What Japanese students need to know before they decide not to study abroad: From the perspective of an international office administrator in the U.S. - Part 1 - Papers & Essays



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Papers & Essays

What Japanese students need to know before they decide not to study abroad: From the perspective of an international office administrator in the U.S. - Part 1


Internationalization has become a priority for the Japanese government and the private sector. Numerous large-scale initiatives have been launched to encourage and support that process through programs in Japanese primary and secondary schools. Some of this support is designed to encourage study abroad. This introductory article discusses these recent developments, and Japan’s study abroad trends from the perspective of an experienced international education administrator and researcher in the U.S. who also lived and worked in Japan. The article identifies some of the obstacles to study abroad that have been revealed in recent research, particularly in relation to long-term study abroad participation. The proceeding two articles will provide insights and advice regarding how to overcome two of the most prominent obstacles to pursuing a degree at a U.S. institution.

In 1989 I worked as a video cameraman on a cruise ship and had the privilege of visiting many countries in Asia, from Japan all the way down to Singapore. At that time one thing that stood out to me in my travels was the presence and influence of Japan throughout the region. Everywhere I went, I saw Japanese products on billboards, on the streets, and in the shops. Japan seemed transcendent at that time. With my TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate and Master Degree in Education, I moved to Japan to teach English. This was shortly after the economic bubble burst in 1992. I worked as an English lecturer at a university for almost six years and returned to the U.S. in 1998. Since then I have worked in offices as an international education advisor and administrator at a number of U.S. universities for two decades.

Since I came back to the U.S, I have had many opportunities to visit Asia and have noted a dramatic shift from what I observed in 1989. Alongside and in place of Japanese products and advertisements, I have witnessed the strong presence of Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese industry. Even as a casual observer, it was clear to me that a dramatic shift had occurred in the regional economic situation. My experience highlights the dramatic ongoing process of globalization. Recent initiatives by the Japanese government and private sector are a response to these changes.

Japanese Governmental Efforts to Internationalize

In recent years the Japanese government and private sector have identified an acute shortage of what they have labeled "global human resources." This shortage seems to be one factor that has impacted Japan's place in the world economy and the geopolitical landscape. This is not a shortage of material goods or natural resources but of the people that can help Japan succeed in the new, competitive, global environment. Society and, in particular, the Japanese school system, according to the government and private sector, are producing insufficient global human resources that are needed to help Japan navigate the increasingly competitive and complex global business and political environment. Without these additional people resources, it is feared, Japan will be ill-equipped to handle the tumultuous interconnected global challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Several large government initiatives, in partnership with the private sector, have been launched over the past decade to fund educational programs to internationalize Japanese society, largely through university programs (Huang, 2015). The overriding goal of these initiatives is to produce more global human resources (MEXT, 2016). A few of the internationalization initiatives that have been put in place over the past decade include:

  • English language instruction at the elementary school level
  • Global 30 and Global 30 Plus initiatives (MEXT Webpage)
  • A scholarship program designed to encourage participation in study abroad participation (Tobitate, Leap for Tomorrow, Scholarship)
  • The Super Global University Program

Some of these initiatives are designed to increase the international standing of select Japanese universities by increasing the number and quality of international students, scholars, and faculty at these institutions (The Super Global University Program). Still others, including the Tobitate scholarship and the Global 30 Plus program, were designed specifically to encourage more Japanese students to study abroad. The initiatives designed to encourage study abroad participation are a recognition of the importance of these experiences in the process of developing global human resources (Asaoka &Yano, 2009). These initiatives are also a response to the decrease in the number of Japanese students that participate in study abroad programs over the past two decades.

These Japanese government and private sector initiatives to encourage study abroad are designed expressly to help contemporary students overcome their supposed "inward tendencies" (MEXT, 2016). The consensus among government officials and the media is that these financial incentives are necessary, not only to overcome the barrier of inadequate finances but also to help students overcome their supposed "inwardness." This term is further defined as a hesitancy to take the risks and endure the hardship involved in venturing beyond the shores of relatively safe and secure Japan. However, questions have been raised about whether or not students have turned inward and are unwilling to take risks and endure hardship or whether they do not perceive the benefit of taking this chance, given opportunities available to them at home, and their skepticism regarding the rewards that supposedly await them upon returning to Japan after studying abroad (British Council, Education Intelligence, 2014; Ota, 2013).

