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The COVID-19 pandemic has limited people's activities in many ways, and has forced the cancellation and postponement of events around the world.

But for Chinese students wishing to attend universities in Japan, entrance exams don't wait, so preparation continues nonstop this winter while they endeavor to protect themselves from the virus.

Coach Academy, based in the Shin-Okubo area of Tokyo, has about 4,000 registered Chinese students taking various courses. As the largest academy of its kind, it also has branch schools in Kyoto, Osaka and six Chinese cities including Shanghai and Xian.

"Countries compete in the world rankings in terms of the brand of their universities," said Yang Ge, president of the academy. "Before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States was by far the top destination for Chinese students."

But the fast spread of the virus and outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump's hardline stance toward China have led to a slight fall in the number of Chinese students studying in the United States, Yang said.

"Japan has accepted more foreign students than ever before but needs to improve the quality of education further," he said in a recent interview.

Studying abroad has long been an option for Chinese students, partly because competition to get into the top universities in China is so fierce and the reputation of the school from which they have graduated matters a great deal in job hunting.

Graduates of the most prestigious Chinese universities, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, get paid more than those who have graduated from other schools.

In Japan, starting salaries are basically the same whether students graduate from the most prestigious universities or less well regarded institutions.

"Studying abroad opens the door to personal growth but will not automatically get students jobs when they graduate. They have to have something that shines," Yang said.

Yang, a graduate of Nagoya University, spent his childhood in Okinawa and went to high school in Shenzhen, in southern China, before coming back to Japan for his college education.

He established Coach Academy in 2008 when he was a university student. The academy started with about 20 students, and the number continued to grow in line with the sharp rise in Coach students passing entrance exams at highly regarded universities.

The academy added a program in 2013 for those taking graduate school exams. It also offers lessons in the Japanese language, as students take entrance exams in Japanese.

Last year, 36 students attending the academy passed the University of Tokyo's exam, 152 students passed the exam for Waseda University and 98 passed the Keio University exam.

Yuan Kangle, a 19-year-old male student from Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, who is attending the academy has already passed Waseda's exam and is now preparing for other top universities.

His love of Japanese animation has helped Yuan, who plans to major in physics, improve his language level and make many friends in Japan.

"There were some tough times when I first came over here last July," Yuan said. "My high school in China had a dormitory, so I was able to concentrate on my studies. Here I have to do other things such as the laundry, but things have gotten so much better."

Qian Xiaohong, a 31-year-old employee of a Japanese company, is also taking classes at Coach Academy with the aim of being accepted by Waseda's Graduate School of Business and Finance.

Qian, who hails from Zhejiang Province, has been working in Japan for five years and aims to hold a managerial position at a Japanese company operating in China in the future.

"Creating application documents and essay writing are the hardest parts for me in the preparation process," she said. "I hope to apply what I learn in graduate school to work."

Japan has fallen behind the U.S. and U.K. as a popular destination for Chinese students because English is more familiar to most Chinese than the Japanese language.

Japan is attempting to bring in more foreign students but its efforts have not been enough, compared with those of the U.S. and U.K., experts on education have said.

Experts also say the start of Japan's school year in April, when cherry blossoms bloom, has also made it harder for students in China, Europe and North America — whose school years begin in September after breaks during the summer — to come to Japan.

The education ministry's latest available data shows the number of foreign students in Japan stood at 312,214 on May 1, 2019, up 4.4% from a year earlier.

Chinese students topped the list, at 124,436, accounting for 40% of the total and up 8.3% from a year earlier.

"Japan needs to step up efforts to have more foreign students for its future, so that universities can maintain their finances and companies can maintain their workforce," said Yang of Coach Academy, referring to concern over the country's rapidly graying society.

"We have to feel a sense of urgency when the number drops," Yang added. "It is so important to take in foreign students. Our academy hopes to help students make a great contribution to Japanese society. We want to serve as a measure to see how serious each student is about living in Japan and learning new things."

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