A recent report has found that fewer Japanese students than ever are studying abroad. After a peak in the early 1990s, the numbers have declined to the lowest level in years. Remaining in Japan without experiencing life abroad will have repercussions that may last far into the future. More students should be encouraged to set aside the immediate demands of the next entrance exam or job hunt and experience the world.

Spending time in a foreign situation is part of becoming aware of and sympathetic with international and intercultural issues. Knowing the world through direct experience is part of maturing as an individual. This cannot always be accomplished within the walls of the classroom, even with an Internet connection. Students need to spend time learning languages, honing communicative skills, and understanding other societies and ways of life in person.

Learned attitudes and real experiences are especially important since the future will be increasingly international, like it or not. Not only large companies but even small businesses will compete directly with foreign firms. What will be needed is not so much high-level business training as a cross-cultural sense. The future competitiveness of a nation in seclusion is dubious.

Business, though, is only one reason to expand overseas studies. Japan is already increasingly engaged with foreign cultures. Whether by films, fashion or food, a more thorough and sensitive understanding helps focus on positive elements of foreign cultures and filter out negative attitudes and destructive habits that make their way around the globe with increasing ease. A nation whose citizens have little experience abroad lacks this intercultural perspective.

In contrast to business and government, students import experiences at a human level and can be trusted to bring in what is most beneficial. The overseas experience of individuals counterbalances the decisions of other potentially monopolizing sectors of society. Sending students abroad one by one is the most democratic way to ensure that Japan does not become dependent on business or government as the only source for new ideas, and that international politics works at a personal level.

Not every student in Japan must study abroad, but steps should be taken to give a gentle push to make it easier for those who want to. Already, at many universities with exchange programs, the imbalance has become a serious concern. Foreign students are coming, but Japanese are not going. It may be that the only students who tend to go nowadays are already mature, strong and open-minded. The gentle push for the those who want to go should take the form of government assistance, both logistic and economic, as well as broader choices in exchange programs. High schools and universities need to make it easier for students to delay graduation and then fit back into the system. Afraid of simply being out of step with their peers, or graduating a semester late, many students decide to stay home.

Companies need to reconsider their hiring systems and place more value on students with international experiences. The job search process has already become part of college students’ third year — just when most students could be going abroad. Because of the pressure of job hunting, most students take the safe and sure route and remain in Japan for interviews and job seminars rather than challenge themselves abroad.

The argument that something is missed while one is out of Japan rings false. Studies on students returning from abroad reveal that they learn more about Japan while overseas than at home. Students report they are not only more motivated to learn after going abroad, but learn valuable lessons that complement, rather than conflict, with their education in Japan. Ironically, rather than force slavish mimicking of Western ways, study abroad helps reaffirm the essential qualities of Japan.

The warning signs of an inward-looking nationalism in Japanese politics and society are obvious. Study abroad is one way to reverse that trend and turn outward toward communication and understanding. In this regard, Japan has as much to learn from nearby Southeast and East Asian countries as from the West. Exchange programs with those countries are just as important as with other educationally developed countries and should be expanded.

Most importantly, studying abroad implants an active and open approach to learning, and to life. Maturity, thoughtfulness and ability to make decisions are just several of the many qualities that students can acquire abroad. When added up student by student, they have the potential to change the nature of Japan’s future national character, for the better.

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