Current Japanese Study Abroad Trends

In 1992 Japan had the largest population of international students in the U.S. Since that time, the population of Japanese students studying in the U.S. has decreased by over nearly 60%. Conversely, the number of students from other countries in Asia studying in the U.S. has increased (most dramatically, China and South Korea), according to the Open Doors Report (IIE, 2017). By 2017 Japan had dropped to the 8th among countries worldwide that send students to the U.S. (IIE, 2017). Other data sources show a recent increase in the number of Japanese students studying abroad around the world and in the U.S., but this is mostly due to an increase in the number of students participating in short-term programs (Porter, Ota, & Edmond, 2018; Smith, 2016).

In addition, the population of students studying outside their home countries worldwide has dramatically increased over the past two decades. According to a recent report by UNESCO (2016), there has been a 78% increase in the number of students studying outside their home countries since 2000 and the U.S. continues to receive the largest number of these students. Japan stands out as anomalous in the midst of this general worldwide trend and in the number of students it sends to the U.S.

Importance of Increasing Japanese Study Abroad Participants

Japanese companies are increasingly becoming global. Subsequently, globally competent students returning from study abroad experiences, particularly long-term programs, should be more desirable as employees and gain an advantage over students that stay at home. According to this narrative, students that invest in study abroad, therefore, will be rewarded. On the other hand, many companies still present challenges for returning students and are not as receptive to them as this simple narrative holds. The culture of Japanese companies, even those that are expressly global, does not always accept the new habits and perspectives that returning students have developed during their time abroad. Even when it is clearly to their advantage to change, companies in Japan still find change difficult (Tabuchi, 2012). Returning students personify the tension between what is best for the company and what is familiar, and they are not always winners in this struggle.

In the current global environment, Japan can only succeed if it can compete. To compete in this global environment means that the country must produce more globally competent leaders for the government and the private sector. The risk related to this investment on the part of the student remains, but the potential rewards for students that gain global competencies are substantial. For students that decide to invest in study abroad, two general questions present themselves. The first question is what type of study abroad should they participate in, a short program, a longer term exchange program, or a degree program. The second general question is how to overcome the obstacles to participating in study abroad programs. These obstacles will be different, depending on the type of study abroad program students chose to participate in. Short programs present fewer obstacles and risk. Longer programs present greater obstacles and risk but also offer, arguably, a more impactful and beneficial outcome, for both the student and the society in its efforts to develop global human resources.

Obstacles to Study Abroad

In 2016 I was awarded a TeamUp Microgrant by the U.S. Embassy. This grant was designed to encourage the development of partnerships between U.S. and Japanese universities. I traveled to Japan in the spring of 2017 to visit schools and establish new exchange partnerships. Based on this experience and my research on study abroad trends in Japan, I would like to make some recommendations on how Japanese students can overcome some of the perceived barriers to pursuing longer-term study abroad programs. Through my research and previous literature on this topic (Kawai, 2009; Kobayashi, 2011; Lassegard, 2013; Ota, 2011), I have identified some of the common obstacles to study abroad, as reported by contemporary students. These include:

  • Lack of financial resources
  • Insufficient proficiency in English
  • Lack of interest and motivation, given the opportunities available to students in Japan.
  • Delays in graduation
  • Fear of missed opportunities in seeking employment (getting out of sync with their peers).
  • Concerns regarding safety in the country they chose to visit.

In the following two articles, I will specifically address two obstacles (the lack of adequate financial resources, and the perceived lack of communicative competency in English) and make some recommendations based on my extensive work as an international educator in the U.S and a former English Instructor in Japan. These two obstacles stand out among the others as being the most frequently cited by current students. I believe I have something valuable to say to the readership of Child Research Net in respect to these obstacles. I hope to encourage students that have decided to take the risk to seek a degree in the U.S. by providing information regarding how to overcome these prominent obstacles.

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Richard_Porter.jpg Richard Porter
Dr. Porter is an international educator and university administrator in the US. He was awarded a TeamUp Grant by the US Embassy in Japan in 2016 and has participated in two Fulbright programs in Korea and Taiwan. He lived in Japan for 6 years, serving as a lecturer at a private university, and completed his doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership in 2016.