A Call for Post-COVID Study Abroad Initiative
Takako’s Take Vol 7
After three years and three months, Japan is truly reopening. Coming back from a week in the US, Haneda airport was full of people, with long, winding lines for immigration. It was a welcome change from COVID times when the airport felt empty while we lined up single-fold to get tested for COVID.
It was nice to see a busy airport, but what was striking was the relatively short lines for the return of Japanese nationals. The primary reason may be that summer vacation has not started in Japan. A weak yen and rising airfare do not help. But this may symbolize a more significant trend: are Japanese people less interested in going abroad?
I am particularly concerned about the impact of COVID closure on the younger generation, particularly their motivations to study abroad and be interested in other countries.
The number of Japanese students studying abroad has been declining since before COVID. After the number of overseas degree-seeking students peaked in 2004, it declined to about half in 2020. Percentage-wise, Korea sends four times more students compared to Japan. The numbers reflect a relative lack of interest. In a comparative survey among young people between the age of 13 to 29, 53.2% of Japanese respondents said they have no interest in studying abroad. At the same time, those in other countries showed a strong interest. The same can be said about living abroad: Japan ranked the lowest, with less than 20% interested in living abroad for more than a year, while 42.7% preferred to live in Japan “for the rest of their lives.”
Three years of COVID closure added a blow to an already downward trend. Almost all student movement halted in 2020; we are only back to 10% of the 2019 level in 2021.
Will the three years of closure make it even less likely for students to consider studying abroad? Even if the number returns to the pre-COVID level, will the number increase in the future? If not, is that a problem?
I firmly believe in studying abroad for individual students to broaden their horizons and learn to enjoy diverse views, ideas, and cultures through personal interaction. It is also good for Japan overall: while we are an island country and some people seem to enjoy the relative ease of closure, we are deeply connected to the rest of the world, and it is better to have more people connected. This is not just an issue for students but for the future labor force: Those who “do not want to work abroad” among new recruits have increased from 29.2% in 2001 to 60.4% in 2017. Here, it makes a difference whether the recruit has studied abroad; 76.5% of those who have studied abroad are willing to work overseas, while 70% of those without do not.
The Japanese government seems to share a sense of crisis. The Cabinet Secretariat recently announced an ambitious plan to promote more student exchange, the J-MIRAI (Japan-Mobility and Internationalization: Re-engaging and Accelerating Initiative for future generations) Initiative. This initiative, presented by the Committee for Creating the Future of Education, set an ambitious goal to be met by 2033: 500,000 Japanese students to study abroad (more than double the pre-COVID level of 222,000 students), 400,000 foreign students to study in Japan (up from 318,000 pre-COVID), and to “internationalize” education at university and middle school level.
The first goal, more than doubling the number of students studying abroad, is the most ambitious. One major obstacle is the cost of study abroad, especially in US institutions. The government-led initiative since 2013, Tobitate Japan, is an effort to pull together public sector and private funding to support and encourage students to study abroad. It has entered its second stage from 2023-2027, and its current goal is to reach the pre-COVID level by 2027. Several foundations, such as Ezoe Recruit Memorial Foundation, Masason Foundation, and Yanai Tadashi Foundation, have offered full scholarships to talented students, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation has also started a major initiative this year. The aforementioned J-MIRAI Initiative calls for expanding partnerships for mutually tuition-exempt arrangements between universities. Given the significant tuition differential, we need to come up with creative ideas to incentives overseas universities to want to partner with Japanese universities. One idea may be a reverse JET program type of arrangement, where a student or a recent college graduate may assist in teaching Japanese while taking some classes.
But the biggest challenge may be encouraging more students to be interested in overseas study. One may argue that it is a good thing that many young Japanese prefer to live in Japan “for the rest of their lives.” They may be satisfied with the Japanese education system and the lives they expect to lead. Japan, after all, is a comfortable place to live, and increasingly so due to the relatively low cost of living compared to other developed countries. And with our population aging and decreasing simultaneously, we need all the workforce we can keep. Still, we need the next generation of Japanese to realize that their future is not cut off from the rest of the world, to be curious about developments outside of Japan, and to step out of their comfort zone to explore new opportunities abroad.
Allow me to share one personal anecdote. I recently chaperoned a group of students to a four-week study abroad program in California. While it was a pleasant surprise to see how students grow and transform in just four weeks, what one student said at the end of the program stuck with me the most. When an American student asked what Japan has that the US does not have, she answered, “Washlet (multi-function bidet toilet).” Then she was asked what she found in the US that she did not have in Japan, and she answered, after a brief pause, “freedom.” Will she seek freedom at the expense of the relative comfort of Japan, which, one may argue, may be symbolized by “washlets”? We do not know, but I do believe that it was worthwhile that she discovered the possible trade-off between staying in her comfort zone versus exploring freedom in a foreign country.
Note: All data in this essay comes from the J-MIRAI project documents shared on the Cabinet Secretariat website (in Japanese).