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Society must value overseas study: Nakagawa

by Takahiro Fukada

Staff Writer

Young Japanese shouldn’t be blamed for not studying abroad, but society needs to change so they can attend universities overseas without having to worry about their careers after they return, education minister Masaharu Nakagawa said.

“It is not really the case that young people are losing their drive to go abroad,” the new minister told a group of reporters at his office in Tokyo on Wednesday.

“Everyone is interested and willing to go overseas,” said the 61-year-old minister. Nakagawa is a fifth-term Lower House member elected from the Mie Prefecture No. 2 district.

Youngsters are worried about losing out on job opportunities once they return home, and also about the extent their overseas experience is valued by society, especially corporations and local governments, he said.

Nakagawa studied at Georgetown University in Washington and has also worked for the Japan Foundation, a government-affiliated body that promotes Japanese culture overseas.

Some academics could also lose their positions after they return from overseas, he said.

The number of Japanese university and graduate school students studying abroad has fallen from a peak of 82,945 in 2004 to 66,833 in 2008, education ministry data show.

“Unless we open up our system to the outside world, the whole (system) is going to shrink,” Nakagawa said. “I would definitely like to discuss with business leaders the problems facing such youngsters.”

Under the Global 30 project initiated by the education ministry, Nakagawa said he hopes students will attend undergraduate and graduate courses conducted completely in English so they can enhance their language proficiency and attend classes at overseas universities.

Nakagawa said he has been proposing sending youngsters abroad to teach Japanese to overseas students, which would give them an opportunity to learn about those countries.

Foreigners are currently teaching English at domestic schools through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Nakagawa called his policy proposal a “Reverse JET,” though he did not give any time line or further details.

Regarding Japanese-language education for foreigners living in Japan, Nakagawa said various reforms are making progress, such as allocating teachers, training specialists, and opening websites for instructors and learners to share high quality learning materials.

Nakagawa was a senior vice education minister in the Cabinets of Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan. During those stints he tried to boost the effectiveness of Japanese-language education policies aimed at foreigners.

As for high school tuition waivers, Nakagawa said the Democratic Party of Japan-led government is currently reviewing their effectiveness, as agreed to last month by the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, the largest opposition forces.

But he stressed the waivers have already proved effective in some areas, such as the declining number of dropouts.

“We would like to have discussions between the ruling and opposition parties based on this,” he said.

On the trouble-prone Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which falls under the remit of Nakagawa’s ministry, he said the government will ask specialists to conduct reviews in the near future on the potential risks of the prototype unit being hit by a major earthquake and tsunami, before deciding whether to resume operations.