In recent years, as Japanese firms expand their overseas operations, they increasingly demand employees capable of going abroad and working hands-on in foreign countries. As a result, these firms increasingly prefer new hires with previous experience living abroad during their student years. According to a 2019 survey from the Japan Student Services Organization, close to 80 percent of Japanese firms view study abroad experience as valuable for Japanese students in their future jobs and their contributions to the Japanese economy as a whole.
However, enthusiasm among Japanese youths to study abroad has seen a continued decline in the past decade. Data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology show that the number of Japanese students studying abroad peaked at 83,000 in 2004, and has since continued its decline to less than 60,000 per year. In contrast, the numbers of study abroad students from Japan’s major trading partners, including the U.S., China, South Korea, and India, have continued to grow, with each of these countries sending more than 100,000 per year to universities around the world.
Moreover, the lack of interest in studying abroad among Japanese youths is also reflected in their lack of desire to live and work in other countries. In a survey conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office in 2019 with youths aged 13 to 29 from seven countries, Japan was the only country in which more than half of the respondents stated that they have no intention of ever studying abroad. In a separate 2017 survey conducted by Sanno University, 60 percent of new hires in Japanese firms stated that they have no desire to work abroad, representing a large increase from 29 percent in 2001.
As the majority of Japanese youths display a lack of interest in foreign countries, it will become increasingly difficult for Japanese firms to find Japanese workers to staff their overseas operations. In turn, their overseas businesses, hampered by a lack of adequate personnel, may not be able to expand quickly. As Japanese businesses fail to sufficiently take advantage of foreign markets, the Japanese economy will also suffer in tandem.
To provide the domestic human resources corporate Japan needs to staff its overseas businesses, Japan’s school education must be revised to provide the country’s youths with a “global mentality,” defined by a greater interest in interacting with foreign countries and peoples. Establishing such a global mentality requires school curricula that place greater emphasis on providing students with more firsthand experience and understanding of the realities on the ground in other countries, including how local youths in other countries think.
In some ways, contemporary Japan is more equipped to provide youths with opportunities to develop an interest in foreign lands. As the number of foreign residents in Japan continues to increase and approaches 3 million in total, it is increasingly possible for Japanese students, without leaving the country, to communicate with foreigners about cultural and social issues. With the newly added requirement for English language education in elementary school in the 2020 educational reforms, Japanese policymakers are also signaling a greater urgency for the country’s youths to acquire an international understanding.
Yet, creating a widespread global mentality requires further changes to the current educational system that go beyond teaching the English language. In particular, a greater emphasis on the teaching of not only foreign history but also current affairs is needed for the next generation of Japanese students to garner more academic and professional interest in matters outside Japan. It is up to Japan’s educators and education policymakers to continue adjusting the teaching of non-Japanese matters in the classroom, in ways that prove useful for encouraging the kind of global mentality corporate Japan finds useful in going abroad.
Changes in how youths are educated will require careful deliberation, legislation, and implementation by government and school officials, with buy-in from teachers, parents, and the students themselves. Given the training necessary to furnish teachers with the skills to teach new content, and provide schools with firsthand access to foreigners and foreign knowledge, Japan should get on this task soon, as a necessary step for the country to remain internationally competitive.