They’re back. Worries that foreign students would abandon Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and accompanying fiasco at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have proven to be largely unfounded.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, 70,170 foreign students left Japan between March 12 and April 8. No one knows how many more living in the Tohoku and Kanto regions suddenly decided to spend their spring breaks in Kansai or Kyushu.

With 40 percent of the 175,000 foreign students studying in Japan leaving the country within four weeks, the Japanese government and school officials quickly introduced a number of countermeasures to encourage their return.

The Ministry of Justice simplified application procedures for international students who left without obtaining the required re-entry permit. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology offered to pay return-fare costs for government scholarship students living in disaster areas who had evacuated to their home country after the earthquake. It also provided emergency funds to 1,000 foreigners studying at universities in disaster areas.

University administrators throughout Japan did their best to dispel fears about radiation levels by posting information on their Web pages and giving explanatory lectures. Several universities, including Chuo University in Tokyo and Joshibi University of Art and Design in Kanagawa, sent representatives to China and South Korea to give lectures on the situation in Japan.

At International University of Japan in Niigata Prefecture, where 300 students from about 50 countries take graduate classes in English, the school used technology to reach out to students. According to an IUJ public relations officer, the school set up an English Web page to provide daily updates on the earthquake, tsunami and radiation levels. Students who remained on campus posted messages on the university homepage explaining how the situation in Niigata was safe. IUJ’s president also personally sent email messages to students each morning providing them with the latest information and words of encouragement.

Efforts by government and university officials paid off. A ministry of education survey of 135 schools with 33,867 foreign students found that 96 percent, including 86.5 percent in the Tohoku region, had returned to Japan by May 20, a notable improvement from a month earlier, when only 35 percent of foreign students in Tohoku had returned before the delayed start to the school year.

Anecdotal evidence supports the education ministry’s data. At IUJ, only two students failed to return. Student numbers for the start of the new school year in September also remain strong and IUJ expects 190 to 196 new students, an increase over last year’s 188 freshmen.

At Tohoku University, where 1,504 international students are enrolled, an exchange student division spokesperson reports that only about 10 students withdrew or took a leave of absence.

“I wasn’t afraid the students wouldn’t come back”, says Bruce Stronach, the dean of Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo. “I was only concerned about when that would occur.”

Immediately after the earthquake, the university began benchmarking similar disasters. “Generally it takes about a year or a little over a year for business to return to normal,” says Stronach. TUJ predicts that foreign student numbers will return to pre-March 11 levels in 12 to 16 months.

While the overall picture remains positive, worrisome trends in the numbers of two categories of foreign students continue to threaten the Ministry of Education’s stated goal of increasing their number to 300,000 by 2020.

While the four-year degree students have returned, numbers of short-term study-abroad students coming to Japan have dropped. According to the Japan Student Services Organization’s figures, in 2010 there were 11,824 short-term international students studying in Japan. It remains to be seen how many will come in 2011 but the number of programs canceled this spring isn’t encouraging.

Hirosaki Gakuin University in Aomori Prefecture had to cancel a four-week summer program usually held in May and June for students from sister schools in the United States. “The reason that we canceled our program is that the U.S. State Department had issued a warning suggesting American citizens stay away from northern Japan,” explains Edo Forsythe, an English lecturer at Hirosaki Gakuin.

By the April deadline only one student had expressed an interest in attending. Two other students who backed out weren’t afraid of radiation or aftershocks. “Their hesitation was, they didn’t want to come here and enjoy themselves studying while a couple hundred kilometers away there were people whose lives had been devastated,” says Forsythe. “They just didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

U.S. State Department warnings also forced the cancelation of Temple University Japan’s spring-term study-abroad program, affecting 69 students. A TUJ spokesperson says the university expects approximately one-third of the study-abroad students for this year’s autumn semester compared to the same time last year.

At International University of Japan, half of the exchange students who submitted applications for the autumn semester starting in September canceled. Instead of the usual 15 to 18 exchange students, the school expects only three.

