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Costly challenge of globalizing Japan’s labor force

by Robert Dujarric

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese educators, policymakers and employers realize that the country is dangerously behind in the race to foster professionals who can operate across national, cultural and linguistic barriers.

Japanese universities remain strikingly parochial, especially compared to their Asian peers. Young students and graduates are sadly unwilling or unable to either study abroad or work outside the archipelago for foreign corporations or international organizations.

Official and corporate Japan is seething to create a “globalized human capital” (global human resources). Solutions offered to solve the shortage of Japanese with these skills range from altering university academic calendars to fit the Western one to increasing study abroad opportunities and internships in other nations. Improving linguistic ability, primarily but not solely English, is also on the menu.

Taking steps to internationalize the Japanese workforce is indeed important to the country’s future. But in doing so, it’s important to realize the impact the increased value of international skill has on social inequality. Acquiring “global personal capital” is costly.

Japanese schools don’t teach English well. Parents who wish their children to master English, and preferably another language as well (in Japan’s case probably Mandarin or Korean), must disburse large sums on tutoring and overseas language camps. Moreover, English is essential, but it’s not sufficient. Thriving in different environments is what being a globalized person is really about.

Given that there are few foreigners and immigrants in Japan, it’s nearly impossible to acquire this skill set within the confines of the country, its schools and universities. Thus, those who want their offspring to be competitive in the global labor market should be ready (and able) to pay for extensive tours abroad, probably including at least several years of foreign study, and later a few internships in other lands, starting at a young age.

Therefore, by the time a young Japanese is in his mid-20s, the bill for acquiring “global functionality” will be enormous, vastly greater than the already high costs of cram schools (juku). This is not unique to Japan, but the expenses involved are greater than those faced in Western countries for several reasons.

First, non-English speaking Western countries have much better language education at home than Japan does.

Second, Westerners have far more occasions to interact with people from different continents in their own countries, schools, universities, and corporations, making it possible to partially internationalize at home (a ride in the London Tube or New York City subway is a cheap way to experience a round-the-world cruise, hear exotic languages, and stop for lunch in immigrant neighborhoods).

Third, due to the long history of Western imperialism, and the continued spread of Western influence through more peaceful means today, Westerners face less of a culture shock in most foreign settings than do Japanese. Thus to achieve the same level of “global functionality” as a Swede or a German, a Japanese will need to spend a lot more money and time.

The increased importance of this “international personal capital” creates another barrier to success for children whose parents are not from the wealthiest strata of society. There are no easy solutions to this problem. But there are ways in which government can mitigate this problem.

One is to provide more opportunities to globalize at home. Offering high-quality language education is obviously one important task. Recruiting more foreign faculty and students in universities, and also high schools, is another possibility.

Both the government and private sector will need to consider vast increases in funding for overseas education and internships and other opportunities to study and work outside of the country. These solutions are not cheap, but the cost of not doing anything is higher.

There’s also the issue of equality of opportunity. If only the children of a small very affluent minority can access the “globalized world,” Japan will remain unglobalized. Moreover, if young rich Japanese do embrace globalization, then the country runs the risk of growing hostility on the part of middle (and lower) class Japanese against a small privileged cosmopolitan elite that will be alienated from the rest of the citizenry.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. E-mail him at: robertdujarric@gmail.com

  • Nancy Snow

    Excellent article. In 2012 there were 18,668 Japanese students in the US from a peak of 47,000 Japanese students in the late 1990s. China, India, and South Korea represent almost half of all the foreign student population in the United States. This lower level of exchange of persons should be a national security concern. An increase in more globally-minded Japanese citizens would better position Japan and its priorities on the global stage.