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One of the negative effects of the economic crisis and strong yen will be fewer foreigners in Japan. The strong yen has hit foreign students, interns and trainees hard, especially those from Asian countries. This past year, Japanese schools and companies have accepted dramatically fewer people from abroad, reversing a decade or more of increased internationalization. Unless education, government and business find new ways to support these important programs, the doors to Japan will start to close.

Data from the Immigration Bureau and the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization in November showed that the number of new foreign trainees fell 25 percent from 2006. Those foreign trainees who do come to domestic companies are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. Long-standing criticisms of the foreign trainee system may become moot as the roughly 100,000 trainees in Japan in 2007 dwindle back to the level of 1993, when the system started.

Foreign students are finding tuition too expensive to consider studying here. The peak in 2007 of 120,000 foreign students enrolled in Japanese schools declined in 2008, with even lower numbers predicted for 2009. Then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s recommendation last summer to raise foreign student numbers to 300,000 now seems like a pipe dream without increased financial support. Universities, students and their families abroad are scrambling to cover increased tuition costs resulting from disadvantageous currency exchange rates.

Two decades of positive steps toward internationalization of education and work may be lost unless the government takes measures to ensure that these programs are not derailed. The positive effects of increased contact between foreigners and Japanese cannot be underestimated. The recent influx of caregivers and nurses from Indonesia is a good case in point. Employed at nursing homes across many prefectures, their presence is a sign that cross-border exchange can still work in mutually beneficial ways.

These programs do more than offer degrees and paychecks. They are life-changing experiences for the students, trainees and workers, and are society-enhancing experiences for Japan. The economic crisis should not be allowed to destroy these great steps toward meaningful, people-based internationalization.

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