Commentary / Japan

The high cost of young Japanese staying close to home

by Shihoko Goto

Young Japanese not wanting to study overseas isn’t necessarily a big deal. After all, the fact that the younger generation don’t want to leave their country is a sign that they are content with how things are on their home turf, and not driven to seek change. In fact, it could be a source of pride for Japan that young people are comfortable with their current situation with no major sources of disgruntlement for them to seek opportunities abroad. With the unemployment rate close to 2 percent, joblessness is certainly not an issue, and the aging demographic structure means that there will be no shortage of places to work for those who are young and able-bodied. Yet the nagging question is whether Japanese youths are too comfortable and too unambitious.

According to a government white paper released in May, only 32 percent of Japanese wanted to spend time studying overseas, while 53 percent said they didn’t want to study abroad at all. Japan was the only country among the seven countries, namely the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and South Korea, where less than half of those surveyed wanted to go overseas. In addition, Japan had the lowest rate of those stating they believed they understood foreign cultures at 29 percent.

Granted, studying abroad in itself is not necessarily a prerequisite to broadening the mind or even for learning languages, especially since the costs of going overseas can be prohibitive for many families. That said, it is clearly a loss for Japan as a country when fewer of their nationals are going abroad, while youths from other countries are pushing to go outside of their borders.

According to the Washington-based Institute of International Education, of the nearly 1.1 million international students at U.S. institutes of higher education, over 363,000 come from China, followed by India with 196,000, while South Korea came in third place with over 54,000. Japan, meanwhile, ranked in eighth place with just under 19,000 students.

With each student representing an opportunity to engage with their U.S. peers, studying in the U.S. gives Japanese youths a chance to enhance their understanding of the world beyond their own country’s borders and also have the chance to raise awareness of their U.S. peers of what concerns them. A decline in Japanese students’ interest in studying overseas, in short, would be a lost opportunity for Japan’s voice to be heard overseas. It also means a decrease in networks based on personal relationships for that generation.

Still, perhaps the most worrisome issue is what the reluctance to go overseas by Japan’s younger generation represents more broadly. It can certainly be seen as a decrease in ambition, and in the spirit of adventure and pushing emotional as well as intellectual boundaries. After all, going overseas to study for six months or more means going out of one’s comfort zone, with no clear return in the immediate future from that commitment. Yet as technology and innovation become the driving forces of economic growth in the 21st century, it is the willingness to take risks, daring to fail and thinking outside of the box that will become increasingly valuable for entrepreneurs and successful executives.

At Harvard Business School’s commencement ceremony in May, Dean Nitin Nohria cautioned the graduating class that new qualities of leadership would be needed to tackle growing inequality and divisiveness. In particular, he pointed to the need for business executives to be inspirational, who can connect with people deeply with a collective sense of mission and purpose.

Whether or not the newly minted Harvard MBAs would agree that they would indeed be driven to serve the global community or a higher sensibility remains to be seen. However, consumer trends worldwide have changed significantly, with the power of social media swaying purchasing decisions becoming ever greater. At the same time, the younger generation in particular will be more engaged with corporations that actively contribute to the social good. In short, consumer trends are changing rapidly, and companies will need to be more attuned to shifting market expectations.

Studying overseas in itself will not groom students into successful business leaders or good policymakers. But a lack of curiosity, reluctance to take risks and unwillingness to understand different values are hardly winning traits for anyone to succeed in the fiercely competitive and borderless global market.

Studying abroad is not simply an opportunity to boost language skills. It is a chance for introspection as well, and a time to question and also defend one’s established values too. Promoting resilience, flexibility and compassion are character traits that cannot be taught in a classroom yet are key for personal and professional growth. Japan’s challenge will be to ensure that the younger generation is well-equipped with those traits to remain competitive.

Shihoko Goto is the deputy director for geoeconomics and the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.