These days we often hear that there are two signs that the Japanese people, especially youths, have become inward-looking: The number of Japanese students going overseas for study has declined sharply, and far fewer employees in the public and private sectors are willing to take up posts outside the country.

The second statement may be factual, but I have some doubts about the first assertion, which I think is based on a misunderstanding.

Through the 1998 academic year in the United States (September 1997 to June 1998), there were more students from Japan enrolled at American universities than from any other Asian country. But Japan was surpassed by India in 1999, by China in 2001, by South Korea in 2002 and by Taiwan in 2009.

While the number of students from other Asian countries studying at American institutions has been gradually increasing, the number Japanese youths enrolled in the U.S. started falling after hitting a peak of 47,000 in the 1998 academic year. By 2010, it had dwindled to less than 25,000.

The latest figure for Japan is notable for the 128,000 Chinese, 105,000 Indians and 72,000 South Koreans studying at American universities. Even though the sharp decline in the number of Japanese students going to the U.S. is undeniable, this does not necessarily mean that young Japanese men and women have become inward-looking.

According to an article that appeared in the March 10, 2010, issue of Yomiuri Shimbun, a vernacular newspaper with the largest circulation in Japan, Dr. Catherine Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, said the number of Japanese students at Harvard’s undergraduate and postgraduate schools dropped from 151 in the 1999-2000 academic year to 101 in the 2009-2010 year, while the number of Chinese students more than doubled from 227 to 463 in the same period. South Korean enrollment shot up from 183 to 314.

She said Harvard’s strength lies in the competition of excellent students with each other and that Harvard looks forward to accepting more Japanese students.

A non-American student seeking to study at a postgraduate school in the U.S. would have to get high marks in both the Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) and in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

As university students in Asian countries other than Japan study really hard to qualify for American graduate schools, they tend to outnumber their Japanese counterparts at such institutions.

Those who wish to enroll for undergraduate courses, on the other hand, would take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) instead of the GRE. As the level of education at Japanese high schools is high, it is much easier for high school students to pass the SAT than for university students to succeed with the GRE.

It is presumably for this reason that in the 2010 academic year, postgraduate students accounted for only 21.7 percent of all the Japanese students studying in the U.S., compared with 50.2 percent of Chinese students and 65.1 percent of Indians.

Years ago it was extremely rare for Japanese students to undertake postgraduate studies at American institutions. Recently, however, a number of students, whose fathers were stationed in the U.S., have joined American universities after studying at American high schools.

There are also the sons and daughters of wealthy families who move to the U.S. in their junior or senior years of high school, become proficient in English in one or two years’ study at American high schools, and continue on to American universities — which are easier to enter than Japanese universities — by taking the SAT.

Nevertheless, Harvard President Faust says that only five Japanese youths entered undergraduate programs of her university for the 2010 academic year.

Be that as it may, the fact that the number of Japanese students entering American undergraduate schools is on a rise contradicts the allegation that the younger generations of this country are becoming inward-looking.

The decline in the number of Japanese students at American graduate schools can be attributed to fewer Japanese students who have been able to successfully compete with highly talented South Korean and Chinese students in the TOEFL and GRE.

In China and South Korea, earning a Ph.D. degree at an American university is something like passing the civil service examination system in imperial China up to 1905 — a system to select the best administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy.

At present, a Ph.D. degree in China and South Korea usually guarantees a high government position or a university professor post. It’s no wonder that university students in these two countries are so highly motivated to study.

An American Ph.D. also is highly valued in Japan, but there is no denying that the Japanese youths lack incentives for studying hard, compared with Chinese and South Korean students.

That’s because the latter two groups pay close attention to the costs and benefits of studying so hard.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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