Last March, the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, visited Japan to find out for herself what has become of Japan’s once-vibrant contribution to American academia. The numbers of Japanese students enrolling in Harvard have declined steadily over the past decade, and in September 2009 that renowned university’s first-year intake included just one student from Japan.

Faust’s concern is not new. For several years, educators worldwide have been puzzling over Japan’s decade-long decline in students studying overseas. That’s not just degree-seeking students, but also semester and yearlong study-abroad numbers, too.

Unfortunately there is not one single factor that can be blamed, or targeted. As David H. Satterwhite, executive director of the Fulbright Japan program, told me last autumn, there seem to be a broad range of factors that have appeared simultaneously — from demographics to financial concerns to risk aversion — with the combination magnifying the overall trend.

As a university educator in Japan for almost two decades, I, too, have been concerned, especially while watching the numbers of other Asians and Europeans studying abroad continue to climb steadily. I was even rendered speechless last year when I asked a bright student if he was thinking of studying abroad. The young man responded matter-of-factly, “Japan is so safe and convenient; why would I want to leave?”

“How about adventure, excitement, meeting new people, seeing new places?” I floundered.

He just smiled and shrugged.

Nevertheless, I can also say with confidence that — to twist the words of Mark Twain — reports of the death of Japanese internationalism have been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, the overall number of students studying abroad is down, but over the past two years I have also come across plenty of students eager and determined to study and travel abroad. Many, too, are truly excited about getting jobs in the global marketplace.

Just the other day, one of my law students was returning from three weeks backpacking in Europe when she ran into two of her classmates on their way to Jordan and Morocco. The three crossed paths in Abu Dhabi International Airport.

The student returning from Europe has already left on another trip with three friends to Bolivia and Peru. This young woman is unusual, but not as unusual as she once would have been.

Two of my second-year students are doing volunteer work in India; another young man is backpacking through Southeast Asia; two other students are traveling across Europe on local buses; and quite a few are studying English in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and England. I can also say with certainty that among the young people coming into my classes recently, I am finding some of the best and most interesting students ever.

For example, here are some of the research topics that students in my Faculty Linkage Program environment seminar undertook this past year.

Tomoaki, one of my fourth-year Policy Studies students, became very interested in the concept of aquaponics, which is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, the raising of fish and the cultivation of plants in a combined system. He began doing research and realized that the only way he was going to understand the challenges of the process was to set up an aquaponics system himself. So he did. For two months he raised fish and plants at home in a simple aquaponic system using a large fish tank. In the end, he found the fish much easier to maintain than the plants: The plants grew quickly but faced various problems, such as wilting, lettuce that failed to form heads due to insufficient light, and insect infestations.

A second-year Policy Studies student considered three quite divergent topics over the course of the year: inundation of Japanese freshwater ecosystems by water hyacinth plants; the Penan people who are native residents of Malaysia’s Sarawak forests; and how plants and animal species have thrived in the Chernobyl region of Ukraine since the 1986 nuclear accident.

At first I thought Hazuki was taking a shotgun approach to her topic selection, but when we talked I realized that she was intrigued by points of intersection between humans and the natural environment.

The Penan people, for example, have been living in balance with nature for generations, only to lose their forests, their homes and their culture to other humans who have come to cut the forests for timber. The water hyacinth is an invasive species in Japan that was first imported during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) for use as an ornamental plant. Today it has spread to canals, ponds and other water bodies, choking out plant and fish life and blocking water flow. Regarding the afteraffects of Chernobyl, Hazuki was impressed by the ability of plants and animals to inhabit and thrive in an ecosystem that had become lethal to humans. The destructive power of human development dismayed her, but the resilience of nature left her optimistic about nature’s chances, even as human impacts on ecosystems mount.

Meanwhile, a second-year law student, Midori, focused on one theme throughout the year, making three presentations on futuristic, environmentally sustainable cities. Her first PowerPoint presentation introduced the concept of sustainable cities then compared research developing in Japan and Sweden. She noted that in Japan research programs lack sufficient government support and alternative-energy development is still less than nascent. Her second presentation focused on developing sustainable transportation systems, and the final installment took a look at urban planning of sustainable cities, from the wise to the wacky. These included satellite cities outside major urban areas, concentric-circle cities, and even massive floating cities that put housing, businesses and even agriculture offshore.

Another student surveyed the development of planted, or green, roofs in urban Japan; and another looked at the development of Sweden’s Environmental Code and the concept of environmental courts.

Shota, another student, looked at environmentally friendly publishing and compared digital publications with custom-order book printing. He also considered the need for increased food self-sufficiency in Japan in order to ensure food security and to reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions caused by long-distance, international food shipments. For his third presentation, Shota made a valiant effort to understand and objectively weigh the activities of Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling activities; but in the end he had to admit that he just could not fathom the anti-whalers and their aggressive methods.

Perhaps the class favorite this year was Yumiko’s presentation, titled “The Amazing Abilities of Cockroaches,” which opened everyone’s eyes to the world of these incredible creatures. Quite a feat considering that no other insect in Japan is as reviled as the lowly cockroach. Did you know, for example, that there are 4,000 kinds of cockroaches on the planet, and 50 kinds in Japan? Or that some can run up to one meter per second? Don’t quote me, because I didn’t check these facts, but according to Yumiko, scientists are working with cockroaches to detect radiation by securing tiny detectors to their backs; and in South Korea you can get a face pack that is high in collagen made from ground-up cockroaches. Yumiko even included pictures of the cockroach traps she set around her house and the unfortunate few she’d snared.

This might sound strange, but for me it is encouraging indeed to be teaching a law student who wears pink nail polish and is also intrigued by reviled insects.

So, even though I don’t have statistics to support my anecdotal observations, overall I am quite optimistic that Japanese young people are finally coming out of their decade of slumber.

Japan has never spawned world travelers in the numbers that have spilled out of Europe and Australia, but more and more of my students are heading off alone and with friends for extended travels to China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. Others are going even further afield, to the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa, Europe and South America.

So what is getting these young people up and out of Japan?

Their influences include meeting foreign students in Japan who introduce their home languages, cultures and schools; foreign instructors in high schools and universities; short-term study-abroad language programs; and formal exchange programs.

Having just one person say, “Give it a try; you’ll be fine” can make all the difference to a young person, and help counter all the fears and anxieties they have acquired from parents and teachers who too often project their own discomfort with all things foreign.

By the way, the law student who traveled through Europe and is now off to Peru and Bolivia will graduate in March and join a small IT venture firm, which she calls her next adventure.

So what set her on a global path? A teacher who said: “Go, study abroad; you’ll be fine.” A year later she went to the United States, where a year of study changed her life.

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is the director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com.


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