Fewer Japanese studying abroad

Over the past decade, the number of foreign students seeking higher education in Japan has more than doubled. In contrast, the number of Japanese students going abroad for their education is waning.

In 2008, 123,829 foreign students were studying at the nation’s universities and vocational schools–a 240 percent increase over the 1998 figure, according to the Japan Student Services Organization.

However, the number of Japanese students studying overseas has been on the decline since 2004, when a record 82,945 students sought education at foreign institutions. In 2002, nearly 46,000 Japanese were studying in the United States; in 2007, that number had shrunk to 34,000.

“While some of that is due to a smaller overall pool of students, today’s Japanese university students tend to be more inward-looking, preferring to stay in Japan,” said an official in charge of promoting student exchanges at the Education, Science and Technology Ministry.

Examples of this decreased interest in studying abroad even can be found at Tokyo University.

The national university is a member of an international network of 10 universities, including such notable names as Yale University and Oxford University. The grouping runs the Global Summer Program, through which students from member universities spend summer break studying at a partner school in a different country. For Tokyo University students, this is a chance to take undergraduate courses entirely in English.

In this, the second year of the program, Tokyo University will send 18 students abroad–two to each of the other nine schools involved–a significant increase over the five participants it had last year. In contrast, the university will host 31 students–an average of 3.44 students per contributing school. In principle, the universities are supposed to exchange the same number of students between them.

The disparity is causing the school’s organizers to wonder if they are doing enough to promote the program among its students.

There are other examples illustrating this trend. Tokyo Institute of Technology has a joint graduate program with Tsinghua University in Beijing. Although the Japanese side has hosted 55 of its counterpart’s students over the past five years, only 20 students from the Japanese institution have studied at the Beijing campus during the five years.

Nagoya Institute of Technology (NIT) has a program in place that allows its students to study at the Ecole Francaise d’Electronique et d’Informatique (EFREI), the elite French technical school, for the week of spring break. Prof. Jun Sato, the person in charge of the program at NIT, says it has been difficult to get his students interested in studying overseas, as many of them “are reluctant to even leave Aichi Prefecture.”

While the students are becoming less outwardly oriented, more and more top researchers have been leaving Japan.

Naohiko Yoshikai, an assistant professor at Tokyo University who is studying new types of catalytic substances to be used when synthesizing medicines, will relocate to Singapore in July, where he will be given his own office. The 31-year-old has been selected to participate in a government program there that invites capable young researchers from around the world and provides them with 150 million yen per researcher in funding.

In January, Yoshikai attended his final interview, and was selected as one of the 10 finalists from the original pool of 186. The researcher says he found it inspiring to see how confident other interviewees were when making presentations on their respective research projects.

Yoshikai will join researchers from China, Switzerland and Turkey.

“There are no chances in Japan for young researchers to study on their own while enjoying significant funding,” Yoshikai said. “I look forward to seeing how much I can do.”

Gao Ruixuan, a Chinese national born and brought up in Japan, is another example. The 22-year-old took a leave of absence from Tokyo University two years ago to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and his applications have just been accepted by the graduate schools of some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago.

Gao says he has been amazed by how flexible U.S. universities are, as they provide students with programs to fit their personalities and abilities. He is now interested in sampling the American education system.

Kanae Muraiso, 48, who lives in the United States and helps Japanese students there secure jobs upon graduation, cites one particular tendency in their attitudes toward studying abroad.

“The more talented they are, the more likely they are to leave Japan when they’re young and develop careers abroad,” he says. On the other hand, he says, less promising students “prefer to avoid taking the risk” of studying overseas and instead focus on Japan because it is difficult for them to secure stable jobs upon returning home.

“If we wish to advance science and technology in Japan, it is crucial that we have excellent human resources,” he says. “Ultimately, Japan is the one suffers when its young people don’t get the opportunity to develop their abilities by experiencing environments different to the ones with which they are familiar.”

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