Defining “adult learners” isn’t easy. After all, youths in Japan can vote and drink at the age of 20, yet when attending university they are not considered adults.

In international studies in the past, students (gakusei) were often classed by age, with those over 24 or 25 considered “adult” or “mature” learners. More recently, those terms have been replaced by “nontraditional student,” which can embrace a range of factors, from age, employment and family status to whether or not a student lives on campus.

It’s both a more complex category, and one that reflects reality better than age alone.

In Japan, older students are known as shakaijin gakusei, which literally means “students who belong to adult society.” In practical terms, a shakaijin student is one who has spent significant time not being a student — for example while working or raising a family full time.

To further complicate matters, different schools (and even departments within a school) define shakaijin differently when deciding whether someone can use special application processes.

At Wakayama University’s Faculty of Economics, for instance, shakaijin applicants must be over 21 and have three years of nonstudent experience, while in the Faculty of Tourism the guidelines are 25 and three years, respectively. Meanwhile, in the Faculty of Education there is no special entry process — meaning older applicants have to do all the standard tests.

The Ministry of Education does not collect statistics on the age of university students, but it does record their year of graduation from high school. In 2009, 5,621 out of 608,731 university freshmen — or just under 1 percent — had graduated in 2005 or earlier.

In 2008, the ministry also counted 10,347, or 1.7 percent, of all entering undergraduate students as being shakaijin gakusei. That figure includes correspondence and on-campus students, as well as those in the Open University of Japan. However, since some older students enter using the normal application process (without identifying themselves as shakaijin), the true number is likely somewhat higher.

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