Top students shunning Japan

by Takamitsu Sawa

A student seeking to study at a graduate school in the United States must take two sets of test — the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

The GRE consists of three sections: analytical writing, verbal (assessing comprehension, critical reasoning and vocabulary usage in English) and quantitative (assessing basic-level math knowledge and reasoning skills).

The GRE is required of both American and foreign students, and those from outside the U.S. will need to achieve high scores in the analytical writing and quantitative sections because they cannot expect to do equally as well as Americans in the English-language verbal section.

Students from India, where English is almost a mother tongue, naturally do well in TOEFL and score high grades in the English verbal section of the GRE, compared with Americans. Those from countries like China and South Korea study so hard that they, too, get high marks in both TOEFL and the GRE.

Many Japanese university students do quite poorly in both TOEFL and the GRE, perhaps because the English language is taught in Japan primarily to pass university entrance examinations — a way that is not beneficial when it comes to taking TOEFL. The average TOEFL scores of students from 30 Asian countries show that Japan ranked 27th, with only Laos, Tajikistan and Cambodia trailing behind.

Lately the Japanese government appears to have sensed a crisis over the decline in the number of both foreign students coming to this country and Japanese students going abroad for study. In 2008, the government announced a plan to increase the number of students from overseas to 300,000 by 2020 (accounting for 10 percent of the estimated 3 million students in Japanese higher education institutions). In reality, however, the number rose from 124,000 in the academic year 2008 to only 138,000 in the academic year 2011, showing how difficult it will be to achieve the 300,000.

A breakdown of foreign students in Japan shows that 60.5 percent are studying humanities and social sciences at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Students from Asian countries account for 93.5 percent of the total (Chinese and South Koreans together represent 79.5 percent), Europe 2.7 percent and North America 1.3 percent, showing that an overwhelming majority of them come from China and other parts of Asia. Those studying at graduate schools account for a mere 28.8 percent. The remaining 70-plus percent of students from abroad are enrolled at undergraduate schools, junior colleges, vocational schools and language schools.

According to the 2011 report on foreign students in Japan compiled by the Japan Student Services Organization, 90.5 percent of the students are studying at their own expense, while 6.8 percent have their expenses financed by the Japanese government and 2.7 percent are financed by the governments of their native countries. These statistics indicate the following:

(1) A majority of foreign students studying in Japan come from wealthy families in Asia who can afford the entrance examination fees, tuitions and living expenses. They may not necessarily be students with top-class qualifications.

(2) A majority of the foreign students are pursuing undergraduate and vocational curricula in Japan because they have failed to advance onto higher education in their own countries and instead chose to study at Japanese universities or vocational schools.

A number of Japanese universities accept foreign students with virtually no examinations. During the 2012 academic year, 45.8 percent of private four-year universities were unable to enroll enough students to fill their quota for a fixed number of students, leading them to rely on students from Asia to avoid bankruptcy.

(3) The reason why more than 60 percent of the students from abroad are taking humanities and social sciences at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels is that the national and other public and private universities in Japan have opened their doors wider to foreign students following the government’s decision to expand the enrollment capacity for their graduate curricula. As this policy has made it impossible for those institutions to fill the expanded capacities with Japanese students alone, they decided to rely on foreign students to fill the fixed number of students.

In China and South Korea, the master’s and doctoral degrees are considered overwhelmingly more valuable than in Japan. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that parents in those countries, whose children could not study in nations like the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, spend huge sums of money for the second-best choice of having them study at Japanese graduate schools.

(4) The small number of foreign students in Japan whose expenses are covered by the governments of their own countries suggests that a majority of those who have passed the highly competitive examinations for the stipend have chosen to study at graduate schools in North America and Europe. Only a small number of students — such as those aspiring to become specialists in Japan-related studies — have chosen to pursue postgraduate curricula in Japan.

(5) Most of the North American and European students, who account for a mere 4 percent of foreign students in Japan, are enrolled at graduate schools with an eye on becoming Japanologists. But even the number of such students has been on the decline, presumably reflecting the decline of Japan’s economic power and international status.

It is a pity that the large majority of students from Asian countries seeking to study abroad prefer graduate schools in North America and Europe as their primary choice. It’s no exaggeration to say that those who see Japan as their primary choice are mostly students who majored in Japanese at universities in their own countries. Since they are proficient in Japanese, they study economics and social sciences at graduate schools in Japan to acquire the master’s and doctoral degrees, which will provide them with a good chance of landing jobs at Japanese corporations.

Some people have argued for some time that the reason why only a relatively small number of foreign students come to Japan is its unique system of starting the academic year in April. They advise changing the beginning of the school year to September in line with the practices of most countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

I have argued that while a change in the academic year and making English the standard language at graduate schools may increase the sheer number of students from overseas, such changes would provide little or no possibility of boosting the enrollment numbers of “outstanding” students from abroad who seek to study in Japan.

