To combat the decline in Japanese students studying abroad, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is finally taking action. Special five-year grants of ¥100 million to ¥200 million will be offered to 40 universities for study abroad programs. These grants are a welcome step forward with far-reaching benefits. The education ministry seems to have got the right idea with practical steps for implementation.
Japanese students’ exposure to other cultures, languages and experiences has steadily decreased in recent years. The number of Japanese college students studying abroad declined by 28 percent, from 82,000 in 2004 to 59,000 in 2009.
During the same period, the number of students from South Korea, China and India studying abroad more than doubled, according to the Institute of International Education, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization promoting international exchange. Unless this trend is reversed, Japan’s international competitiveness and awareness of other countries and cultures will continue to suffer.
To ensure the new grants are effective, universities need to do the basics of simplifying paperwork, expanding advisory centers and stepping up language instruction. They also need to undertake the more difficult work of moving their curricula, course content and pedagogical approaches in international directions. Students need more than higher TOEFL scores; they need a vision of their future in which global experience is more central. With the right attitude and sufficient support, a year studying abroad will be more than a fun getaway; it will be a life-changing experience.
Companies can help, too, by changing their hiring procedures. Many students stay in Japan out of fear of falling behind in job hunting. Many companies give the impression that students who veer outside the lockstep series of briefings, entry sheets, interviews and tests by going abroad will not be suited to the Japanese workplace. Studying abroad should be considered an advantage in job hunting, not a liability. If companies made it known that they were actively hiring students with experience abroad, every seat out of Narita airport would be booked.
For their part, today’s students need to develop a spirit of adventure. The reasons why students do not study abroad are more than just being introspective or apathetic. Many are terrified at tangling with another culture or losing their Japanese-ness. Overcoming these fears and becoming bold enough to take charge of their own lives is not easy.
The education ministry’s new measure is a project that will determine the future of Japan. All members of society should support this initiative and help make it the norm.