Further north at Tohoku University, 26 out of 44 study-abroad students expected for the spring semester withdrew and another nine students postponed their arrival. Encouragingly though, numbers for study-abroad students are only down about 8 percent for October’s autumn semester.

A dramatic decline in the number of foreign students applying to study at Japanese language schools poses a potentially greater problem. At a May 9 press conference, Michio Hori, a representative of the Japanese School Earthquake Reconstruction Council, described the crisis facing Japanese language schools.

Hori explained that 43,000 foreigners study at Japanese language schools but that in April, 10 to 30 percent of continuing students (depending on the school and the region) and 30 to 50 percent of new students were absent.

Apart from the obvious financial headache, these absences also gave schools an administrative migraine. Since the Ministry of Justice requires attendance in at least 90 percent of classes for visa renewals, many schools had to delay the start of the semester to avoid threatening their students’ future visa status.

A May 24 survey of 446 Japanese language schools by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education showed the situation was improving but still serious. At the end of May, eight percent of continuing students had quit and 16 percent of incoming students had withdrawn. A further 11 percent said they would arrive after June or hadn’t decided whether to come at all.

More alarming for Japanese language schools are the reduced application numbers for October’s autumn semester. With visa applications due at the Ministry of Justice in early May, Hori reported that applications were down 70 percent compared to October last year.

In response, the Ministry of Justice extended the deadline to June 20. However, even that may not have been long enough to reassure prospective students. June interviews with spokespeople from four Tokyo-area Japanese language schools revealed that October applications were down between 40 and 70 percent compared to last year.

“Those who have never been to Japan won’t come,” explains Hori. Most foreign students who have experience living in Japan and know friends in the country understand how safe it is, he says. The problem is convincing new students.

“The most important point for the management of most Japanese language schools is next April’s recruitment,” says Youngjin Arai, managing director at Akamonkai Japanese Language School. “I think the operation of schools that can’t do it well will be in danger.”

Most Japanese schools are using similar strategies to dispel rumors and encourage students to come to Japan. Spokespeople at Tokyo Central Japanese Language School and Akamonkai Japanese Language School, also in Tokyo, both describe how they are using Facebook, blogs and school homepages to give accurate information about how Tokyo is functioning normally. Both schools also sent staff to China and South Korea, where 75 percent of Japan’s international students come from, to hold explanatory sessions and meet directly with students and parents and help allay their fears.

Nine Tokyo-area schools formed the Japanese School Earthquake Reconstruction Council on April 15. The council is lobbying the government and working with the media to convey accurate information about the situation in Japan, and plans to operate until December.

“When the recovery will take place is difficult to say,” said a spokesperson for the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, but right now Japan needs to launch a campaign informing foreigners that the nuclear plant hasn’t had an effect on people’s daily lives in Tokyo. The need for the campaign is all the more urgent considering how difficult it is to change peoples’ minds after they have heard so much bad news, he added.

Recent changes to work visa rules should help student numbers at Japanese language schools recover. Foreigners were, in principle, required to have a bachelor’s degree to get a work visa. The Justice Ministry relaxed those requirements at the end of June to allow foreign graduates of Japanese vocational schools to work in Japan after completing their studies.

Because of the decline in students at Japanese language schools, the full impact of the March 11 disaster on Japanese higher education may not be felt for another year or two. Since 70 percent of Japanese language school students continue studying at postsecondary institutions here, a drop in the number coming to study Japanese will mean fewer students are eligible to enter Japanese universities and colleges in the near future.

The decline in Japanese language students is just the latest tremor to hit the government’s plan to attract 300,000 foreign students. The plan had already been shaken last year by cuts to scholarships and the budget for the Global 30, a program to fund international recruitment efforts at up to 30 elite universities.

According to Temple University Japan dean Stronach, “Foreign students are essential for Japanese universities these days: educationally, financially and particularly for graduate education and research in Japan.”

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