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Four years ago, central government officials and bureaucrats, especially at the Education Ministry, were expressing concern over the decreasing number of students from abroad coming to study at Japanese universities. The decline in students from neighboring Asian countries in particular, the first such drop in decades, was cause for considerable alarm. The trend has been reversed, however, with a record 55,755 foreign students enrolled at Japanese universities, graduate schools and vocational schools in May 1999, a growth of 8.7 percent over the previous year.

While the increase, the first year-on-year rise reported in nine years, is welcomed by many, self-congratulatory celebrating by Japanese officialdom is premature. Overdue government policy changes undoubtedly played a part, such as the one that now allows foreign vocational-school graduates to obtain residence permits and work legally in jobs related to their field of study. So did the overall simplification of immigration procedures. But a new willingness by many Japanese universities to accept students from abroad and improvements in tutoring facilities cannot be minimized, nor can the availability of more generous scholarship assistance that takes better account of this country’s notoriously high cost of living.

A few years ago, government officials were blaming the decrease in foreign students on everything from the nation’s prolonged economic stagnation to the rapid increase in the establishment of institutions of higher learning elsewhere in Asia. It also needs to be pointed out, however, that official Japanese expectations of rising foreign-student enrollments were artificially inflated by the 1983 pledge of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to increase their number to 100,000 by this year. It is now widely agreed that the target was never feasible. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi acknowledged as much in a meeting with a group of Chinese students more than a year ago, although he vowed to try to reach the goal at a later date.

A striking example of a way to do so away from the glare of publicity in Tokyo and Osaka is offered by the scheduled opening in April of Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. Jointly established by Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and Oita Prefectural Government, the new university will have only two departments — economics and social sciences — and will start with an enrollment of some 800 students, about half of them from overseas, mainly elsewhere in Asia. Enrollment is expected to increase to some 3,500 in four years, which will make the university Japan’s largest in terms of foreign students. It is expected that half of the estimated 100 faculty members also will be from other countries.

A great deal more needs to be done to educate the public, however, if Japan’s willingness to accept nearly twice as many foreign students as it hosts at present is to be taken seriously. Despite the obvious individual exceptions, this country does not always go out of its way to make such students, or indeed any foreigners on these shores, feel genuinely welcome once the original novelty of their presence diminishes. How prepared is the public, for example, for the plan now under review by the Justice Ministry to increase the number of job categories in which foreign citizens can be accepted for employment as two-year interns after completing a one-year training program?

Health and Welfare Ministry and Labor Ministry officials are already expressing reservations. The results of a nationwide poll conducted last year by the Economic Planning Agency among 3,600 retail-price monitors are also discouraging. Most of the monitors are women and 95.5 percent of them responded, with nearly 80 percent expressing opposition to expanding the job areas open to foreign workers. While slightly over half supported the current restrictions on foreign workers, close to one-third of the remainder thought the regulations should be made even stricter. The present high unemployment rate and tight job market doubtless contributed significantly to these results.

Yet, on the same day that the record foreign-student enrollment here was being announced, a United Nations report on world population claimed that Japan would have to accept at least 600,000 immigrants annually for the next half-century just to maintain the size of its present workforce. That workforce, estimated at 87 million in 1995, is rapidly decreasing as a result of the aging of society and the plummeting birthrate. At a time of high unemployment, the country is woefully unprepared to even consider the acceptance of 33 million immigrants by 2050. It is past time, however, to begin contemplating what once seemed impossible.

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