In recent years a considerable amount of policy energy has been focused on ensuring the vitality and relevance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Now, with Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks (TTP), attention has refocused on the economic aspect.
Somewhat less consideration has been paid to the fundamental foundation of the relationship: people-to-people exchange. Total human flow from Japan to the U.S. has declined significantly over the last 15 years, and while the numbers of U.S. arrivals to Japan have grown, they remain low. The pace of student exchanges between the U.S. and Japan has many worried. Demonstrating this concern, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, has frequently stated that he does not worry about the security or economic facets of the U.S.-Japan relationship, but that he does worry about the educational facet.
Fortunately, in recent months policies may be moving to a point of action. The Abe government is creating new opportunities to revitalize the people to people underpinnings of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
For many decades, educational and cultural exchanges between Japan and the United States nurtured friendships, fostered international communication skills, and created mutual understanding and cross-cultural affinity, thereby forming the bedrock for the strong bilateral relationship. Over the last 15 years, however, exchanges have been faltering.
These problematic trends can be clearly seen in the statistics relating to the flow of university students between the two countries. Institute of International Education data show that in the 1990s, Japan was the leading provider of students to the U.S. with Japanese study abroad students on U.S. campuses peaking in 1997/8 at 47,073. By 2011/12, this figure had dropped to 19,966. Over a similar time period, U.S. students in Japan increased, but not at a rate commensurate to the overall growth in numbers of Americans studying abroad. The number of U.S. study abroad students in Japan peaked at 6,166 in 2009/10, before dropping after the March 2011 triple disaster. This is fewer than half of the 13,910 U.S. study abroad students in China. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. students in China is expected to continue to rise. In fact, the number of U.S. students pursuing full degrees in China increased by 518 in the last academic year, while the number of U.S. students seeking degrees in Japan totalled to only 505.
A popular explanation for the decline in the number of Japanese students studying abroad points to an inward-looking, risk adverse Japanese youth unwilling to take on new challenges. But this explanation overlooks the complexities involved in making the decision to study in the United States. The reason for the decline of Japanese students lies less with the social nature of the current youth generation, and more with the incentive structure present in today’s Japanese society. Many Japanese youth see Japanese universities as both the path requiring the least effort and the path most likely to yield professional opportunities. Studying in the United States involves investment in English language skills, noteworthy financial outlay, and the overcoming of institutional constraints such as differences in the academic calendar and difficulties in transferring academic credit. Moreover, while the benefits of international experience may be increasingly recognized in the workplace, many Japanese companies still prefer conformity and a thorough understanding of the Japanese way of doing things. Students also worry that when returning from abroad they will have missed out on invaluable networking opportunities and will be out-of-sync with the protracted Japanese corporate recruitment cycles which begin in the second half of their third year at university – a time when students in other countries often study abroad. Factor the results of these decisions into the shrinking size of the Japanese youth population and recent history of Japanese economic stagnation, and the falling numbers of Japanese abroad can be easily understood.