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Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010


A world beyond the United States now beckons Japanese youth

'Shying away from study in America" screamed the front-page headline of the Dec. 11 evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun. The article beneath presented facts and analysis of an unmistakable phenomenon: Japanese students are not being drawn to the United States to pursue their studies as they once were.

Let's look at the figures first.

The peak was reached in 1997, when a total of 47,000 Japanese were studying in the U.S. By 2007, their numbers had fallen to 34,000.

Nonetheless, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the overall number of Japanese traveling overseas for study has increased in recent years. In fact its latest data available, from 2005, put that number at around 80,000 — some 1.3 times that of 10 years before.

But whereas the U.S. was the destination for around 75 percent of Japanese going to study abroad in 1995, it now accounts for fewer than half. The slack has primarily been taken up by China, where close to 19,000 Japanese were studying in 2005 — twice as many as a decade earlier.

What has caused this shift away from U.S. academia? Has the aura that was America faded, and have some of the charms fallen off the perceived gilded bracelet?

The Asahi Shimbun explained it in this way:

"The students who are non-competitive types, who say 'I want to go to a country where I can take it easy,' are on the rise," it declared, offering the explanation that, "One major cause (of the shift) is that, due to the internationalization of Japan, students are showing interest in various countries, and are balking at the image of America as 'a country full of vigor.' "

Indeed, the world view of many young Japanese has certainly widened to take in countries that were simply not on their radars in the past.

This modern era of widening international horizons actually began in Japan in the economically booming 1980s, when capitalists the world over came here to find out why and to see if some of the good fortune might roll onto them. Ordinary Japanese, too, then had the money and inclination to travel abroad in their millions. Most may have gone to the U.S., but the countries of Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, were beginning to attract them in droves.

What about the Asahi Shimbun's point that today's Japanese students are soshokukei — a term, literally meaning "grass-eaters" or "herbivores," that is applied to young people who are nonaggressive and, unlike hungry meat-eaters of the past, shun competition.

Some people blame this alleged tendency on the so-called yutori kyoiku, or "low-pressure education," that was introduced in earnest in the late '80s.

I beg to differ: A trendy phrase does not necessarily make a trend.

I don't believe today's young Japanese are any less ambitious than their parents or grandparents. It is just that their ambitions have taken a different form. They saw their elders work their guts out for the company and then watched as, when the bubble burst in the early '90s, the company scrimped on their commitment to them, dumping many "permanent" employees. They saw how their elders dedicated their lives to the nation's prosperity, only to find their share of the pie meager and their lifestyles unenriched.

In contrast, young Japanese these days aspire to have a balanced lifestyle in which their family plays the major role — and work for work's sake is not a goal.

Consequently, back in their parents' day the idea of studying abroad almost always meant going to America, and only a "different" few went elsewhere. A foreign degree back then didn't have much clout in Japan, though one from a top U.S. university had some sparkle. Degrees from other countries were of almost no advantage in seeking employment, and Japanese firms were not particularly eager to hire such graduates.

When the parents of today's students were themselves of student age, too, it was a major thing to go to the U.S. to study, and friends would throw big going-away parties. In most cases, the student would be gone for a year with no visit home in the interim. There was no e-mail or Skype, and international phone calls were expensive. Parents, girlfriends, boyfriends . . . it was really a yearlong goodbye in those days.

What has changed to so reduce the number of students going to the U.S.?

First of all, thanks to the Internet, young Japanese are now aware of many opportunities to study all over the world. In the past, they had to rely on their supervisors or educational fairs run by embassies for information. Now they can make their own contacts and pick and choose themselves.

Second, short-term study is much more in vogue now than it used to be. Japanese universities are increasingly flexible in what they will allow their students to do; and a three- or six-month stint in a foreign country can, for many students, be just as stimulating and productive as a yearlong one.

Third, education in the U.S. for a foreign student who does not get a scholarship is expensive. It can easily top $50,000 a year including tuition fees, board, travel, etc. Japanese parents just don't have that sort of money to spend. Study in Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere in Asia can be considerably cheaper — while if the student is in China, it's easy and cheap to hop back home for a holiday.

Fourth, it is fundamentally true that the gilded charms on the U.S. bracelet have faded in Japanese eyes over the last decade. They long turned a blind eye to the crime and poverty in the U.S., seeing only the freedom and opportunity there. But then the (George W.) Bush era, with its attacks on that freedom at home and its opportunistic wars abroad, began to tarnish the gilding.

Finally, there is no doubt that, over the past two decades, the U.S. education system has deteriorated. This is particularly true in the sciences, a field that has traditionally drawn Japanese students there. American students, attracted to the virtual thrills and the seven-figure promises that the dealers of finance and their big-money chums in accounting and law offered them, have eschewed the sciences. Perhaps now that many of those high rollers are looking more like chumps than chums, young people will be lured back to the genuine thrills of science.

If U.S. officials involved in the recruitment of overseas students wish to reverse the falling numbers from Japan, my advice to them is: "Look Homeward, Angel."

Young Japanese people who go abroad for study are seeking to further expand their vision — not only in the U.S. What goals they will achieve in the decade that has just begun remain to be seen.

However, I believe that this generation — grass-eater and carnivore alike — will come to be seen as the first truly cosmopolitan one of Japan.

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