Japan turns inward

By Ichiro Suzuki


Young Japanese show little interest in studying abroad. This is no new news in the 21st century. On campuses in America or elsewhere, Japanese students are rarely seen, disproportionately outnumbered by ones from China and India. Taiwan, whose population is only 20% of Japan, sends more students to the U.S. There are more Vietnamese students than Japanese on American campuses, though Vietnam’s per capita income is only one-tenth of Japan and the country’s population is smaller. The Washington Post once reported that only one Japanese student entered Harvard College in the fall of 2009, for the class of 2013.

It wasn’t this way in the old days. In the final 25 years of the 20th century, Japanese students crowded American campuses in a fashion Chinese are doing in recent years. At leading U.S. business schools, over-presence of Japanese students, the majority of whom were company-sponsored, caused some problems. Those were the years when it was believed that the Japanese economy might take over the world. In retrospect, it was felt the country was ascending and the Japanese in general were forward-looking and aggressive.


Young Japanese’s lack of interest is not limited to studying abroad. They show little enthusiasm in working abroad, either. According to a recent survey, some 60% of young Japanese don’t wish to work abroad, way up from about a third at the turn of the century. In the early years of this century it was already said “Young people don’t drink alcohol, drive a car or go abroad.” What was considered to be an emerging trend at that time has shown a distinct staying power since then. An overseas assignment is shunned by some young employees even at trading houses, which have been drivers of Corporate Japan’s expansion into the rest of the world since the late 19th century, by peddling silks, other textiles, steel products, cars, electronic gadgets, etc. (In recent years, they have evolved into venture capital/ investment companies with a variety of stakes in overseas assets.) And some men there, yes men, show little interest in being posted overseas. Don’t knock on the door of trading houses for an interview, to begin with, if you don’t like to go abroad. Nonetheless, high salaries and the firms’ reputation draw these people.


In Japan, TV is loaded with shows that keep telling what an amazing country Japan is, or how cool Japan is with the popularity of those manga characters, exquisite dishes, beautiful temples and shrines that are registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These shows often interview foreigners, residents or visitors, to let them say how nice Japan is, and to make TV viewers happy with what they hear. It is a good thing to recognize the virtue and the beauty of one’s country to make them proud of it. Nonetheless, this has to be up to a certain point and this has apparently gone too far over the past decade. Japanese in general have become too comfortable with what they have in a relatively affluent society and are refusing to change in order to keep up with the changing world. Maybe, this is how they think “Cities are clean and safe, people are nice, prices are low and affordable. Food is good. Why do we have to bother to change?”


In September 2013, at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, as one of the final presenters in bid for the 2020 Olympics, which are yet to take place, Japan’s TV personality Christel Takigawa spoke in impeccable French, stressing “omotenashi” (hospitality) with which the country was going to welcome visitors from all over the world. Yes, at top notch ryokan (Japanese-style inn), guests are served with meticulous attention to details. Ryokan employees could pinpoint what guests want to have and deliver it before they say it, so they tell us. However, these superb establishments along with hotels in Japan in general stubbornly insist on checking in guests at 3pm. Even if one arrives early in the morning after a long-distance red-eye flight, he or she has no access to a room until 3pm. This is something those TV shows don’t tell us about Japan. In the 2013 presentation in Buenos Aires, Ms. Takigawa also told IOC dignitaries that a lost wallet would be returned in Japan. It is probably true that the majority of the people in Japan are reasonably honest, and wallets found on a street are brought to a police box more often than in other countries. In fact, statistics show that a chance of a lost wallet returned is slightly above 50%. This is a very good number but one still has to consider him/ herself lucky if a lost wallet is returned.

A fading interest in overseas experience and an obsessive self-admiration both represent an inward-looking mindset of the Japanese people, in an affluent society of aging population amid long-lasting economic stagnation. It is a static society on display that tries to hold on to the way it has been, turns a blind eye to the changing world. Such a mindset has some commonality with Trumpists and Brexit enthusiasts. It’s long-term out look doesn’t look promising.

There is a ray of hope, however. Some bright young Japanese are showing signs of greater interest in studying abroad. The number of Japanese student at Harvard, including graduate schools, have bottomed out at 82 in 2014/15, and is rising modestly since then. Applications to Harvard College from Japanese have doubled to about 100 in the last several years. Kaisei High School in Tokyo that famously sends most students to the University of Tokyo (Todai), the pinnacle of education in Japan, openly encourages its boys (it’s a boys school) to study at top-notch colleges abroad straight from high school, rather than going to Todai. The school’s principal, who taught at both Todai and Harvard, believes there has to be more to their life than going to Todai. It’s a right mindset and hopefully it stays and spreads.


About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.