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Japan could soon see the long-expected increase in the number of foreign students attending its universities and specialized schools that the government has been promoting with only limited success. In a marked departure for this country’s official development assistance policy, a new program scheduled to begin in fiscal 2001 is to provide low-interest loans directly to students from neighboring countries who come here to study at their own expense. If the program is implemented impartially and does not get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape, it could have the additional benefit of improving Japan’s reputation for attaching strings to its ODA programs.

At the height of the bubble, in the early 1980s, the government announced that it wanted to increase the number of foreign students studying here each year to 100,000 by the end of 2000. In those heady days, when Japan’s overseas aid programs were expanding exponentially, that goal must have seemed attainable. However, to more down-to-earth observers, both inside and outside the government, it appeared idealistic. As it turned out, of course, the realists were right.

According to the Education Ministry, a total of only 55,755 non-Japanese were studying at universities, graduate schools and vocational schools here at midyear 1999. To be sure, the figure set a record and represented an increase of 8.7 percent over the previous year. This was encouraging since the increase in 1998 was a mere 0.5 percent and the two prior years both registered declines. Still, it was painfully obvious that the total could not possibly double in the short space of one year.

It is worth noting that among the main reasons cited by the ministry for the 1999 increase were the relaxation and simplification of immigration procedures for students from abroad. Japan was slow to recognize the harm that was being done by the unwelcoming face the nation often presented to foreign students at points of entry. The mid-1997 policy change allowing vocational-school graduates to obtain residence permits and work in jobs related to their field of study was a great step forward. Other reasons for the increase were the availability of more generous scholarships and a perceived greater willingness by Japanese universities to accept students from abroad.

Last year, the number of foreign students paying for their studies here grew by 4,000 to 45,400. Only 8,800 students were sponsored by the Japanese government, an increase of a mere 500, because of new restrictions on scholarship expenditures. Early in the last decade, Japan introduced a program of yen loans for developing countries to assist them in underwriting the costs of sending students to study here. The potential limitations of this program were not sufficiently analyzed. In practice it has proved only modestly successful. Because the governments concerned must meet the greater percentage of the high cost of sending and keeping students here, only three countries have taken advantage of it.

The government’s new program of student loans is ostensibly aimed directly at the citizens of developing countries who want to study in Japan at their own expense, rather than having their governments pay the costs. In fiscal 2001,the first year of the program, some 3 billion yen will be made available for about 3,000 students from abroad through the auspices of United Nations University in Tokyo. Individual students are to be eligible for loans of up to 1 million yen, not enough to leave any excess for carefree living. The announced repayment terms are extremely generous, with an interest rate of only 0.75 percent and up to 40 years to pay, with a built-in 10-year grace period.

As of 1999, nearly 90 percent of the foreign students in Japan were from other Asian countries. Roughly half, or 25,900, came from China, followed by 11,900 from South Korea and 4,100 from Taiwan. It is important to recognize that one of the two stated goals of the government’s new program is to help develop the human resources of poorer Asian countries. If it succeeds, the new system should eliminate the favoritism sometimes shown under the previous government-to-government program. It should also make loans available to worthy students from a broader range of countries than is now the case.

The government’s other aim is to increase international understanding and boost global competitiveness among Japanese universities by accepting more foreign students. But one development does not automatically flow from the other. More must be done to prepare the way. Last year, the University of Tokyo and its graduate schools had the most foreign students, with 1,864 enrolled. Yet in a university survey, some 20 percent of them said they were unhappy in their relationships with academic advisers and other students, and nearly 90 percent wanted more opportunities to communicate with them.

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