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Japanese university students' study abroad decisions: From the perspectives of Japanese study abroad administrators - Part 1


This will be a two-part article. In this first installment, we discuss the background of the problem, the decrease in the number of Japanese university students studying abroad in tertiary education, and some of the factors that previous research has identified as being responsible for this decrease. We will then describe the current study, including information about the participants, the methods we used to collect the data and how we analyzed the data. In the next article, we will present the results of the study and discuss their implications, as well as make recommendations for further studies and for decisions makers that are trying to reverse this negative trend. This article was primarily based on the first author's dissertation.

For the past few decades, there has been a steep upward growth in student mobility internationally. According to a report by UNESCO in 2016, there was a 78% increase in the number of students studying outside their home country from 2000. In the midst of the worldwide increase in student mobility during that time period, one of the countries that stood out as anomalous was Japan. During that time period fewer and fewer Japanese students chose to "study abroad (SA)" when compared to students in other OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries (OECD, 2015). In addition, the number of students from Japan studying in the U.S., which has been the largest receiving country for globally mobile students in the world, dramatically decreased from 2000 to 2016. Japan sent 46,872 students to the U.S. in 1999, while in 2015 it was 18,780, a 60% decrease (Institute for International Education, 2017). Furthermore, only 2-3 percent of Japanese students were long-term (more than 1 year) SA students (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT], 2017)*1. This decline contrasts with other Asian countries in the regions, such as Korea or China, which display the opposite trend (Ota, 2013). The goal of this research was to explore the factors associated with current Japanese university student SA decisions from the perspective of SA administrators at Japanese universities.

Factors associated with university students' decision to SA

Because of the rapid globalization of the world economy, universities around the world are increasingly emphasizing the importance of global competencies. These skills are viewed as increasingly crucial to their students' and their nation's ability to compete and succeed in the global marketplace and in playing a positive role in encouraging understanding and peaceful cooperation among nations. SA is one primary way for students to develop these cultural competencies. However, we do not know much about how factors associated with studying abroad differ based on cultural patterns in each country. These factors may be comparatively different for students from more individualistic cultures such as the U.S. and Australia than for students in more collectivistic cultures such as Japan.

Factors associated with Japanese university students' decision to SA

Previous studies have suggested a wide variety of factors associated with this decline in contemporary Japanese students' participation in SA (e.g., Asaoka & Yano, 2009; Lassegard, 2013, Ota, 2013). Some of the common factors identified were financial burden, Japanese university schedules and curriculum, the lack of English language skills, the hiring practices of Japanese employers, and the "inward tendencies" of contemporary Japanese students.

Economic factor. The financial capability of families can be one factor in the decision whether or not to send children to SA. The cost of SA in the West was the primary obstacle for Japanese university students (Benesse Educational Research and Development Center, 2007; Ota, 2013). In particular, the rising cost of university tuition in the West has made the decision to SA even harder for Japanese students (Ota, 2013). Yet, this may not be the primary differentiating factor in comparison with other Asian countries. Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea experienced substantial growth in personal purchasing power from 2000 to 2010 (Index Mundi, 2019). In China and South Korea, the growth rates in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and the number of students studying abroad in the U.S. coincide. In Japan, in contrast, the number of students that go abroad to the U.S. has dropped by over 50%, although the PPP has increased by nearly 30% during roughly the same time period. These divergent growth patterns cast doubt on the validity of a straightforward economic explanation for the decrease in Japanese students' SA participation.

Educational factors. The schedule of schools at all levels, but particularly at the post-secondary level, has made it difficult for Japanese students to take a break to participate in long-term SA experiences (Asaoka & Yano, 2009; Lassegard, 2013; McKenzie, 2008). The traditional Japanese university schedule, starting in early April and ending the following March, differs from universities outside Japan. This makes it challenging for Japanese universities to form exchange partnerships with foreign institutions.

