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More Japanese may be studying abroad, but not for long

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Special To The Japan Times

With summer’s heat blanketing Japan and school out, it’s study-abroad season for those students lucky enough to escape the humidity.

Depending on how you look at study-abroad statistics, the airliners flying students overseas are either half-full or half-empty. Government pamphlets show that increasing numbers of Japanese are going abroad to study. However, a close look at the data reveals that looser definitions are inflating the numbers — and that most students aren’t spending much time overseas anyway.

Sunnier stats from JASSO

In 2013, the Cabinet set a goal of doubling study-abroad totals by 2020, raising the number of university students studying overseas from 60,000 to 120,000 and the number of high school students from 30,000 to 60,000.

The government wants more students to study abroad in large part because Japanese firms hoping to strengthen their overseas operations are struggling to find enough workers with the required language abilities and international experience.

To help meet the goal, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched “Tobitate! (Leap for Tomorrow),” an initiative whereby government money and corporate donations will fund 10,000 scholarships for university and high school students to study overseas.

Students are spending too long looking before they leap, so government efforts currently resemble more of an awkward lurch. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures cited by MEXT, the number of Japanese enrolled in overseas universities fell from 60,138 in 2012 to 53,197 in 2014. From 2004’s peak of 82,945 the number has fallen 36 percent. MEXT survey data shows the number of high school students studying overseas fell 15 percent from 2013 to 2015. A MEXT spokesperson confirmed there are no plans to lower the 180,000-student goal.

But faced with steadily declining OECD numbers, MEXT now emphasizes more favorable figures. For example, Tobitate pamphlets use data from the Japan Student Services Organization, the quasi-autonomous agency responsible for scholarships and student loans.

JASSO tallied 84,456 Japanese studying at overseas universities in 2015, up from 36,000 in 2009. JASSO counts students participating in exchanges at overseas universities and colleges, including short-term intensive language courses, cultural exchanges and research trips.

What’s more, JASSO’s website instructs universities to record originally scheduled study-abroad terms, regardless of whether a student returns home early. This means a student who intends to spend a year abroad but returns after four months still gets recorded in the one-year-abroad column.

JASSO also doles out government-funded study-abroad grants and loans that aren’t part of Tobitate scholarships. In fact, the relationship between JASSO and MEXT can sometimes appear a little too cozy. In March, a 48-year-old retired MEXT bureaucrat working as a JASSO policy planning department director received a warning after an investigation into MEXT violations of rules governing amakudari (“descent from heaven”), the practice of giving jobs to retired civil servants. Two out of five members of JASSO’s board of directors are also retired MEXT bureaucrats.

When less is more

Trips lasting under a month make up nearly all the increase in JASSO’s numbers. Between 2009 and 2015 the percentage of Japanese studying abroad less than a month increased from 46 of the total to 61 percent. Fewer than 2,000 Japanese studied overseas for more than a year, according to JASSO’s 2015 figures.

Responding to emailed questions, a JASSO spokesperson admitted that a three-day, two-night trip to a foreign university would be counted in JASSO’s statistics as long as it was for research, cross-cultural experience or language study. JASSO provides funding for trips as short as eight days.

According to Yukiko Shimmi, an assistant professor and international education adviser at Hitotsubashi University, the rise in short-term study abroad is because JASSO funding mainly covers short hops overseas. “The government hasn’t provided much support for students who do a long-term study-abroad, especially for those who seek academic degrees at foreign universities at the undergraduate level,” she explains by email.

Information on JASSO’s website shows it offered 45 undergraduate degree, 128 graduate degree and a whopping 24,100 short-term study-abroad scholarships this year.

In addition to financial reasons, Shimmi believes Japanese get discouraged from overseas study by busy academic schedules and the time required for clubs, part-time jobs and studying for qualifications that could come in useful when job hunting. The high language test scores required for long-term study-abroad present another formidable barrier.

The government must also defeat demographics as Japan’s pool of potential study-abroad candidates evaporates. The number of 18-year-olds has been dropping since 1991’s peak of over 2 million. Projections see the number falling below 1 million in 2031.

Real proficiency takes time

The government’s boosting of study-abroad stats by subsidizing short jaunts won’t do much to meet its goal of developing workers proficient in a second language. Although Shimmi believes short-term study abroad might benefit participants by helping “reduce their mental barrier to communicate in English,” she says, “I’m not sure if they’re effective for improving English abilities dramatically during only one month. It requires continuous effort to master a foreign language.”

A JASSO spokesperson declined to answer whether students spending a month abroad showed improvement in second-language proficiency, explaining the organization performs no follow-up investigations.

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