The University of Tokyo, locally known as Todai, has announced a draft plan to shift the start of its academic year from spring to autumn and called on 11 other major universities to join it. Public discussion of the proposal has been immense since the announcement in mid-January, and for good reason.

The keyword is internationalization. Todai, worried about Japan's role on the global stage, argues that fall enrollment would help foreigner students attend Japanese schools and better allow Japanese students and researchers to study abroad. On a global level, 70 percent of countries start their academic year in autumn. Only seven out of 215 kick off in April as Japan does.

The spring start tradition is one — but hardly the only — important reason why foreign enrollment in Japanese universities remains meager. Last May, there were only 138,000 foreign students in Japan, compared with 720,000 in the United States. In 2009, foreign students in Japan accounted for 3.6 percent of all students studying away from home, down 1 point from 2005, according to the OECD.