Monday was down to business for the delegation. The main event was a public symposium in Osaka, sponsored by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, which focused on educational exchanges between the United States and Japan.
Study abroad is a surprisingly hot topic in Japan right now: the number of Japanese students venturing abroad has been declining, and the drop in those headed to America has been particularly precipitous (down over 15 percent last year). Many educational, business, and political leaders here are concerned about this apparent turning inward by Japanese youth at the very time that global competency and international awareness seem more important than ever before.
The forces keeping Japanese students at home are, needless to say, various and complex. Financial concerns are one factor, especially as tuition and fees at American universities have been rising. Hiring practices at Japanese corporations are another impediment, as the time demands of the job-search process and the recruiting priorities of employers have made students nervous about studying abroad. A few voices suggest that Japan’s younger generation is to blame and that a lack of youthful spirit and initiative is behind the rising educational isolationism. All signs seem to indicate, however, that the source of the problem is primarily economic and structural, not generational.
I was one of three speakers from the delegation at the symposium, and my comments were focused on exchange activities in higher education. The good news is that American students are studying in Japan in unprecedented numbers and that enrollments in Japanese language at U.S. universities are at an all-time high. Although interest in China and India has been swelling across the country, Japanese popular culture (from manga and Hello Kitty to Ichiro and sushi) has continued to be a magnet for American youth. A recent survey of American high school students revealed that 9.1 percent wanted to study Japanese more than any other language; a slim 6.1 percent were interested in picking up Mandarin Chinese.
The not-so-good news about American study abroad in Japan is that even though the trend of participation is upward, the overall numbers are still low: only a handful more than 5,700 U.S. undergraduates and graduate students earned academic credit in Japan last year; by way of comparison, the total going to Great Britain came to over 31,000.
Dramatically increasing the flow to Japan is going to be challenging: the cost of studying in Japan can be high (especially with the strong yen and the weak dollar) and American students are as concerned with job-hunting and employability as their Japanese counterparts. But as someone who personally found study abroad a life-changing experience, I think that we in the educational community need to do as much as we can to make international travel and education abroad appealing and accessible to all American college students.
One of the real treats at the symposium was the reception afterward. I was thrilled and surprised to discover many friends of SMU in Osaka. Kwansei Gakuin University, a private institution in the nearby city of Nishinomiya, is a longtime partner of SMU, and several faculty and alums from Kangaku (as the school is colloquially known) turned out for my talk.
I was particularly pleased to meet Hase Naoya, Murata Emiko, and Nanchi Nobuaki. All are graduates of Kangaku: Hase now works there as a professor of English; Murata teaches at an affiliated high school; and Nanchi is an executive at a regional bank. They are all Mustangs, too, having studied English language in summer programs at SMU a full 30 years ago. They brought an album of old photographs, capturing a wonderful moment of Japanese-American interchange on the Hilltop. It was inspiring to hear them all talk about the impact that just a short time at SMU had on their lives and describe the abiding, deep affection they all feel for the university and for Dallas. I can’t imagine more compelling examples of the lifelong benefits of study abroad (or more enthusiastic supporters of SMU) than Hase, Murata, and Nanchi.
(In photo: A group of students from Kwansei Gakuin University at SMU in 1980.)