Of the many consequences of the Tohoku crisis, one of the most disappointing is the fear so many foreigners now have about coming to Japan. Half a million hotel reservations have been canceled, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. In addition to those losses, the number of foreign students planning to study in Japan may also suffer. The loss of foreign students is a serious setback on the road to making Japanese higher education more international.

The government’s proposal, announced in 2008, to eventually have 300,000 foreign students in Japanese higher education nearly reached its halfway point last year, with 140,000 students. This year, students are hesitating to come for fear of radiation and continuing aftershocks. Schools have been inundated with queries about the safety of studying in Japan. Many students and programs have already canceled their contracts, but others are waiting to see how events unfold in the next few weeks, since most schools postponed their first day until after Golden Week.

The government and the schools need to reassure those students, their parents and their home schools that studying here will be made safe for them. Part of the reason for delaying classes is to better prepare emergency information and set up facilities in the event of future emergencies. Those plans should be clearly implemented and announced.

Of course, the top priority is still food, shelter and medical care for evacuees in Tohoku. Obviously, finances and energy are limited, but the 3 million students in higher education also need attention. While the government and the nuclear industry get themselves organized, education for the next generation must not be ignored. Education needs exchanges without interruption to be a solid preparation for the future. One way to ensure that Japan continues to be in touch with the world is to continue cross-cultural educational exchanges, even when times are tough. Interaction and contact is more important than ever.

The plan to have 300,000 foreign students is a good one, and should not be disrupted. All students in Japan this year will be learning not only about their main subjects, but also about the serious realities of recovering from a combination of natural disaster and man-made catastrophe. That will be an education worth having and one that may help make sure that a catastrophe like the one at Fukushima No. 1 never happens again.

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