Universities may follow a “good” or “bad globalization” path. What we see at present is “bad globalization.” A prerequisite for promoting “good globalization” is elevating the levels of education and research at Japanese universities.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.

  • thompson_richard

    This is one of the best articles on the subject. And I’ve taught in Japan, South Korea, and China. Yet the meaning of one paragraph is murky (to me). Is President Sawa saying that Japanese people don’t value advanced degrees? That would make graduates of Shiga University less likely to apply to U.S./Canadian/U.K./”Down Under” graduate programs — thus making it easier for others to get in. It wouldn’t make Japanese graduate students (in general) or graduates of Shiga University (in particular) want to study in China or South Korea. In China and South Korea, the master’s and doctoral degrees are considered overwhelmingly more valuable than in Japan. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that parents in those countries, whose children could not study in nations like the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, spend huge sums of money for the second-best choice of having them study at Japanese graduate schools.

  • kyushuphil

    Do the students at Shiga University ask many questions?

    Or, let’s put the emphasis where it belongs. Do their professors ask many very good, lingering, provocative questions? Do these questions include reference to specific concerns from specific students from earlier in the course? Do the questions also make links to things in the larger culture — both in Japan and internationally? Do they make parallels with good questions percolating in other departments at Shiga University?

    Getting excellence starts with instructors open to wider horizons. It starts with instructors paying attention to concerns brewing in students — concerns evident in their body language, their comments in and out of class, and their essay writing.

    I admire Sensei Takamitsu Sawa’s call for excellence in higher standards in Japanese higher education. But this comes by practical steps. Are his own staff encouraged, trained, and rewarded for modeling these at Shiga University?

  • Ron NJ

    “(2) A majority of the foreign students are pursuing undergraduate and
    vocational curricula in Japan because they have failed to advance onto
    higher education in their own countries and instead chose to study at
    Japanese universities or vocational schools.”
    Good to see the “the only reason foreigners come to Asia is because they couldn’t make it in their home countries” myth is alive and well with the president of Shiga university and JASSO. Blimey.

    • 21tigermike

      It’s a crazy notion to think that Japan is the place you go when you wanna save money on tuition/living expenses. What a laugh!

      • WithMalice

        Compared to Australia?
        Much cheaper at the moment…

      • 21tigermike

        Well. Just looking at rental rates for real estate alone, I can’t imagine why Australia would be more expensive than Japan. Add to that International Tuition rates and the high cost of living in ‘jam packed and overcrowded’ Japan, two adjectives no one has ever used to describe Australia, the logic just doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure the Universities in Japan are fine; what doesn’t make sense to me is why any graduate from a Japanese university (who is a foreigner, as in the subject of this article), expects to find a good job in Japan. Even if you speak Japanese, you will probably be teaching English. This is the real reason European and North American schools are preferred. The point is to get work afterwards, and traditionally Xenophobic Japan is not really the best place to do it — though I’m sure it’s a fun romp for a 23 year old English teacher with a few years to kill.

      • WithMalice

        Not my point Mike. The comment was “crazy notion to think that Japan’s the place you go when you wanna save money on tuition/living expenses!”
        I simply retorted that Australia’s living expenses exceed Japan’s at the moment. I’ve had friends here go to Oz, and be shocked, and friends/family come here – and be pleasantly surprised… aside from my own experiences heading back.
        You are free to draw whatever conclusions you like from rental prices alone (whilst conveniently ignoring that in Australia, most students share housing), cost of living is more than simply that.

  • Jens Hvass

    There is no easy solution – in order to attract and to produce brilliant minds, you
    need to develop a system that can recognize, nurture and challenge brilliance. And in order to keep the brilliant minds in Japan, you need to establish attractive
    career paths inside and outside universities.

    I just wanted to mention Tokai University, which all the way back to its founding
    in the 1930es has been looking abroad and set up exchange programmes for
    students & teachers especially with Scandinavian countries. This way, in
    1984 I could go to Japan for one year to study Japanese architecture. And this
    way fifteen years later I returned for one year as a teacher. This way, every
    year a few Tokai students get the chance to come to Scandinavia to study, and also this way, a study travel group of teachers and students regularly come to
    Copenhagen, where the university has established its European Office.

    Such direct encounters, direct contacts, and direct exchanges should be far more
    common. In the EU area today, all university students is encouraged to do a
    part of his/her education in another country, and provisions are made so that
    it is not only for the children of the rich. This is the perfect way of developing
    a much needed global consciousness.

    The day when every Japanese student has had one or two semesters of study abroad, and the teachers’ outlook has been moulded by experiences from all over the world, it will revitalise the Japanese study environment to the degree that it will attract and inspire brilliant minds from all over the world.

    • kyushuphil

      Yes, Jens, excellent. Travel. Eat food with others. Look in their eyes.

