Commentary / Japan

Foreign student numbers don't tell whole tale

by Takamitsu Sawa

There were 298,980 students from abroad studying in Japan as of May 1, an increase of 12 percent from a year earlier, according to an education ministry report released in January. Of the total, students from Asian countries accounted for 95 percent and those from North America and Europe less than 4 percent. By country, students from China numbered 114,950, up 7.2 percent, Vietnam 72,354 (up 17.3 percent) and Nepal 24,331 (up 13.2 percent).

A quick glance at these figures seems to indicate that the government’s goal, adopted in 2008, of increasing the number of foreign students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020 has been attained two years ahead of schedule. While this may appear to be a laudable achievement as far as the number is concerned, a closer look would cast doubt on what the government’s plan actually accomplished.

In the first place, it was never expected that students from Asia would account for an overwhelming 95 percent of the foreign student population. The government’s plan stated that accepting 300,000 foreign students was part of a global strategy of making Japan more open to the rest of the world and expanding the flow of people, goods, money and information between Japan, on the one hand, and Asia and other parts of the world, on the other. Although Asia was specifically mentioned, the lopsided percentage of students from that region does not sit well with the government’s contention that the plan is part of Japan’s global strategy.

Second, it must be noted that while about 200,000 of the students are enrolled at institutions of higher education such as universities and higher vocational schools, the remaining 90,000 are attending Japanese-language schools. When the target of 300,000 foreign students was set, it must have been assumed that they would study at institutions of higher education and those seeking to study only the Japanese language were not taken into consideration.

Last month, it surfaced that 700 foreign students at Tokyo University of Social Welfare who were supposed to be studying Japanese in preparation for becoming undergraduates at the same university had gone missing, with their whereabouts still unknown. Since the normal procedure is to expel such students and nullify their student visas, they must be staying somewhere in this country as illegal workers.

This incident is only the tip of an iceberg. Virtually all of about 90,000 foreign students registered at 749 Japanese-language schools across the country are working at places like convenience stores, lodging facilities, bars and restaurants, and construction sites. The primary purpose of their enrollment with such schools is not to study Japanese but to work and earn money. It is believed that virtually none of them are interested in advancing to institutions of higher education after studying the language.

Even if the target of accepting 300,000 foreign students is attained, the fact that about one-third of them attend Japanese-language schools is not compatible with the government plan’s very purpose of strategically attracting outstanding students from overseas “by taking into consideration the countries and regions they are from, the fields of their academic studies, and also of continuing to making intellectual and other contributions to countries in Asia and other parts of the world.”

A third factor that needs to be noted is that since the proportion of Japanese high school graduates advancing to universities has remained only slightly above 50 percent, more than 40 percent of Japan’s private universities are unable to get enough Japanese students to reach their enrollment capacities. They are filling the vacancies mostly with students from wealthy Chinese families.

The situation at graduate schools is even more serious since those who have obtained doctoral degrees at many of the institutions have slim chances of landing full-time jobs at universities, research institutes or businesses. This has led many graduate schools to fill their vacancies with foreign students, who are, again, mainly from China.

The government’s policy of accepting 300,000 foreign students has brought about an unintended effect of prolonging the lives of universities and graduate schools that should have been shut down because of their inability to attract sufficient numbers of Japanese students.

Brilliant university students in China seek to study at graduate schools in English-speaking countries — starting with Britain and the United States, and then choosing from among Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Those who fail to enter graduate schools of these countries then aim to enter Japanese graduate schools, most of which will accept them with little in the way of entrance exams.

Moreover, there is a trick Chinese students can use. Since many graduate schools in the U.S. have rough country-by-country quotas for the enrollment of foreign students, Chinese students need to survive severe competition to enter U.S. graduate schools of high reputation. The trick is that they first join Japanese graduate schools for master’s degrees and then apply at well-known U.S. graduate schools one or two years later. This way it will be rather easy for them to go to a U.S. graduate school since it is rare that the quota for students from Japanese schools has been filled.

Such being the case, the government’s plan has produced little or no positive effect for Japanese universities. Instead, only negative effects have been exposed even though the plan’s numerical target has been nearly achieved.

During the 1980s, following China’s shift to a policy of economic reform and opening up to the world, a large number of excellent Chinese students came to Japan for postgraduate work. Back in those days, the Japanese economy was expanding by leaps and bounds, with a wide variety of Japanese products dominating global markets.

In 1979, Ezra Vogel of Harvard University published the book “Japan as Number One.” It was indeed attractive for Chinese students to receive a doctorate in engineering or economics from a Japanese graduate school.

But in the 1990s, Japan plunged into a period of protracted stagnation and the technological superiority of its manufacturing industry came under threat. In recent years, Japan has lagged behind the U.S., China and European countries in cutting-edge fields like artificial intelligence and self-driving technology. Japanese universities are steadily falling in global rankings.

Under these circumstances, it is only natural that highly qualified students from Asian countries will seek to study at graduate schools in the U.S., having lost interest in coming to Japan.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.