in immigration laws and regulations have in fact made it quite easy for foreign graduates of Japanese universities to stay in Japan, much more so than the UK and probably more so than the US. Latest government figures put the number of long term Chinese (PRC) residents in Japan at 644,000. They are far and a way the largest foreign origin national group in Japan, substantially outnumbering the roughly 148,000 long term Koreans not born in Japan.

    Changes (loosening) in Japanese immigration law have been reported repeatedly in the Japan Times.

    The article is wrong in saying “fewer and fewer Japanese students studying abroad.” While the number did in fact decline continually from a peak in the 90s, in the last couple of years the number has started growing again, primarily because of students going to China.

  • David Rojers

    I think they might also be aware that people in China have no idea about the low international ranking of most Japanese universities.