      Short of this, and still aiming at the hoped-for higher globalization Takamitsu Sawa values, how about swapping essays?

      That is, students in Japan could write essays on an issue of some interest to them, and send them in a batch to a group of students elsewhere.

      These elsewhere students will also have written their own essays on the same issue. But each group will quote from personalities among themselves who each peculiarly care about this or that side of the issue for this or that reason. And all the students will quote from aspects of their culture that help them put the issue in context.

      Literacy rises. Globalization humanizes. Connections increase. Focus sharpens and widens. Excellence grows. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

  • suloza

    Japan is missing the train.
    However the author fails to explain how such change could take place: of all bureaucracies, the Japanese Education Ministry is probably the most rigid. This just don’t change there. Politicians are like butterflies compared to their heavyweight immobility. Words are not enough. Things WILL stay the same, because Japan does not have change dynamics embedded in its institutional arrangements and no-one is strong enough to really drive such change. By the way, this article could have been written in 1960, in 1990, or in 2013. What changed to make hopes more realistic?
    The only thing changing is that the world is moving on, making it visible that Japan was not better, it was just early.

  • Al Mansur

    The report is very interesting and true. In my opinion, another reason for good students not coming to Japan is that the education standard of graduate schools at many Japanese universities is quite low comparable to US and some other countries. Education is localized in Japan and is not globalized enough to deal with international students.

  • Kevin

    All valid points, but the elephant in the room is the general quality of tertiary education in Japan is comparatively very low, and that’s why few good international students come here to study.

  • WithMalice

    “A prerequisite for promoting “good globalization” is elevating the levels of education and research at Japanese universities.”

    That will require a complete overhaul of the Japanese education system, from elementary to tertiary.

  • Roan Suda

    In most discussions one sees about higher education and what’s wrong with it, an underlying assumption is that institutions are in competition with which other
    to prove which is the best, as if education were like a sports competition, with clear winners and losers. In reality, however, it’s more like apples and oranges. In Europe and Japan, secondary education, at least until recently, was
    of superior quality and university education a letdown by comparison. In the United States, high school education has long been a notorious joke, with college the place where diamonds in the rough were polished. (Nowadays, one majors in race and gender studies and winds up just as ignorant at 22 as one was at 18—and a lot poorer to boot.) Japan is good at producing large numbers of well-disciplined, well-dressed, polite young people who know just much ice goes into the cup and how to get through the day without shooting one’s
    coworkers. Unlike many of their American contemporaries, they also know how to read and write. And yet America is vastly more capable of finding and nurturing the oddball who, aside from being highly intelligent, actually knows a few things and wants to learn more. That’s why American graduate schools are so attractive. Japan simply has a different agenda. I’m certainly not entirely
    happy with it myself, but it is far more difficult to alter deeply ingrained
    cultural habits than to implement superficial reforms, often making things only

  • foreigngrad_jp

    I’m a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at a well-known Japanese university. As one of the 1.3 percent of graduate students coming from North America, I can say that I was actively discouraged from doing my grad studies in Japan. I came anyway, but now I’m starting to think that they were right…

    1) Japanese universities are unknown. University name and reputation are very important when trying to apply for faculty positions. Now that I’m trying to return to North America for work, even the top Japanese universities are considered obscure, and have less weight than a sub-par American school.

    Japan needs more promotion in English (in magazines, newspapers, TV) about their Nobel Prizes and useful advances in science and engineering, and less about Pokemon (see “Cool Japan”) and used underwear vending machines. Yes, I’m talking about reputation not among the research community, but awareness in general. A very talented post-doc friend of mine in North America was going to take on a research student, but the student’s parents insisted their son only get a supervisor from MIT… I wonder where they got that idea?

    2) Language. It’s hard enough to do a grad degree. It’s harder when you have studied Science all your university life, and not Japanese. Japan is already starting to develop their English language programs through the Global30 initiative described above (300,000 students). That’s a good start, and more could be done to support life in a very isolated and culturally challenging environment.

    3) Sawa says Japan needs to “elevate the levels of […] research at Japanese universities.” I think the lack of English proficiency is one particularly major barrier to elevating levels of research. Research involves a lot of reading. Reading, reading, reading about related research around the world, dozens and dozens of 6-12 page articles. All in English, because English is the international language of academia. Unfortunately, even the most brilliant student in Japan will be at a disadvantage at producing excellent research without this skill.

    Research is also about promotion of ones findings. How many conferences have I where the Japanese presenter read his slides in an incomprehensible accent, while the audience slept? How many times have people asked questions, and the researcher fumbled to first understand the question, then respond in a vague manner with simple words? These researchers are very smart and know their work. But sadly, poor language skills in any context can color a person’s perceived intelligence.

    • Starviking

      Be careful of pursuing an engineering career in Japan. My wife worked in a big Japanese engineering company, and all the professional engineers there were so overworked that they had no chance to get married and start a family.