One March afternoon in Shibuya Ward, a group of high schoolers earnestly listened as students from Harvard University described life on their campus.
“Who is interested in going to school in the U.S.?” one Harvard student asked.
A host of hands shot up in the air.
“Go with the option that opens the most doors for you,” another counseled.
The event in Tokyo was organized by students from Harvard and the University of Tokyo as part of the Harvard College in Asia Program, a short exchange program involving six Asian universities. The idea was for the Harvard students to hold dialogues with the teenagers after visiting tsunami-hit Tohoku.
Thanks to such gatherings and the advent of social media, there are increasing opportunities nowadays for Japanese to explore the option of studying abroad. More and more students are heading overseas, some even turning down invitations to the nation’s top colleges, including the University of Tokyo.
Experts say this is a turnaround from a few years ago, when most tended to shy away from continuing their educations on foreign shores.
“I want to go to a medical school in the future. Since the United States is much more advanced in the field of medical services, I came here to learn more about my chances,” said Yoshie Mizuguchi, a third-year student at Okayama Senior High School who was taking part in the HCAP event for the first time.
Yoko Sudo, who graduated in March from Senzoku Gakuen High School in Kawasaki, attended her maiden HCAP gathering two years ago. By speaking with Harvard students, enrolling at the esteemed university suddenly felt like a realistic option for her, Sudo said.
Her dream came true this spring after she got accepted to both Harvard and the University of Tokyo. Although she began studying at Todai this month, she will transfer to Harvard in the fall to pursue and complete her studies.
“Only 4 or 5 percent of applicants get accepted to Harvard, whereas one-third of applicants can get into Todai. I took the Todai exam as a fallback,” said Sudo. “I think Harvard students have wider perspectives, and I have a feeling that I can pursue interesting studies there.”
The number of Japanese studying abroad has slumped by 30 percent since 2004. According to figures from the government, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other sources, 58,060 students left Japan to study overseas in 2010, compared with 82,945 in 2004.
Although more recent statistics are not available, experts and education industry officials say signs everywhere seem to indicate that more high school students are starting to look abroad to further their education.
Masanori Fujii, head of the high school department at Benesse Corp., an education company that helps students prepare for college entrance exams, said its mock tests usually provide a space for participants to write down their preferred universities.
“Seven years ago, we created space for Ivy League schools in addition to Japanese universities, and, to our surprise, 5 percent of first-year high school students and 3 percent of second-year students nominated Ivy League schools as their first choice,” Fujii said.
Sensing the need to accommodate such students, Benesse in 2008 began a program called Route H to help them get into leading universities overseas. In addition to the usual tutoring, Route H is designed to improve essay writing skills and SAT scores.
In the past three years, nine of the 10 students who “graduated” from Route H got accepted by top U.S. schools, including Harvard, Yale and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
“The downtrend (in studying abroad) seems to have hit bottom and will reverse soon,” Fujii said. “We are receiving so many inquiries about universities overseas from students these days.”
Fujii analyzed the heavy demand for MBAs that mushroomed during the bubble era in the late 1980s. At the time, many elite businessmen, sponsored by their companies, headed to the U.S. to obtain the requisite business degree. Now their children, many of them in high school, are part of a new wave seeking to emulate them.
“The parents know that Todai isn’t the only top choice their kids should pursue,” Fujii noted.
Students are also aware that major changes are shaking up the job market, with Rakuten Inc. and Uniqlo, for instance, trying to make English their official corporate language and many of Japan’s top companies being overtaken by South Korean and Chinese rivals.
“People used to think there was a risk associated with going abroad, a risk of going off the traditional track,” Fujii said. “But now, many students are unable to see a bright future in Japan, and they also see a risk in being educated solely in and staying only in Japan.”
But it’s not just about the job market; the entire environment for education is rapidly changing as social media facilitates cross-border communication, allowing Japanese students to link up with their peers around the world.
Masahiro Kusunoki, 18, who was accepted at both Harvard and Oxford University this spring, said he found all kinds of useful information on how to apply for overseas colleges on the Internet.
“For example, it has become easy to be connected to people who already got accepted to U.S. universities via Facebook. They share their experiences and encourage people who want to apply for overseas universities,” he said.
Kusunoki said he received help from students involved in HCAP and H-LAB (Liberal Arts beyond Borders), an all-English summer school in Tokyo that began in 2011 and was also organized by students from Harvard and Japanese universities.
The nine-day H-LAB program brings Harvard-style lectures given by its own students to Japanese. Over the past two years, 160 high school students have attended the event, said Takahiro Fushimi, a senior at Keio University who chaired last year’s organizing committee.
Some of the students went on to enroll at U.S. schools including Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown University.
“High schoolers learn from each other as well as from university students who are a little ahead of them in their life,” Fushimi said. “It provides the best opportunities for them to think about what they really want to do in the future.”
While the trend of inward-looking Japanese may be beginning to change, the number who can study overseas is still limited, mainly due to financial and linguistic constraints.
When it comes to English-language education and attending the world’s best schools, Japan is far behind China and South Korea.
Take Harvard, for example. In 1991, the college saw 179 Japanese enroll. By 2012, that number had plunged to 94.
In the same time frame, however, the number of Chinese more than tripled to 686 from 220 while the number of South Koreans jumped to 304 from 137.
Shigeharu Kato, director general for international affairs at the education ministry, said the government began to put more resources into student exchange programs around 2011.
“But the government budget to support Japanese students studying overseas is still about one-tenth of that for inviting foreign students to Japan,” Kato said.
For fiscal 2013, the government has set aside ¥29 billion to fund scholarships and other support for foreign students in Japan, but only ¥3.6 billion to send Japanese abroad, according to the education ministry.
Then comes the language barrier.
In Japan, the average score on the TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in 2011 was reportedly lurking around a lowly 137th in the world and 28th in Asia.
To remedy the issue, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed making TOEFL exams a requirement for entering and graduating from public universities.
Benesse’s Fujii agreed that the quickest way to improve English skills is to slap an English-speaking test on the college entrance exam. But he also said that “adopting the TOEFL, whose questions are created based on American culture and history, shouldn’t necessarily be the first choice.”
South Korea, he pointed out, created its own proficiency exam, the National English Ability Test (NEAT), which gauges speaking, listening, reading and writing ability. South Korean universities began incorporating them into entrance exams last year.
“Japan should create its own English-speaking test for public universities,” Fujii said.