NEW YORK – Since the number of Japanese students studying in the United States peaked 10 years ago at more than 47,000, slow growth has given way to decline and there is concern that the growing number of other Asian students overseas could hurt Japan’s future.
“In macro terms, there is no question that Japan’s competitive advantage and edge is being eroded” by this trend, said David H. Satterwhite, executive director of the Fulbright Commission Japan.
The commission has funded educational exchanges for Japanese students since 1952.
While the trend has longer term implications within 15 to 30 years, it is a “trend to be concerned about nonetheless,” he said.
With Chinese and Koreans studying abroad in increasing numbers, Satterwhite said he believes the tendency is “putting them into the international ranks faster than their Japanese student counterparts,” he said via e-mail.
The decline can be attributed to a number of factors, including Japan’s sustained economic recovery, which “has made more pronounced a long-standing attitude” held by companies of not seeking international experience in prospective employees.
In Japan, students are traditionally hired upon graduation and offered in-house training and lifetime employment.
In Japan’s hiring system, where university students traditionally advance in age-defined “cohort groups,” Satterwhite noted many students “have felt disadvantaged when they are away from the network of their recommending professors or classmates.”
Soichiro Shibata, 22, a graduating senior majoring in political science at Yale University, offered a similar viewpoint.
While the level of English proficiency required can deter students from studying abroad, he said, there is also a sense among students that attending top universities in Japan such as the University of Tokyo gives one a “better shot at getting into a good company.”
Students opt to stay home because they feel “that once you leave Japan, you’re kind of out of the game, you’re going to have a tougher time being employed in Japan, and that it’s a very risky venture,” Shibata said.
Another major factor in the decline is Japan’s aging population coupled with low birthrates, resulting in fewer 18-year-olds enrolling in university, Satterwhite wrote in a recent report on U.S.-Japan educational exchange released by the Institute of International Education.
The economic recovery, along with increasingly competitive educational opportunities in Japan, has resulted in graduates seeking work at home rather than “seeking to improve one’s marketability through studies abroad” as during the recession, he said.
Shibata, who attended elementary and middle school in the United States, said that no one else from his high school applied to overseas schools.
“People don’t really see going abroad as an option,” he said. If not for his childhood experience, he might have felt the same, he added.
Employers “are for the most part not looking at the skill set or content of what has been studied abroad, just as they are not primarily interested in the transcript or subject matter of courses taken by graduates of Japanese universities,” Satterwhite noted.
The trend could reverse if the economy were to enter another downturn, he said.
“At that point it is an attractive option for students to go abroad and improve their English, picking up skills that may be attractive to potential employers,” he said, and perhaps “differentiating themselves” from others in the job market.
For many students, there has simply been insufficient incentive to leave Japan, Shibata said.
Despite the tough economic times in the 1990s, “Japan is still one of the richest countries in the world, and the jobs you can get in Tokyo are better than most things you can get elsewhere,” he noted.
The traditional business structure would have to shift to a “more merit-based, market-based system in which it will be up to each individual to gain the training necessary to secure and succeed in a job,” in order for students to seek practical training and English skills as a “more desirable and realistic option,” the undergrad said.
Mari Kita, an international criminal justice major at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she feels that although fewer Japanese students may be studying in the United States, more are studying in other countries “since the world is more globalized as compared to say, 10 years ago, when people’s perception was going (to) study abroad means studying in English-speaking countries.”
Though unable to cite exact figures, Satterwhite said some universities are more active in recruiting older students to make up for the declining enrollment of 18-year-olds and that there is a “sense” that more adults are considering graduate degrees.
Kita, who has studied in the United States since 2003, said she has met “more and more people, especially women, older than 30, who are coming to the U.S. or other countries to study whatever they wish to study.”
Masato Hasegawa, 31, a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history at Yale, said he is a rarity among his peers, many of whom are working and starting families.
“People still come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees, but goals are becoming more practical, and more applicable to doing business,” he said.
English ability has always been an advantage, Satterwhite said, but rotation experience within a firm is “deemed far more important to advancement than experience abroad, or even English proficiency.”
In an economy still “just 12 to 14 percent geared to exports, as a percentage of GDP, the globalized economy has not yet come home to roost within many or most firms,” he said.