Japan: Decline of Students Studying in the U.S. and Overseas

Photo by Flickr user Kawa0310

There was a recent online discussion at the National Bureau of Asian Research's Japan-US Discussion Forum about the marked decline of Japanese students studying overseas at U.S. universities [en]. Undergraduate enrollment has dropped more than 50% since 2000, while India and China has dramatically increased enrollment. South Korea's aggregate international enrollment to U.S. colleges used to be about equal to Japan in 2000, but now it is more than 2.5 times the amount (75 to 29 thousand). Only one Japanese undergraduate entered Harvard University the fall of 2009.

Japan still has a lot of students studying overseas relative to other countries [ja], but its number are decreasing and students permanently staying in their host countries remain non-existant [ja].

The following is the number of Japanese college students studying overseas for each country (source: tomorrow, Inc. [ja]). For comparison, I have also added the number of Japanese people living overseas (“expats”) (source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs [ja]), the number of Japanese visiting overseas (source: Ministry of Justice [ja]), Japanese high schoolers studying abroad for longer than three months (source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [ja]) and Japanese college students in a study abroad program (source: Japan Student Services Organization [ja]).

Despite the increasing number of people studying abroad via study abroad programs [ja], the overall rate of Japanese college students studying abroad seems to be decreasing across the board — even accounting for Japan's declining birthrate [en].

What is the cause of this remarkable decline? The following are a few perspectives.

Here is Toshio Onda, a journalist from Disco Corporation suggests [ja] that growing up in comfortable Japan gives a sense of security that make people risk-averse. Employers and educational institutions also do not take active steps to foster “hunger mentality.”:


One cannot see clearly Japan's position in the global arena without leaving Japan. Japan's international presence has declined every year, and it's still immersed in past accolades by secluding itself and fearing change. I'd like to tell the young people in Japan that it is so important to expose oneself and mingle with talented people around the world, meeting people from different cultures, and polish one's values by clashing together different ideas. I'd like people to open their eyes, face the world's challenges and learn to be voracious. Of course, changing the inward mentality of the youth is difficult. It is time for companies to actively employ Japanese people who've stepped out and gotten international experience or aggressively send post-docs to Western companies and universities. Universities, companies and the government must step up its efforts in developing the pool of talent.

An Assistant Professor of Statistics at a U.S. University, blogger Willy says the decline [ja] can be attributed to the lowered adoration of the outside world and the weakening of the economy relative to other countries. But more importantly, its simply not pragmatic to get an education abroad if the goal is to maximize domestic job prospects:



In Japanese society, the value of degrees in higher education is extremely low. If one has a doctorate in science, you can't expect employment at a respectable job. Japan's idiosyncratic Simultaneous Recruiting of New Graduates [en] (basically, people under 25) is probably a large factor.

Students from the top 3 exporters (India, China, Korea) have the luxury to get a job in the U.S. or return to their home country where a good job awaits. Japanese students who have studied abroad (with the exception of a portion of social science-types) in general have trouble obtaining a domestic job without personal connections. This situation is very difficult to understand for international students from other countries. The Japanese also have a disadvantage in getting jobs in the U.S., as other countries like India start their English training very early. Overall, it is an unreasonable situation for Japanese people and I don't wonder why more people don't choose this road.

Hideaki Morishima of IBM Japan notes [ja] that in the U.S., there is a [ja] high proportion of Japanese students enrolled in English learning programs (Intensive English Program), a high ratio of undergraduates to graduate students (high attendance in 2-year schools in particular) and the most popular subjects tend to be business, followed by the social sciences. He opines that companies, who are partially responsible for sending the youth abroad for an international education, have more leeway in breaking through the current gridlock instead of any legislation that may stall in Government:

日本の留学生は、もともと企業派遣か2年制短期大学への語学留学みたいなところが中心であるようだが、 その中でも「ビジネススクールなどでは、企業派遣の低下が近年著しい」というのが定説のようである。実際、私の日本人同級生でも、私を含めて9人中8人が自費であった。企業派遣が減った理由としては、最近の経済情勢に加えて、「留学帰りの社員はすぐ辞めて転職するから留学させない」という事情があるよう だ。そのため、学位を取れる2年コースではなく、わざと1年くらいに短縮した企業派遣や1-2週間のセミナーなら認めるという企業などもあるらしい。



Many Japanese students that study overseas are sent by businesses or they study at 2 year university programs to learn the English language [ja]. In the former case, there is a remarkable decline in the number of students sent by companies. In reality, 8 out of 9 of my Japanese colleagues (including me) paid their own expenses to study abroad. The reason businesses are sending less people is partially because of the declining economy, but also because employees have a tendency to switch jobs upon their return. To prevent outsourcing of its workforce, many businesses limit the study abroad to one year so people don't receive a degree or 1-2 week seminars.

I can understand the human resource perspective on the corporate end, but I still have to call out its narrow mindedness.

Therefore, I have a proposal to the government. How about making self-payed overseas studying a tax deduction?

A student in Los Angeles, blogger Tatsuki thinks [ja] the lack of English skills by the Japanese combined with the inane financial investment one has to make to feel comfortable with English skills, prevent many from taking the significant step of going abroad. This is especially the case when lifestyle in Japan and its universities are of good quality relative to the other Asian countries:

日本で勉強してこなかったからか、語学学校+ESL地獄に飲み込まれ、お金と時間を無駄にする人が多い。基本的に留学生はいい鴨だから、英語力がなければ 語学学校とコミカレに高額な学費を払い続けることになる。私もカウンセラーにESLを取ることを強要されたが、強く拒否し、結局取らなかった。私にとって ESLは無意味だと思ったし、私の進路くらい私が決めたかった。噂によると語学学校とESLに日本人が沢山いて、そこから抜け出すことの出来る人間が極端 に少ないらしい。私が知っている限り、ESLには6つ以上段階がある。最初のプレースメントテストで良い点数を取らないと、ESLの底辺から始める事にな り、卒業までにとてつもない時間と費用が掛かる。語学学校も含めれば、7年近くアメリカに滞在している日本人もいるらしい。最低限の英語が出来ないと、留学してもお金と時間の無駄になるので、個人的に留学は考え直した方がいいと思う。

There are many people who waste time and money on language schools and ESL classes, probably because they didn't study enough initially at school. Basically, international students that lack English skills are duped into paying an inordinate amount of money to take ESL and community college classes. My academic counselor demanded ESL classes but I strongly refused. I personally thought ESL was worthless, and I wanted to choose my own path. According to many rumors, there is a fairly large Japanese population in ESL and language classes, and not many people are able to leave their commitments. As far as I know, ESL has 6 or more levels. If one doesn't get a good score in its first placement test, it would take a long time for one to graduate. If you include language school, some Japanese people stay in America up to 7 years just to learn the language. Without minimal English skills, a lot of time and money goes to waste, and I recommend careful consideration about studying abroad.

Overall, it seems like there is less merit for Japanese students to study abroad relative to other countries; also at least in the U.S., there is the additional barrier of language skills.


  • Jay

    A friend of mine is interested in teaching Japanese in America in order to win a TA position. What schools in the US have the lowest Japanese graduate student enrollment and the greatest need for Japanese language teachers (i.e. need for Japanese students to teach Japanese and thus be awarded a TA position).

  • […] the last 15 years, and while the numbers of U.S. arrivals to Japan have grown, they remain low. The pace of student exchanges between the U.S. and Japan has many worried. Demonstrating this concern, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, […]

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