TOKYO — As the global flow of international students continues to expand and crisscross countries and continents, there is at least one corner of the world that seems to be going against the flow: Japan.
According to the latest statistics available from the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science, the number of Japanese students studying abroad declined 11 percent to 67,000 in 2008, compared to 2007. The number was off 20 percent from the peak in 2004 and according to experts and university officials, that downward trajectory has continued since 2008.
But the falling number of Japanese youth eager to study overseas appears to be more than just an enrollment trend. It is also strikingly inconsistent with the direction that the leading Japanese employers say they want to take, as they seek to expand their global reach in search of new markets. Their strategy relies on internationally savvy young talent.
“There is clearly a mismatch between what the corporate recruiters are looking for and the college job seekers,” whose skills do not match the employers’ requirements, said Hitomi Okazaki, editor in chief of Riku-nabi, the leading job-search Web site in Japan.
Only 68.8 percent of the students poised to graduate in March had found a job as of December, a record low, according to government statistics. The figure was 81.6 percent in 2007.
College educators and government officials often complain about waning student interests in overseas studies, despite the fact that the education ministry and universities are pushing students to study abroad to meet the growing needs for the society to become more internationally oriented.
Naoki Ogi, professor of education at Hosei University in Tokyo, who frequently offers commentaries in the media on Japanese youth, has a close-up view of the issue.
Until several years ago, “there would be 6 or 7 students in my upperclassmen’s seminar of 20, who had overseas study experiences,” he said by telephone. “Currently, there is none in my seminar of 17.”
He has compiled his own theory of why this is the case. Young Japanese were increasingly becoming introverted and risk-averse, Mr. Ogi said, and were unwilling and ill-prepared to take on new challenges. He added that he believed their lack of interest in going abroad was part of that growing unease with the unknown and the challenging.
“They are growing weak and feeble mentally and some even lack the basic survival instincts,” he said.
Hochuen Kwan, a sophomore at Waseda University in Tokyo, said he believed Japanese college students generally had lower energy and motivation than young students from his native Hong Kong. “For Japanese students, getting into top university is their goal and once that’s done, they don’t have much energy to study so hard,” he said. Japanese students go through a grueling examination to get into university but completing university studies is generally not considered difficult.
Ms. Okazaki of Riku-nabi said that one reason students were staying put was financial, given the state of the economy, especially since tuition in countries like the United States is soaring.
She also argued that there were still plenty of college job seekers with the energy and confidence they need to land jobs with big companies. But many of them were caught off guard, however, when corporations began asking for “globally oriented talent,” she said. “Companies began saying that very recently,” just this past year or so, she said. “It takes years of preparation for students to go on an overseas study program.”
There are signs, some experts say, that college students are reconsidering study-abroad programs. “Since fall, the number of participants in the study abroad fair type events is growing,” said Mr. Hoshino, the counselor, who left a leading study-abroad company to become an independent counselor, sensing a renewed market demand.
In the meantime, the mismatch in the labor market continues. More big Japanese corporations say they are planning to make their overseas business — rather than the domestic market — their main focus, and they are publicizing their decision to hire more non-Japanese, in part to offset their inability to secure young Japanese capable and interested in taking on international jobs.
Companies like Panasonic, Sony, Lawson, Yamato Transport and Fast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo brand clothing stores, are among the enterprises that recently said they would step up their hiring of non-Japanese to 30 to 80 percent of all new hires. Panasonic recently said that of 1,390 new employees it planned to recruit this coming year, 1,100 would not be Japanese.
This new emphasis on international recruitment is suddenly making international students studying at Japanese universities a hot commodity.
In mid-January, when Pasona, a staffing and human resource company, held a job fair for international students from Japanese universities in Osaka, it met with an overwhelming interest from small to medium-size companies seeking recruits.
Seiichi Furuya, manager of the global business department at Pasona, who coordinated the fair, said recruiters were generally very pleased with the attitudes of the international students. “At a time Japanese college students are seen as becoming more inward looking, recruiters were impressed by the active posture of the students who were willing to work anywhere, in any country as long as it was a good opportunity and made sense professionally,” he said. “That’s different from Japanese employees, who may favor working at home. ”
Mr. Kwan, the Waseda sophomore, is looking forward to finding a job with leading global Japanese companies such as the investment bank Nomura Securities. “I could work for their Chinese operation but I am also interested in working in the U.Sp. for them as well,” he said.
New York Times