Ministry official knocks down barriers to overseas study

Chikara Funabashi wants to help students broaden their horizons

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The internationalization of Japan is one of the pillars of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy at a time when a shrinking domestic market is forcing more businesses to look overseas for profits.

But the fact is more than 70 percent of Japanese companies with global operations face challenges in hiring and educating a suitable workforce, according to a government survey.

Some critics point to the decline in the number of college students studying abroad as one of the reasons. Between 2004 and 2010 their numbers dwindled by 30 percent, partly, it is commonly thought, because students have become more risk-averse and the government is offering little practical support.

The success of Abe’s strategy might depend on Chikara Funabashi, a young entrepreneur and global leader at the World Economic Forum who launched his own educational business. He has been tasked with clearing the obstacles preventing students from studying abroad, such as limited government funding.

Impressed by his overseas and business experience, the education ministry hired Funabashi in November to overhaul its program for promoting overseas education. Funabashi envisions a system of government and private scholarships to help more students go abroad to gain practical experience.

“By changing the system of students studying abroad, I would like to bring positive changes to society,” said Funabashi, who believes that students exposed to the world will ultimately contribute to their own society.

Funabashi points to systemic problems that tend to dissuade students from studying abroad.

A survey of students at 87 universities found that more than 67 percent of them are on the fence about studying abroad because they don’t want to repeat a year after coming back, while 48 percent said they are worried about the financial burden.

To mitigate those concerns, one of the first things Funabashi changed about the ¥20 billion project was the definition of study abroad. To get government funding or scholarships to study abroad, students needed to transfer the credits back to their home school. But Funabashi said the system needs to change because some students want a hands-on experience that could be as short as a month but might not offer transferable credits.

“Lots of students do not seek some academic experience by going abroad. Yet, internships do not offer credits,” said Funabashi. “I asked the ministry to broaden the interpretation of study abroad so that one’s home school can determine if the students’ experience can be considered as credits.”

Funabashi also changed the screening system for private funding. Most of the government grants are awarded to students based on a certain threshold for family income. Students also have to demonstrate great academic achievement, so if they underperformed in the previous year, they won’t qualify for a scholarship.

“I don’t think the corporate sectors see grades as that important. What they weigh more is enthusiasm and ability,” said Funabashi. “That’s why I got a green light to change the system from mere grades to merit-based interviews.”

Funabashi is devoted to the program because he believes that education is the best way to change society, a philosophy he learned from his diverse experiences in the private sector.

Born into a Catholic family and schooled in Argentina and Brazil, Funabashi, 43, developed a desire to help minorities and undeveloped countries. After graduating from Sophia University in Tokyo, he went to work for major trading firm Itochu Corp., where he was involved in a project to develop an international airport in Cebu in the Philippines.

But Funabashi became increasingly frustrated with his job, feeling that few cared about the problems posed by the wealth disparities between rich and poor countries.

“The people at trading companies do not necessarily care about the North-South problem even when they are involved in those projects,” said Funabashi, referring to the wealth gaps. “Japanese people are not interested in those issues because the educational system does not offer us the opportunity to think these issues are related to us.”

To raise awareness, he started a networking event group called LPC (“Love and peace and a piece of cake”) in 1995. Participants in the event’s trading game learn how trade affects the prosperity of a country both positively and negatively.

The event proved to be a huge success, drawing more than 3,000 members. As a result, he decided the game should be introduced at schools so students could learn its lessons sooner. To this end, he quit Itochu and launched his own company, WiLLSeed, in 2000. The company offers trading game type lectures at schools and corporate training.

Yet the March 11 disasters triggered him to sell the company two years ago to Kawaijuku Educational Institution, a college exam prep school. Funabashi said he wanted to engage in more socially innovative and global projects.

He founded Beyond Tomorrow, a nonprofit offering scholarships to students from the disaster-stricken Tohoku region for studying abroad. He became a board member at Table For Two, a nonprofit organization that invented a mechanism to donate the equivalent of 25 cents for every meal purchased to support children’s school meals. Helping to design Japan’s study abroad program is one way for him to change society.

As a young global leader at the World Economic Forum, Funabashi saw many high-ranking Japanese officials mingle with other Japanese because they did not have the ability to break the ice with non-Japanese participants. He also thought that young Japanese lack pride in their country because they grew up in a period of chronic deflation and economic malaise. For this reason, he wants to add programs that teach students more about Japan before they go to their host countries.

His plan also envisions creating a mentoring system whereby students can learn from their peers upon their return and maximize their experience. Funabashi cites the lack of role models as a reason why students and their parents have second thoughts about going abroad.

“I do not think study abroad experience only can change the person,” said Funabashi. “I would like to create an ecosystem or a culture where people can capitalize on their study abroad experiences.”


Chronology of Funabashi’s career

1970 — Born in Yokohama.

1973 — Moves to Buenos Aires until 1977.

1986 — Attends International school in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

1994 — Graduates from Sophia University in Tokyo.

1994 — Joins Itochu Corp.

1995 — Launches networking group LPC.

2000 — Leaves Itochu Corp. and launches Will Seed.

2003 — Appointed member of structural reform evaluation team at Cabinet Secretariat.

2004 — Appointed member of global education promotion committee at education ministry.

2008 — Appointed member of career education committee at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

2009 — Selected as a young global leader at World Economic Forum

2011 — Launches Beyond Tomorrow.

2012 — Becomes a board member at Table for Two.

2012 — Sells Will Seed and becomes advisor to Kawaijuku Educational Institution.

2012 — Selected as Hero of the Philanthropy in Japan.

2013 — Appointed to educational council at education ministry

2013 — Becomes project director for public-private project on promoting overseas education at education ministry.

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .