There they go, gliding through conversations in flawless Japanese with ease, catching the locals’ jokes, even making their own. It all seemed so effortless for them and there I was, struggling away trying to string together a semi-coherent sentence. Just as I had aligned all that tricky grammar into some semblance of order, and was about to unleash it on the world, the entire conversation topic had moved on. I was again frustrated with not being able to express myself at all, let alone fully.
I met many of my fellow international university students through the Oceania Student’s Association. We were a motley collection of Australians, New Zealanders and various Pacific Islanders. They were all undergraduates at various Japanese universities, and their Japanese language skills were annoyingly good. Like me, they were mostly here in Japan, at the Japanese tax payer’s expense, as students on scholarships from the education ministry.
I was a late starter to Japanese, not taking it up until I was 25. On the other hand, many of the other students had been fully immersed in the language since their junior high school days. We are talking about the late 1970s now — this was before Japan used the yen’s massive appreciation, to purchase most of the known world, post-Plaza Accord in 1985.
They were in Japan looking to build their careers through their knowledge of Japanese, their ability to not only speak it well, but to read and write it. In this aim, they were very successful and many went on to have stellar careers. They generally went into finance, trade, education and government, while some even started their own businesses. Significantly, none went to work for Japanese companies, because that basically wasn’t within the realm of imagination back then. Domestic companies hired Japanese for life and foreigners were like a spec of dust in your eye, insignificant and irritating.
I completed my undergraduate degree in Australia in Chinese, so this was my first exposure to this difficult and, at times, convoluted language of Japan. After two years of language training, I did a master’s degree in Japan, then came back later for another eighteen months of field work for my doctorate. While I was studying all those years at university, I got to peek behind Japanese society’s velvet curtain.
Now is the perfect time to undertake university studies in Japan, as there are currently over 185,000 foreign students in the country.
Realizing they must internationalize their firms to survive, the country has never been more open to hiring foreign university graduates. Interestingly, there are now some prominent Japanese companies who have made English their official language, meaning even if your Japanese is not quite perfect, you can still work.
Japanese companies have come face to face with future oblivion, due to the declining consumer population and are desperately looking to build a lifeline outside of Japan. In a McKinsey Quarterly article back in June 2011, Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai said: “My advice for young Japanese is simple: get out of Japan. One of our weaknesses as Japanese is our ineptness at communicating with other cultures. Even people who speak English well are closed off psychologically. They don’t speak frankly like I do. There’s this uniquely Japanese standoffishness, this hesitancy to become too involved. And it’s detrimental to globalization.”
The reality, though, is the young are deserting the cause. They want to stay in Japan, do not want to speak in English or deal with foreigners. In short, they are looking for a comfortable life. So the supply of young Japanese, who can help companies to internationalize, is considerably reduced.
The numbers of young Japanese going abroad to study peaked at 82,945 in 2004 prior to the “Lehman Shock.” They were mainly going to America and so they provided the fuel for Japanese and foreign companies who needed employees with both bicultural and bilingual skills. By 2011, the numbers plummeted to 57,501. Today, they have finally climbed back to the low 60,000s.
The big difference this time around is that these Japanese students are going for shorter periods of study, so their exposure to the culture and the language is more superficial than in previous years. This is where the demand for foreign university students educated in Japan is rising to fill these gaps, and this is not just restricted to the foreign multinationals who had a sustained, golden monopoly on their access to this international talent in Japan. The domestic companies may have been late to the party, but they are very active now, providing stiff competition on the recruiting front.
These Japan-educated foreign graduates are hired not just because they can speak Japanese and can communicate easily with their colleagues — you could learn Japanese outside of Japan and most people do. They are being sought after because they can fit into the work culture very well. Those years at university exposed them to many facets of Japanese culture, which are amplified inside Japanese companies. University club activities taught them Japanese-style teamwork, status based on age, ability level and a perfectionist mentality. Senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relations are the foundation of groups in Japan, schools and firms. Studying in your home country doesn’t reproduce this dynamic.
So my advice for students coming to Japan to study is definitely get involved in your college’s club activities. Mine was the karate club and the way the club was run was an interesting prism with which to view broader Japanese society. I was already a third-degree black belt when I arrived in Japan and had been training under Japanese instructors for many years in Australia, however, I wore a white belt the whole time, because I was a kohai. You might have your master’s degree or higher, but you will enter the work group as a kohai. If you went to university here, you accept that illogical construct, because that is the way things are done here.
Japan is also unbelievably well-organized in terms of alumni groups, with some even stretching back to elementary school. When I first got here, I went to a hot spring hotel on the Izu Peninsula. The neighboring dining room was having a wild party. The attendees decided that having beers with foreigners was a great idea, so we became part of their group for a while. I was stunned to learn they had all gone to school together and this was their annual get together. The system here is extremely well-organized compared to most Western countries.
These alumni groups are huge networks. Building a network here as a foreigner from zero is extremely difficult. Plugging into the alumni association of a university offers an entry to business connections, which are almost impossible to create otherwise. Obviously the more elite the school, the better the network will be for business.
Now is the perfect time to go to college in Japan. Youth talent is sorely needed, and the country now welcomes some sourced from outside of Japan.