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 3 - Papers & Essays



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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 3


The Japanese government has launched a series of initiatives designed to internationalize Japan and to produce more global human resources. Some of these initiatives encourage more study abroad participation. Contemporary Japanese students, however, are reluctant to participate in study abroad for a variety of reasons. Participation in more impactful long-term degree-seeking programs is particularly rare. One of the primary reasons that students do not participate in these long-term programs is their perceived lack of English language competencies. This article discusses a variety of nontraditional ways for Japanese students to gain English language training at less expense and about how to receive the academic support they will need at US universities to earn a degree. This information is provided by an experienced US international education administrator and researcher who also worked in Japan for 6 years.

Getting the English and Academic Support You Need to Earn a US Degree.


In my previous article I addressed one of the primary obstacles to studying abroad that is cited by contemporary Japanese students, the lack of financial resources (Kawai, 2009; Kobayashi, 2011; Lassegard, 2013; Ota, 2011). In this article I will address another commonly cited obstacle, lack of English language competencies. In particular, I will discuss how students can overcome this deficiency at less expense, with the goal of being admitted to a US institution and successfully completing a degree. Then, I will provide information about the US educational system regarding how students who have been admitted to a degree program can receive the academic support they will need to succeed during their studies.

The lack of English competencies is a problem for Japanese students (Education Testing Service, January, 2015; McKenzie, 2008; Pritchard & Maki, 2006). This is true even though Japanese students receive English language instruction from middle school through high school. Although students receive a lot of English instruction, in general, the focus of this instruction in Japan in the past has been on test taking. The government has recently implemented reforms to the English curriculum, including the introduction of English language instruction in elementary schools and a greater emphasis on all four language skills (MEXT, 2014). However, Japanese students are still lacking in practical communicative competencies, according to the primary English language exam used to determine admissibility and success at English language institutions, the TOFEL *.

Japanese Student Scores on the TOEFL

In the recent past, Japanese students have consistently scored the lowest among countries in the region on the TOEFL test (Education Testing Service, January, 2016). As seen in Figure 1, the average TOEFL scores for Japanese students were lower than other Asian students, such as those from China, Singapore, South Korea, and India.

The failure, as measured by this test, of the Japanese education system to produce students with communicative competency in English is often cited as a primary factor influencing the number of students ready and willing to study abroad (McKenzie, 2008; Pritchard & Maki, 2006). Contemporary Japanese students who consider studying abroad cite concerns related to their English language competency as one of the primary barriers to participate in these programs. Students that consider pursing a degree at an English-speaking institution (rather than participating in a short program) face the greatest challenge in this regard because of the requirement that they pass this test at a certain level to be admitted.

Figure 1. Average TOEFL iBT scores for five countries in Asia. (Educational Testing Service, 2017)
Note: Author created.

Even for students who achieved a score on the TOEFL high enough to be admitted to a US institution, there are additional challenges. The US educational system's approach to instruction is quite different to what Japanese students are used to. Unlike schools in Japan, there is a much higher expectation at US institutions that students actively participate with their instructor, their fellow students, and the course materials in the classroom. They are expected to take a more independent role in their education, not solely on passively receiving instruction, but to actively engage and critically evaluate the course content. This requires a high level of communicative competency in English, and subsequently, can be a real challenge for students who are used to taking a more passive receptive in the Japanese educational system. In this paper I will discuss the ways that Japanese students can gain English competencies and the ways that they can receive the support that is provided to them at US institutions that will greatly aid them in their success when seeking a degree at a US institution.

English Language Competency

Given the low level of conversational English skills that the Japanese school system generally produces, it is often necessary for students who desire to pursue a degree in the US to study in an intensive English program either in Japan or in the US. Unfortunately, these English programs can add considerable cost and time to earning a US degree. In order to reduce this expense and get the English support necessary to succeed in a degree program, students can take advantage non-traditional options to address their English language deficit, apart from participating in expensive intensive English programs in Japan or the US. These options include:

  • Intensive English programs in countries where English is spoken as a second language
  • Online English tutoring from English Second Language Speakers
  • Free English Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

Intensive English Language Programs in Countries Where English Is Spoken as a Second Language
English is the international language and, in spite of ongoing geopolitical changes, this is unlikely to change into the foreseeable future. It is not just the language of the US, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand though. When seeking to gain communicative competency, Japanese students traditionally seek out "native" speakers from these countries to tutor or teach them. However, agencies that provide "native" speaker instruction are expensive. In order to reduce the cost of English instruction, I suggest that students look for programs taught by individuals who speak English as their second language. This will reduce the cost of language training and may actually prepare student better for their future education and career. In reality, many of the speakers of English that Japanese students will be interacting with in their careers and at English speaking universities, including many of their professors at universities in the US speak English as a second language. In fact, of the 1.5 billion speakers of English in the world, most are non-native speakers. There are several countries where students can get in-person instruction from second language English instructors. These include, Guyana and Belize in South and Central America, India, and the Philippines. I will use the Philippines as an example. There are a large variety of quality intensive English language programs for students to choose from. The website, Language International, is a good place to start. This page lists a large variety of programs to choose from in the Philippines:

Online English Tutoring from English Second Language Speakers
For students that cannot afford the expense of traveling to another country, such as the Philippine's, to participate in an in-person intensive English program, there is another option that will reduce the cost of English language instruction even further. This option is to study online with students in non-western countries where English is spoken as a second language. With the advent of the internet and inexpensive video conferencing, students can now receive instruction and tutoring online. I will use the Philippines again simply an example. The one-on-one tutoring available in the Philippines through numerous web sites is much less expensive than the cost of "native" language instruction provided online. It is a viable option for students that are looking for an affordable route to learning communicative English in preparation for admissions to and studies at a US institution.

