The Yomiuri Shimbun

The massive March 11 earthquake and radiation leaks at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have scared away at least 4,330 foreign students who were enrolled at 71 universities in Japan, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

This figure includes students who have left Japan earlier than scheduled, as well as those who canceled visits to this country for admission to colleges and universities here. The affected universities are not only in the disaster-hit region but also in the Tokyo metropolitan area and western Japan. The Yomiuri survey covered 71 universities with a sizable foreign student roll.

Sophia University is one such university.

“It seems students have been told by their parents not to go to Japan, although they want to do so,” said Yumiko Iizuka, chief of the Overseas Liaison Center’s secretariat at Sophia University, where about 10 percent of all students are from other countries. The center’s inquiry counter for exchange students has been largely deserted since the disaster struck.

This spring, Sophia University in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, was expecting to welcome 149 exchange students, but about 120–more than 80 percent–have canceled their plans to enter the university. Of 147 foreign students who came to the university in September, 75 have been absent from classes that started this month.

According to many of the universities surveyed, many foreign students were fearful about the nuclear accident and the frequent aftershocks.

Some students told the universities that their parents told them not to go to Japan, and others said their countries’ governments advised them not to travel here.

The University of Tokyo said 11 of 28 foreign students in the freshman-sophomore level enrolled in a one-year exchange program that began in October have been absent since the spring term started in April.

Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, said 12 students from the United States and some other countries who were scheduled to enroll from this month canceled their plans. Among foreign students who had enrolled since September, 17 left Japan late last month, earlier than scheduled.

Not surprisingly, universities in the disaster-hit region saw a sharp decline in foreign student enrollment.

Tohoku University in Sendai had 1,499 foreign students as of March 11, when the huge quake and tsunami struck the area. More than 1,000 of them, or two-thirds, have since left Japan. Before the earthquake, 270 lived in the university’s dormitory for foreign students, but only 16 remained as of Wednesday.

Fukushima University said about 120 of its 177 foreign students had left the country. The university is scheduled to begin lectures May 9, but an official of the university said, “We don’t know how many foreign students will come back.”

Private universities are concerned about the financial cost of losing so many foreign students.

“This situation could adversely affect our financial situation,” said a spokesman at Shobi University in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture. Twenty percent of the university’s students are from overseas–mainly in Asia–but about 80, or nearly 20 percent of these students, had not returned as of Wednesday.

Kyushu University held a seminar in English to provide foreign students and researchers at the university with information about the March 11 disaster and the accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Monday’s seminar was organized after several non-Japanese students and researchers left the country after the quake. The university said it hoped its overseas students and staff could pursue their studies without worry.

About 110 people attended the seminar.

The Fukuoka-based university has about 2,200 students and researchers from overseas. In the wake of the disaster, 12 foreign students did not return from their home countries and 20 new students canceled plans to come to Japan, according to the university.

To encourage foreign students to return, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has offered to provide state-funded foreign students in areas subject to the Disaster Relief Act–namely Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures and parts of 113 municipalities in Tokyo and six prefectures–with air tickets from their home countries.

An official of the ministry’s Student Support and Exchange Division said, “Because many countries are competing to attract talented students, if this situation continues, talented people will move to universities in other countries.

“Nuclear experts say the current levels of radiation pose no immediate risk to human health. We’ll convey correct information so foreign students can make cool-headed decisions,” the official said.

The government has aimed to attract 300,000 foreign students a year to Japanese universities and schools. The number of non-Japanese studying here increased by about 20,000 over the past two years and had exceeded 140,000 as of May 2010.


Some students returning

Some foreign students have come back, however.

Darla Cornett, a 24-year-old graduate student at the university, went home to the U.S. state of Delaware soon after the March 11 disaster, but returned to Japan a week later.

Cornett said her family was worried about her, but she persuaded them she should return to continue her study of Japanese literature. Despite being worried about aftershocks and radiation, she felt reassured by the calm of the Japanese people.

Private universities, where many foreign students have been enrolled, in particular have striven to allay safety concerns among students and their parents as a continuing decline in the number of international students could batter their business.

At the International University of Japan in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture, 282 students, or 90 percent, come from overseas. About 180 of them returned home or evacuated to the Kansai region. But most of the foreign students came back to the school after students who remained in Japan posted messages such as “It’s safe here” on the university’s Web site, university officials said.

Meanwhile, Chuo University, headquartered in Hachioji, western Tokyo, plans to dispatch its vice president to South Korea, Shanghai and other overseas locations to hold sessions where he will explain to students who have returned home and their parents about the university’s measures to deal with the disaster and ongoing nuclear crisis.

Himeji Dokkyo University in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, held similar sessions in Dalian, China, and another foreign city on April 7-10.

The exodus also has hit Hiroshima University in Higashi-Hiroshima, with 25 new foreign students having postponed or canceled their enrollments and 46 students already enrolled having temporarily gone home. On Tuesday, the university held a symposium featuring talks about radiation by faculty members specializing in the field. About 40 people attended.

Located near Ise Bay, Mie University in Tsu last month conducted an evacuation drill in preparation for an earthquake and tsunami, with 90 foreign students who live in on-campus dormitories taking part. During the drill, the students confirmed the evacuation route to a building on high ground.

Shinichi Hirano, president of the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation, was concerned about the exodus of foreign students.

“Foreign students are highly motivated and inspire Japanese students. And their presence also facilitates mutual understanding of different cultures. So it’s too bad [if they leave],” he said. “If we continue to lose foreign students, [Japan’s] international competitiveness could decline. If we send out accurate information about the nuclear crisis to the world, we will probably regain international trust and foreign students will also come back.”