As universities struggle to enroll more foreigners and internationalize their student bodies, some are raising concerns about a growing number of Japanese who are choosing to stay closer to home rather than studying abroad and tackling new challenges.

Commenting on the increasingly inward-looking nature of young people, a prominent international business scholar is urging more students to experience different cultures at a time when they are still sensitive to new stimuli.

“The younger generation in general have much sharper or higher sensitivity to things that are new. So, if they come across something new, something inspiring, something very different from what they are used to, these things tend to make a greater impact on them,” Yoko Ishikura, professor at the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

Ishikura is the first Japanese woman to receive a doctorate in business administration from Harvard Business School and one of very few Japanese who have been chosen to moderate discussions at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the number of students who opted to earn a higher education outside their home countries peaked at 3 million in 2007, the latest year for which data were available.

The trend in Japan is declining. A recent education ministry report said the number of Japanese studying abroad has fallen for three consecutive years, peaking at 82,945 in 2004 and declining to 75,156 in 2007.

“I’m concerned. Because overall, Japan is becoming very much internally oriented. They focus on domestic issues and they worry about their near surroundings only. When, in fact, the world is becoming much more interconnected and much more open,” Ishikura said.

Ishikura’s first overseas experience took place in Kansas, where she stayed for a year as an exchange student during college. Ishikura said the visit made a significant impact on her and gave her greater confidence. She said Japanese should be exposed to as many different things as possible — even if it comes with a lot of pain and headache.

The professor also argued that Japanese students need to have a broader view of life and shouldn’t limit themselves to the domestic market when hunting for jobs, especially at a time when the population is aging very quickly.

“Even though we are in Asia, which is the growing engine for the whole world economy, Japan is not a part of it,” Ishikura said.

Judging from her experiences at Davos over the past decade, Ishikura said she thinks Japan’s international presence is declining.

Back around 2000, when she first began attending the forum, there were many prominent Japanese business leaders who had the ability to communicate without scripts and express their own views, said Ishikura, citing former Sony Corp. CEO Nobuyuki Idei and Minoru Makihara, senior corporate adviser and former chairman of Mitsubishi Corp., as examples. But today, Ishikura says, there are only a few Japanese business leaders who can state their views at such conferences.

On the other hand, Ishikura has seen an increase in Chinese and South Korean business leaders who have become good communicators in recent years.

“About 10 years ago, they were still speaking in their own languages, through interpreters. . . . But now they understand the rules of the game. They speak in English, they know how to express (their views) and they are tough,” Ishikura said. “They don’t give up or give in that easily. They argue. I think that comes with some experience and practice.”

Referring to the declining number of Japanese studying abroad as one symptom of the bigger problem Japan is facing, Ishikura said: “If Japan continues to be like this, the country will lose its presence (on the world stage.) Because if you don’t go out, you don’t see, and you don’t understand that the presence of Japan is declining.”

Ishikura believes several measures can be taken to help change the inward-looking nature of Japanese youth.

One is to make sure parents and older generations let the young decide or make choices on their own and let them take responsibility for the consequences, Ishikura said.

The second is to provide young people with opportunities to interact with people who are following their hearts and doing a lot of things, because passion and enthusiasm is very contagious, Ishikura said.

“For example, Steve Job’s commencement address (at Stanford University in 2005) was so inspiring and so impressive. Just by looking at it, it just moves you. If they interact with those people when they are young, I think young people can see that they can achieve something like them,” Ishikura said, adding that young Japanese shouldn’t give up their dreams too early. “I think the beauty of being young is being unrealistic. I think that’s the privilege of being young. . . . Unless you are unrealistic, nothing will happen. A lot of people may say ‘you are so crazy,’ but they are the ones who would do something great. That makes life very much fun,” she said.

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