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Round table on attracting foreign students
Experts look at ways to entice overseas talent to study in Japan
From a strong yen to a lack of government collaboration with the education industry or private sector, several big hurdles need to be overcome to promote Japan as a cost-effective place to study, work

Japan faces the serious issue of a dwindling number of children and a shrinking workforce. So far in this situation, not much has been done to make use of foreign students studying in Japan, who may become essential resources to relieve the labor shortage. Leading figures from academia and the business world were recently invited to discuss ways in which to attract more foreign students to study and work in Japan.

The speakers were Kenji Honma, president of the Hokkaido University of Education, Yohei Otani, a general manager at NEC Soft, Nam-Kung Sung Il, an executive director at the Tokyo YMCA, Larry Greenberg, CEO of Urban Connections, and Keiko Iwata, president of Heart Connections. The following are excerpts of their discussion.


Brainstorming: The participants at a recent round-table discussion on drawing foreign students to Japan are (from left) Keiko Iwata, president of the nonprofit organization Heart Connections, Larry Greenberg, the CEO of Urban Connections, Kenji Honma, president of the Hokkaido University of Education, Yohei Otani, a general manager in human resources at NEC Soft, and Nam-Kung Sung Il, an executive director of the Tokyo YMCA's Japanese Language Institute. Kenji Honma Yohei Otani Nam-Kung Sung Il Larry Greenberg Keiko Iwata
Profiles of the participants
Kenji Honma

Yohei Otani

Nam-Kung Sung Il

Larry Greenberg

Keiko Iwata

Kenji Honma: Today, all national universities in Japan are facing the need to bring up truly global human resources. This is more so for our university, where 500 students out of the 1,200 that graduate each year do not or cannot become schoolteachers. Since most of them join private companies, I encourage them to enter small, local enterprises. I suggest them to work vigorously in a small place, and turn them into big corporations by having an international perspective.

The worrisome trend is that the Japanese students today don't study as hard as those during the post-World War II days. In those days, people were hungry and the students had to study very seriously in order to survive.

Our current students are totally flabbergasted when they go to China or South Korea as an exchange student and find their counterparts studying so hard. I think such a competitive environment should be created within our country by bringing over more outstanding students from overseas. In that way, the ones in Japan would receive good stimuli to study harder.

Keiko Iwata: My nonprofit organization has continued to provide support to overseas students in Japan since its establishment. But in the past, I had the dilemma that we may be inviting the students over to Japan for several years, but then sending them back without satisfying their true needs. I have been feeling the need to actively take them in as citizens of our own country.

Another point of mention is that there must be many outstanding young people out there who cannot afford to come over to Japan because they are poor. Isn't there any way of providing a chance to such students?

Yohei Otani: Regarding Ms. Iwata's comments, I agree that Japan should be bringing over the exceptionally brilliant yet poor. Although most are diligent, hard workers, I have encountered some idle students who must have been able to come over just because their parents could pay their fees.

Our company is involved in system and software development, and out of the 5,000 employees, 70 are foreigners. Among them, 80 percent just graduated from university, with 70 percent graduating from overseas universities, while the remaining 30 percent graduating from Japanese universities. We started to employ foreign students by going directly to overseas universities because we found all companies were after the same students if we limited our recruiting activities only to Japan. We really need excellent staff. We pay the same salary to everybody and give equal treatment. We mainly go to China and Vietnam because the students in those countries are smart, eager to know more about Japan and have the ambition to come over. If we could cultivate a good path for them to study and work in Japan, I am sure we can attract more good students from Southeast Asia.

Nam-Kung Sung Il: The Tokyo YMCA was originally established in 1880, and was literally one of the very first NPOs in Japan. Based on the spirit of Christianity, we conduct long-term social welfare and international exchange activities from the early years of childhood through to students around the age of 20. We are restarting our Japanese Language Institute in order to nurture a good mind and spirit of communication among our foreign students, so that they won't drop out after entering a university or a corporation.

There is no doubt that Japan continues to attract much attention. There still is a Japanese anime boom in China and South Korea. The Koreans know the true power of Japan.

Although the strong yen is causing a problem, more serious is the fact that there is no proper framework in Japan that allows foreign students to come over. I also agree that the country can attract them better if the environment is consolidated. One suggestion would be to consolidate an official foreign student support system.

Larry Greenberg: I think the greatest problem lies in the fact that there is no government, industry and private-sector collaboration in Japan. The (government-sponsored) JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program spends a fortune on inviting 2,000 to 3,000 foreigners on a pay basis. They come over to teach Japanese students. But after two or three years, those program attendees return to their home country, or leave for Southeast Asian countries. This is because the program ends there without providing any job opportunities thereafter. That is a pity and a waste. I'm sure the number of excellent foreign applicants would increase if their post-JET program career path is assured in Japan. They would surely become more interested if they knew in advance that the JET Program is the entrance into a wonderful country called Japan.

Another point that is a serious problem today is that the Japanese themselves seem to have lost their liveliness and confidence in their own country. It is quite natural for China to become the No. 2 economic power in the world, because they have 10 times more population than Japan. There is no point for the Japanese to fret over those figures.

If you look at the U.S. education system, the annual tuition has quadrupled in roughly 25 years. Now at Harvard or Yale, you have to pay ¥ 5 million to ¥ 6 million per year. With the exception of a handful of the very best American universities, the cost performance of Japanese universities is much better.

The third point of note is that Japanese corporations often have a gap between the reality and the image. NEC is a very global corporation offering its employees the opportunity to work overseas after several years. However, it projects a very Japanese, domestic image. I think that is the area where the company should focus its PR (public relations) activities more.

Otani: Yes, you have a point there. In addition, we must provide proper explanation on the character of our work, in order to stop our foreign employees from quitting in just three years or so. It takes about seven years for a new staff to be called a professional. Since the Japanese students take it for granted that it takes such time, they don't need that kind of explanation. But for foreign employees, we must explain clearly and provide close care, including such service provisions as career design consulting.

Iwata: It is our responsibility to tell the foreign students all about Japan through their daily living as well.

Honma: And I also find there are many areas for universities to collaborate with corporations. After all, Japan is not the only country suffering from a severe shortage of jobs for university graduates. China and South Korea are also suffering.

Nam-Kung: As for Korea, only 50 percent of the university graduates can find full-time jobs. That is why the government is stressing language education, and all Koreans speak English, and probably Chinese or Japanese as their third language.

Greenberg: Objectively speaking, Japan is safe, the society is stable and the organizational structure is sturdy, allowing anybody to design his or her life relatively easily.

I find the wind is blowing for Japan now. The Japanese themselves should re-acknowledge the goodness of their own people who act responsibly, have common sense and are considerate of other people's feelings. Those are the fine characteristics of the people that Japan should convey to the outside world. By doing so, Japan can attract more people to come over to study and work.


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