Features | Society | East Asia

Abeducation: New Opportunity for US-Japan Ties?

Can the Abe government change the downward trend in overseas study interest?

By Annette Bradford for

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.

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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.

American students must also make complex decisions when choosing to study in Japan, but their incentive structure is different. U.S. students are increasingly motivated to study aboard and U.S. universities are rapidly expanding study abroad opportunities. In fact, a growing number of universities are mandating overseas study as an essential part of a liberal undergraduate education. These factors have resulted in a steady increase in the number of U.S students abroad. 273,996 Americans studied abroad in 2010/2011 compared with 154,168 in 2000/2001. However, Japan has become a relatively unattractive choice for students. Those striving to develop language skills useful in the American economy head toward Spain or Latin America, and those looking for cultural experiences choose Europe. The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and France are currently the top four hosts of U.S. students. China is the leading destination for U.S. students in Asia, placing fifth overall. It attracts students because of the perceived economic opportunities associated with familiarity with the Chinese language and culture. In contrast, Japan, ranked 14th, is generally perceived as lacking the cultural panache and the economic vibrancy of other destinations. These alarming trends are relatively well known by policymakers and education specialists, but for years observation and talk has yielded little action.

Seeking to identify practical initiatives to revitalize U.S.-Japan educational exchange, in 2012 the United States-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON) convened a bi-national Education Task Force (ETF) to examine trends and make recommendations to both nations. The ETF consisted of government, private sector and academic leaders from both the U.S. and Japan under the joint leadership of former Prime Minster Yasuo Fukuda and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. Early this year, the ETF established the goal of doubling the number of Japanese and Americans studying in each other’s country by 2020, and in June they presented their final 30-page report to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine.

The ETF encourages both country-specific and bi-national cooperation. Recommendations for Japan include increasing the emphasis on communication skills in English language instruction, the restructuring of the academic calendar and hiring practices to allow time for study abroad, and encouraging companies to value the skills that study abroad promotes. The U.S. has been charged with tasks that include improving the promotion of study abroad programs and ways to gain acceptance to degree programs, expanding the hiring of global talent, and encouraging the enhancement of programs to invite Japanese youth to contribute to Japanese language education in the United States. Joint actions include increasing scholarships for study abroad, promoting regional studies to deepen mutual understanding, and ascribing value to high school experience abroad in university admissions processes.

The CULCON ETF report is very well timed given the Abe government’s commitment to education reform and strengthening U.S.-Japan relations. Abe himself and other senior government officials have recurringly emphasized the importance of education reform to foster global talent. In the government’s first seven months, the Prime Minister’s Office has held ten meetings of the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, a body that appears to be bringing real momentum for education policy change, in large part due to a commitment from the LDP leadership and powerful ministries such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which recognize the vital need for reform. In April, for example, Abe won plaudits when he called on Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Japan Association of Corporate Executives to adjust the recruitment cycle to enable study abroad.

At the end of June, Minister of Education, Hakubun Shimomura introduced the term Abeducation as a label for Abe’s plans to rebuild education. At the press conference introducing the concept, Shimomura focused on policies to strengthen the internationalization of Japanese higher education. These policies include several planks in line with the CULCON recommendations, including the doubling of Japanese students studying abroad, and the provision of scholarships for both Japanese students to go overseas and international students to study in Japan.

Despite all the good news, optimism should be tempered. Many of the policy goals being pushed under Abeducation are in fact inherited from previous governments and have proven difficult to implement and sustain. Perhaps more concerning is the LDP’s emphasis on the differences between Japanese culture and the cultures of others, and its rhetorical need to predicate global education with a requirement that students first heighten their Japanese identity. This outlook runs contrary to CULCONs recommendations that focus on the shaping of global citizens through early and frequent international contact. Ultimately it will be these issues that determine whether or not Abeducation strengthens the people-to-people foundations of the U.S.-Japan relationship.