The English language curriculum in Japan is often faulted for its failure to develop communicatively competent or confident students who are able to gain admittance and succeed at foreign institutions (McKenzie, 2008). In spite of the investment in English education in Japan (students study English from middle school through high school, and increasingly starting in elementary school), the TOEFL scores of Japanese students are low in comparison to students from other non-English speaking countries in Asia (Education Testing Service, 2015, Ota, 2013). Several studies of Japanese students revealed that a lack of language ability was the first or the second highest reason for Japanese students not studying abroad (British Council, 2014; Lassegard, 2013).

Corporate factor. The hiring patterns of employers in Japan often discourage students from doing SA (e.g., Asaoka & Yano, 2009; Ota, 2013). Lack of incentive for gaining SA experience in relation to future employment was one of the common reasons cited by Japanese students as a reason for not SA. About 70% of Japanese students do not think or do not know if employers value university graduates with SA experience (British Council, 2014). The traditional hiring schedule rigidly adheres to the Japanese university calendar. Students who delay graduation or graduate on a different schedule get out-of-sync, which places them at a real or perceived disadvantage with their peers who remain in Japan.

Inward tendencies. The supposed "inward tendencies" of contemporary Japanese university students was another possible reason cited for Japanese students not doing SA (Ota, 2013). Inward tendency refers to a reluctance among contemporary Japanese students to venture out beyond the comfort and security of the familiar safe context of their home country. Yet, some researchers have questioned this assessment of the current generation of Japanese students (e.g., Ota, 2013). Based on several surveys of Japanese youths' views toward globalization, Ota suggested that there were two opposite spectrums of Japanese youths - a group that is strongly oriented toward SA and a weakly oriented group. As for those not interested in SA, their high level of satisfaction with their lives may be one of the explanations (e.g., Benesse Educational Research and Development Center, 2007).

Recent internationalization initiatives by Japanese government. The decline in the number of Japanese students doing SA around the world, in comparison to other countries in the region over the past decade, is of great concern to the Japanese government and private sector (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2015). The resulting shortage of Japanese youth with cross-cultural competencies is viewed as a challenge to the long-term health of the Japanese economy and its leadership role in the world. To develop a future workforce that has a more global mindset and experience, the Japanese government recently introduced initiatives, including the Top Global University Project and the Tobitate Scholarship programs, in order to (a) overcome the younger generation's inward tendency and (b) foster human resources that can succeed in the global field (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2015).

Current study

Most of the previous studies that investigated the motivational factors of student's decisions to SA were based on opinions from experts and student surveys. To the authors' knowledge, there are no studies that investigated current trends in Japanese university students' SA participation from the perspective of professionals who work in university SA offices in Japan.

The purpose of this study is to examine factors influencing the decisions of Japanese students to SA from the perspectives of Japanese SA administrators through in-depth interviews. All of these participants had studied abroad themselves at various western institutions. The purposeful sampling method was employed to recruit Japanese SA administrators who are currently working in international affairs offices at universities in Japan, and had also completed doctoral degrees at English speaking institutions outside of Japan. There were primarily two reasons for these sampling criteria. First, because of participants' bi-cultural SA experience, it was assumed that they could provide profound understanding related to SA motivation and the efforts of Japanese universities to promote SA. Second, those participants could articulate their implicit cultural comparative perspectives through in-depth interviews conducted in English because of their advanced degrees at English speaking institutions. The central question was "How do Japanese SA administrators describe the factors that impact Japanese student decisions to SA?"

Research Design

This study used a qualitative research method because of the complex interplay of cultural and social factors that potentially influence a student's decision to SA. Among the variety of qualitative methods, this research employed a phenomenological approach, which is utilized to gain insights into the common or essential experience of a group (Creswell, 1998). The nature of phenomenological research, which focuses on peoples' subjective lived experiences and their interpretations of those experiences, was beneficial for identifying commonalities in the perceptions of these Japanese SA administrators as key players in the current efforts of universities to increase the number of Japanese students to SA.