Free English Instruction through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)
Another option for students is the vast amount of English coursework that is now available online through various MOOC sites. Much of this content is free. Here are some web pages that will refer you to various resources on the web (used only as examples and should not be considered an endorsement):

Finally, here is an example of one particular page that offers free English language instruction that is funded by the US government, USA Learns:

Academic and International Student Office Support Services

Academic Support Services
In Japan, universities typically provide limited support services to a student beyond classroom instruction. In the US, however, institutions provide a large variety of academic support services to students. Partly because of the changes in the US economy and the limited number of higher paying jobs available to individuals without a college degree, more and more students are going to college in the US that would not have in the past. Many of these students are not adequately prepared for a college education. Consequently, many students at US institutions start but do not finish their academic programs. In some of the worst cases, nearly 40% of students that begin an academic program do not complete their degrees. In addition, some students complete their degrees but it takes them a much longer time than what would be considered normal or acceptable, in some cases 6 and even 7 years. In order to improve retention and shorten the time it can take some students to complete a degree, US universities provide a great deal of academic support to students. International students need to become informed of these support services and take full advantage of them. These support services include:

  • Tutoring in writing
  • Tutoring in course content
  • Psychological support services
  • Testing support
  • Student health services
  • Recreational facilities to encourage healthy living
  • Advising center to help students with personal finances
  • Career services
  • Faculty support (They have office hours and encourage students to seek assistance outside of the classroom.)

Universities provide this support in order to retain students and the students that take full advantage of this support are much more likely to succeed. Given the extra challenges that international students face, this support is even more important and in utilizing these support services, Japanese students will increase their chances of completing a degree.

International Student Office Support Services
One of the support offices at universities that exists primarily to support international students at US universities is the International student service offices. These services include:

  • Advising and consultation related to the student's immigration status
  • Workshops and orientation session designed to address the specific needs of international students
  • Host family programs that connect international students with American families that will invite them into their homes occasionally and include them in family outings
  • Buddy programs that match international students and domestic students to provide support and friendship
  • Social events at different times throughout the year
  • Opportunities to study at universities outside the US on faculty or exchange programs (There are often scholarships available to international students who chose to study abroad through these programs.)

These offices provide services and guidance specifically for the international student population. Students should be prepared to take full of the support these offices provide.

Final Remarks

Lack of communicative English language competency can be a challenge for Japanese students who choose to pursue a degree in the US. However, this should not stop students from pursuing their dream. In this paper I have highlighted some less expensive ways to gain communicative competency in English and ways students can receive the support they need at US institutions to succeed. I recognize that the US is not the only choice for students for studying abroad and may not be the best choice for some. Regardless of what English institution a student chooses, however, I encourage them to never give up on their dreams based on challenges related to cost or lack of English competencies. I hope my advice and suggestions are helpful to Japanese students or other international students who are considering the possibility of pursuing a degree at a US institution in the near future.

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  • * The TOEFL test was designed primarily to determine college success for non-native speakers of English at English speaking universities and it is the most commonly used test to determine admissibility at US universities. Since 2006 the test has placed greater emphasis on communicative competencies.


  • Educational Testing Service. (2018). Test and score data summary for TOEFL iBT tests. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/s/toefl/pdf/94227_unlweb.pdf
  • Kawai, J. (2009). Motivation of study abroad and systematic constraints: Survey of Japanese students [Japanese]. The International Center Kyoto University The 3rd Survey Report (pp. 105-122). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2433/79575
  • Kobayashi, A. (2011). Nihonjin gakusei no kaigai ryugaku sogai yoin to kongo no taisaku (Obstacles of Japanese students who study abroad and future strategies). Ryugaku Koryu (Foreign Exchange), 2, 1-11.
  • Lassegard, J. P. (2013). Student perspectives on international education: An examination into the trend of Japanese studying abroad. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 33, 365-379.
  • McKenzie, R. (2008). The complex and rapidly changing sociolinguistic position of the English language in Japan: A summary of English language contact and use. Japan Forum, 20, 267-286.
  • MEXT (2014). Report on the future improvement and enhancement of English education: Five recommendations on the English education reform plan responding to the rapid globalization. Retrieved from http://www.mext.go.jp/en/news/topics/detail/1372625.htm
  • Ota, H. (2011). Why students are staying away from study abroad. Education and Medical Science, 59, 68-76.
  • Pritchard, R. M. O., Maki, H. (2006). The changing self-perceptions of Japanese university students of English. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10, 141-156.
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.