Source: The New York Times
TOKYO: Addressing a room of university students, Aya Kikuchi, a counselor, dished out tips for students bound for Canada. “One cultural thing to note is that there is a strong ‘ladies first’ orientation there,” she said at a meeting organized by Ryugaku Journal, an overseas study agency.
“So, people might open the door for you. Just say thanks and accept it,” she said, warning against the Japanese custom of yielding and hesitating when people offer help.
The orientation session for 80 eager students reflected a renewed interest among Japanese students for study-abroad programs, particularly among young women.
While the number of overseas students from other major Asian countries like China and India has boomed, there was a precipitous decline in the number of Japanese studying abroad. According to figures from the government and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 83,000 Japanese studied overseas in 2004, though that number dropped to fewer than 60,000 in 2009.
However, experts say the downward trend is reversing in Japan, partly because of demands by major employers, which are seeking to globalize.
The turning point was around autumn 2011, said Yukari Kato, executive vice president of Ryugaku Journal. “The government was beginning to realize they must globalize their human talent, and companies like Rakuten and Uniqlo were introducing in-house English-language policies,” she said, referring to a major online retailer and an internationally known clothing chain.
She added that employers were demanding solid foreign language skills and international experience.
Two trends stand out: One is that university students, eager to bolster their employability, are choosing short-term language programs in English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada. Another is the growing number of high school students looking to go to overseas.
Ryugaku Journal says the number of college students it arranged to send overseas rose 12 percent to 3,500 in 2012, while the number of high school students grew 94 percent.
Tatsu Hoshino, an independent study abroad counselor, said there were signs everywhere that more young Japanese were heading overseas — except in data from the Ministry of Education, which are released a few years after the fact.
“The earthquake in March 2011 did not dampen the growth,” he said, referring to the quake that was followed by a devastating tsunami and nuclear accident. “By contrast, as corporations grew more active internationally, students also began to look abroad.”
While more Japanese students still go to the United States and China, Canada has emerged as a new popular destination for language study, college and working holidays. According to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, the number of student participants in study-abroad fairs at the embassy jumped to 3,643 in 2012, from 2,375 in 2010.
“Quite frankly Japanese have a pretty good opinion of Canada, I think,” Gerald Keddy, parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade, said by telephone from Ottawa. “They see us as neighbors of the United States but not American.”
Canada is safer and more multicultural and offers greater flexibility on visas and immigration, he said, adding, “We have done a great job of attracting students and allowing them to become part of Canadian society by allowing them to work while studying here.”
Japanese students can stay, study and travel in Canada without a visa for as long as six months and may opt for a holiday working visa that is good for a year.
Ami Katayanagi, a 21-year-old junior at a Tokyo college, called work opportunities a “major determinant” when she was planning to study abroad. Her 10-month stay in Vancouver will start with language training, followed by an internship at a hotel or another service outlet.
Personal security has also been a concern among Japanese students, particularly after recent school shootings in the United States. “My parents were telling me, ‘Oh, please assure us that you are going to be in a safe place,”’ Ms. Katayanagi said.
“Our streets are extremely safe. Our communities are extremely safe. Most Canadians are very friendly,” Mr. Keddy said. “If you are a Japanese parent and if you are thinking of your child going for a foreign education for whatever reason, what is happening in the U.S., it would be very difficult, I think, in clear conscience to send your child there.”
According to the Canadian government, 3,546 Japanese students required a study visa in 2011, up from 3,238 in 2010.
“Generally, people feel greater affinity with Canada, and perhaps stereotypically, people think that English spoken there is more elegant,” said Ms. Kato of Ryugaku Journal. “Also, the local institutions often have Japanese student adviser/counselor on the site.”
The number of Japanese students going to the United States has also risen recently, after having fallen sharply over the past decade and a half.
The number of Japanese students studying on U.S. campuses hit a peak of 47,000 in 1997, and then fell to 19,000 in 2011, according to Institute of International Education, a nonprofit U.S. organization.
But the number of new visas issued by the U.S. State Department to Japanese students rose 10 percent to 18,668 in 2012, from 16,811 in 2011.
Experts say there is a clear gender gap among Japanese students looking to go overseas.
“Overwhelmingly, it is female students who show interest,” said Kageaki Kajiwara, Dean of the School of Asia 21 at Kokushikan University in Tokyo. “Unfortunately, there is a disparity in career opportunities available in this male-dominated society, and opportunities might be greater overseas for Japanese women.”
Marin Nakazawa, a sophomore at Sophia University in Tokyo, is one of them. “I don’t like to be like those ladies I grew up with in my hometown,” she said of a town in Shiga Prefecture near Osaka. “They don’t know the world outside their own.”
Ms. Nakazawa, who is due to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing as an exchange student in the autumn, is eager to learn Chinese and one day help her father’s watch-retailing business move into the Chinese market. “I want to see for myself what it’s like to be there in China.”
Japanese employers are stepping up their efforts to recruit young Japanese with international skills, who are still rare on the job market.
Daisuke Watanabe, director of global recruitment and marketing at Disco Inc., which organizes international career fairs for students studying overseas, said the number of Japanese companies that participated in the annual Boston Career Forum, for those pursuing North American degrees, rose to 191 in 2012, from 171 in 2011. New participants included DeNA and Gree, leading mobile gaming companies, and Uniqlo. “These companies are very active in conducting recruitment” internationally, he said.
It is not yet clear whether the inward-looking mind-set prevalent among young Japanese — partly a result of growing complacency in an affluent society — will be reversed for real. “I am not sure if these students are turning into the type of people corporations want to hire,” Mr. Watanabe said. “The current turnaround mostly involves students going overseas for a short-term study. They are doing that because they are worried about getting jobs.”
A small but growing number of high school students are hoping to gain overseas university degrees. Benesse, an education company that offers counseling and tutoring for the SAT and English as a foreign language, began a program in 2008 to help high school students prepare for college overseas. Interest has peaked in the past few years, according to Masanori Fujii, chief of Benesse’s global business development unit. The number of Benesse clients who ended up at overseas universities rose to 135 in 2012, from 25 in 2011. This year, more than 200 students are likely to leave for overseas schools, Mr. Fujii said.
Benesse’s Route H program is for students who wish to go to top universities like Harvard and Yale. Four graduates of the program ended up at Harvard between 2010 and 2012.
Mr. Fujii said that that growing minority reflected a broader change in Japan. Previously, all elite students had to worry about was getting into the University of Tokyo, which would put them on track to a career with a top Japanese employer. “People are questioning the existing order,” he said. “They are asking themselves, ‘What’s going on?”’