We used semi-structured interviews to examine multiple factors influencing Japanese university students' SA decisions at various levels based on the theoretical model of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems. According to Bronfenbrenner (1986), human development and behavior can only be understood in relation to the environmental settings people experience directly or indirectly. By applying this theory to our research, the decisions of university students could be examined within the multiplicity of environmental settings that intersect in their lives. This model focuses on the person's immediate environments such as family, peers, and schools (Microsystem) and the relationship between or among them (Mesosystem). It also examines the influence of systems that affect students more indirectly, including education, economic, and political systems (Exosystem). The overarching attitudes and ideologies of Japanese culture (Macrosystem) are particularly important in evaluating factors associated with Japanese students' decisions and views toward SA. Finally, dimensions of time, such as historical events, timing, transition, and changes, was also critical in understanding the situation that current Japanese students face (Chronosystem).


A total of 15 international educators who are working for universities in Japan, including private and public, were initially recruited for the study. Five consented to participate. All of the participants were females with terminal degrees from English-speaking institutions outside of Japan. They had worked in an international office at a 4-year university in Japan from 2 to 15 years. Three of them (Ai, Rie, Yuri) worked at top-tier public universities, one (Mari) at a top-tier private university, and one (Kei) at a lower tier public university. Four out of the five participant's institutions (Ai, Mari, Rie, Yuri) were located in large urban areas of Japan, while one (Kei) was located in a rural area*2. All of the participant's work involved the promotion of SA opportunities in the context of an office that promotes and supports SA.

Data Collection

The Human Subject Committee at the first author's institution granted authorization to conduct the interviews. The process of data collection took place over a period of four months in the spring of 2016. After initial contact or referrals, the first author contacted the potential participants via email to inquire if they would be willing to participate in the study. Once the written consent form was obtained, the participants were asked to answer two sets of questions. The first set of questions were related to immediate factors (family, peer, school) that are associated with Japanese students' SA participation, while the second set were related to more distant and indirect factors (education, employment, government, culture, time). The responses to the interview questions were collected via email (Kei, Yuri) and phone (Ai, Rie, Mari). The participants were allowed to choose whether to answer the questions by email or over the phone, depending upon their preference related to time considerations and level of comfort with the medium of communication. A professional transcription service transcribed the phone recordings.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was guided by Colaizzi's phenomenological method (1978) as described by Sanders (2003). Her six steps were designed to introduce an auditable decision trail that introduced rigor and trustworthiness to the qualitative analysis of the data. After reading the data several times (step 1) and extracting the significant statements and phrases from them (step 2), we attempted to distill the significant statements into general restatements that captured their meaning (step 3). Then we organized formulated meanings for the significant statements extracted into the clusters of themes (step 4). The fifth step was incorporating the data generated through the first four steps to make sure that our coding contained all of the perspectives and ideas shared by the participants. The final step was to contextualize the data by using Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory. This involved organizing the themes that emerged from the data under the multi-layered systems, including the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. To check for inter-coder agreement, the first and the second authors independently analyzed the data for the first two participants. The Excel sheets from step 6 were compared, and disagreements were resolved through discussion. The two authors then came up with final rules for coding. The first author finished the coding of the remaining three participants.

In the next article in this two part series, I will present the results of the study and discuss their implications. I will also make recommendations for further studies and for decisions makers that are trying to reverse this negative trend.

  • *1 A recent report in Japan indicates an increase in the number of Japanese SA students studying abroad in 2017. However, a majority of this increase has been K-12 students and short-term SA program participants.
  • *2 We used fake names to protect the participants' identities.


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Richard_Porter.jpg Richard Porter
Dr. Porter is an international educator and university administrator in Texas Tech University, USA. 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.

report_porter_noriko_02.jpg Noriko Porter
Noriko Porter is an Instructor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. Before immigrating to the United States, she worked as an Associate Professor in the Early Childhood Education Department at Hokuriku Gakuin College in Japan. She received a Ph.D. from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2008. Her current research interests are cross-cultural parenting, autism, and early childhood development. In 2012 she received the research excellence award from the Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education for a manuscript based on early intervention programs for her son who is a child with autism. Since June 2013, she has worked as a visiting scientist, receiving training from Dr. Katherine Loveland at the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences in the University of Texas Medical School, Houston. Recently, she has been awarded the Abe Fellowship for the 2015-2016 period.
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