The first day of the semester should be one of the year's busiest, but it is immediately clear at St. Thomas University that something is badly wrong.

Apart from a sprinkling of students chatting near the entrance, the grounds are eerily quiet — the atmosphere seems more like that of a retirement home than a bustling city campus. Footsteps echo off the walls of empty corridors. Students huddle around professors at the front of nearly empty classrooms.

This small private college near Osaka was struggling long before announcing last summer it was no longer accepting freshmen. Established in 1962, St. Thomas carved out a niche among its bigger, more prestigious local rivals by focusing on literature and foreign-language studies.