Why are numbers of Japanese international students declining?
University exchange students Hsiao Yu Hsun (R) and Tsai Yi Chun (L) from Taiwan look at goldfish during a press preview of the 2016 EDO Nihonbashi Art Aquarium exhibition in Tokyo on July 7, 2016. Source: AFP

International students are flocking to Japan in droves. For the fifth year running, international student numbers were found to have increased again in 2018.

What’s more, a majority of international students who’ve done their degrees in Japan continue to stay on for employment or other study.

But not much is happening in the opposite direction. The number of Japanese students completing their studies abroad dropped from a peak of 82,945 in 2004 to 57,501 in 2011, OECD data shows.

According to Kobayashi Akira, Associate professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, Japan’s aging population is one factor. Japan’s population of 18-year-olds fell by 20 percent during the same period.

“The prime driver of study abroad today is individual interest, not government policy,” he wrote in a recent article on Nippon.com. “I believe the main obstacles are economic restraints, conflict with job-hunting activities, linguistic anxiety, and fixed ideas among educators.”

Declining disposal income in Japan has meant studying overseas has become a “significant economic hurdle” in recent decades, wrote Akira. “I sense the desire is there, but many balk when faced with steep fees on top of their already high Japanese tuition.”

Japanese firms’ desire for fresh graduates also contradicts with overseas study, he argued. While Japanese students should be beginning their job search in year three or four of their degree, this is also the ideal time to study abroad, thus creating a conflict.

Confidence in foreign language use is another factor. “Despite spending years learning English at school and enduring grueling language exams, many students feel anxiety about their linguistic ability. They are not confident about taking regular courses for credit or even getting by in everyday life in a foreign country.”

Finally, argued Akira, Japan’s educators often believe that studying abroad is only for elite students.

“If young Japanese turn inward they risk being written off by the rest of the world as cultural recluses. Now is the time to give Japan’s students an international outlook through study abroad,” he concluded.

“Now is the time for industry, government, and academia to provide systems to support them.”

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