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Can Japan Boost Its Foreign Students Count to 400,000?

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Can Japan Boost Its Foreign Students Count to 400,000?

The Kishida administration has set a lofty goal, even while tightening the regulations for universities that admit international students.

Can Japan Boost Its Foreign Students Count to 400,000?
Credit: Depositphotos

In late April, the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio revised a Justice Ministry ordinance in order to firm up regulations regarding the acceptance of international students. Under the new rules, educational institutions, including universities, are required to have appropriate enrollment regulations as well as international student management, including classroom attendance and part-time job records. If educational institutions do not meet the requirements, they are not allowed to accept foreign students, and student residential status will not be granted to foreign applicants.

Casual observers of this policy change might come away with the impression that the revised Justice Ministry ordinance aims to limit the number of international students who plan to attend school in Japan, but this is not the case. On the contrary, the Japanese government has consistently sought to increase the number of international students from the 1980s to the present. 

Back in 1983, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro launched the “Plan to Accept 100,000 Foreign Students” with the goal of attracting more overseas students to study in Japan by the beginning of the 21st century. The target of 100,000 was considered ambitious but appropriate in comparison with other developed countries.

The number of foreign students in Japan was only about 10,000 in 1983, but it had rapidly increased to some 54,000 by 1995. Due to the influence of economic conditions in Japan and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the foreign student count decreased to around 51,000 as of May 1998, and the Japanese government admitted in 1999 that the target of 100,000 was “unlikely to be achieved in the near future.” In 2003 however, Japan successfully achieved the goal of accepting 100,000 foreign students. It took more than 20 years for Japan to achieve that goal. 

From the early 2000s, the government has emphasized not only the quantity but also the quality of foreign students who wish to enter Japan for study.

In 2008, the Fukuda Yasuo administration launched a “Plan for 300,000 Exchange Students” as a new plan to increase the number of foreign students who study in Japan. The government aimed to attract highly capable foreign students to graduate schools and companies in Japan. Nonetheless, the Global Financial Crisis as well as the strong yen negatively influenced the number of international students in Japan. Furthermore, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the following tsunami and Fukushima nuclear crisis inevitably affected the internationalization programs of Japanese universities. The number of foreign students decreased nationwide following the triple disaster.

The number of international students in Japan, however, began increasing again based on the Immigration Control Act amended in 2010, which made it easier to obtain permanent residency in Japan. In 2013, the Abe Shinzo administration announced the “Japan Revitalization Strategy” and reconfirmed that Japan should achieve the goal of accepting 300,000 foreign students by 2020. Later in the same year, the government formulated the “Strategies for Accepting International Students to Take Advantage of Global Growth” and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) commenced the Study in Japan Coordinator Project in 2014 so that the government can facilitate the acceptance of foreign students. 

Since then, the number of foreign students in Japan had steadily increased. The government achieved its goal by accepting more than 310,000 foreign students in 2019.

The victory was short-lived, however. The number of foreign students in Japan sharply dropped to some 240,000 by May 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was reported that more and more international students were forced to choose other countries to study rather than Japan due to its rigid COVID-19 border controls. For this reason, the number of foreign students decreased against to approximately 230,000 by May 2022. 

In the following month, however, the Japanese government expressed its plan to facilitate the acceptance of international students to the pre-pandemic levels and regain the level of 300,000 foreign students by 2027.

In fact, Japan’s government set an even higher target: Prime Minister Kishida announced on March 17, 2023, that Japan would seek to accept 400,000 international students by 2033. Speaking at a meeting of the government’s Council for the Creation of Future Education, Kishida emphasized that “it is important to make further investments in people to realize a new form of capitalism.” In other words, the goal of accepting 400,000 foreign students can be regarded as part of his policy of new capitalism. 

In a related development, in February 2024, the Kishida government decided to expand employment opportunities for foreign students who graduate from certified vocational schools in Japan by granting them a residency status equal to university graduates.

Hence, the Japanese government has consistently promoted the acceptance of foreign students from the 1980s to the present. So why did it just tighten regulations on the enrollment of international students? 

Simply put, this measure was the guard against the illegal employment of foreign students and visa overstayers in Japan. Previously, the Japanese government strengthened standards of Japanese language schools in 2019. This was because it came to light that some Japanese language schools functioned as a “backdoor” for foreigners to enter Japan so that they could find jobs even after the expiration of their student visas. 

In principle, international students in Japan are allowed to work as part-time employees for 28 hours per week, although they can work up to 8 hours per day during long vacation periods. However, in practice some students stop coming to classrooms because they tend to focus too much on working – despite the 28-hour limitation.

It was reported that more than 1,600 foreign students “disappeared” from Tokyo University of Social Welfare during the period from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2018. The “disappearance” of the foreign students occurred because the university was not able to adequately manage the enrollment and attendance of international students. The university was also criticized when it came to light that women’s bathroom was located inside a classroom on one of the university’s campuses, indicating that the university hastily set up the bathroom. It must have been uncomfortable for students to use the “makeshift cubicle” inside the classroom.

The case of Tokyo University of Social Welfare was a shocking scandal, but numerous universities in Japan have difficulties in securing sufficient university applicants due to Japan’s declining birthrate and aging population. For financial reasons, many universities in Japan are thus motivated to accept more and more international students in the face of the decrease in the number of domestic applicants. Therefore, the increase in the number of foreign students in Japan is a key to the survival of Japanese universities. This can lead to the temptation to take on more international students than a university is actually equipped to handle administratively. 

It is natural for the Immigration Services Agency to restrict illegal work by foreigners and inappropriate management of international students in Japan. In essence, the purpose of the new Justice Ministry ordinance is not to decrease the number of international students in Japan, but to prevent foreign students from violating the terms of their visas or facing substandard education experiences.

Likewise, the Japanese government needs to guarantee both the quality and quantity of international students who wish to study and stay in Japan. For example, most of the “missing” students in the Tokyo University of Social Welfare case were research students who take preliminary courses in preparation for regular university courses. In response, the immigration agency decided to stop granting student visas to foreign nationals who study Japanese language as “research students” or “auditing students” in Japan.

The new Justice Ministry ordinance could encourage universities to strengthen appropriate management of foreign students including their attendance and part-time job records. But in the short term, it can be inferred that this logical and understandable decision by the immigration agency would have a negative impact on the government’s goal of accepting 400,000 international students by 2033. 

To prevent any negative impact, the Kishida government might propose and implement more attractive policies and programs for international students, including an increase in government scholarships as well as employment support for foreign students after graduation. The goal of accepting 400,000 international students might sound difficult to achieve, but this can be regarded as an ideal trajectory for internationalization of university education in Japan. Therefore, the Kishida administration is expected to take more attractive measures to accept more international students who wish to study and stay even after graduation. It will also need to prepare for possible cross-cultural frictions and multicultural coexistence in the globalizing Japanese society.