For study abroad, more Japanese prefer Chinese university over US one

Growing numbers or Japanese who study abroad see their future linked to a Chinese university. But US educators are fighting back, citing better schools and the ability to learn all-important English.

By , / Staff writer

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    Japanese students Asako Sakane (l.) and Taisuke Someya relax after class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Both chose a Chinese education over one from the US.
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Asako Sakane does not want to be rude, but she does not think the future belongs to America. So the Japanese junior has come to China to study instead.

"My teacher in high school told me China is developing so fast that it will overtake America, Europe, and Japan one day," she explains. "China and Japan are neighbors, and I think it is more important for me to study Chinese than English."

Ms. Sakane is emblematic of a trend worrying US educators. As the number of Japanese students at US universities drops year by year, the number coming to Beijing and other major Chinese cities is growing by leaps and bounds.

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"There is a big-picture shift under way," says David Satterwhite, administrator of the Fulbright scholarship program in Tokyo. "It's a significant trend."

In 1994, 78 percent of Japanese choosing a foreign school went to a US college. By 2007, that percentage had dropped to 46 percent, according to Japanese government figures. The proportion of those heading for Chinese universities, meanwhile, climbed from 9 percent to 24 percent – more than 18,000 students.

This was still only half the number going to America that year. But since then, the flow across the Pacific has dried still further, according to the Institute of International Education, dwindling to fewer than 30,000 in 2009.

Inevitable trend?

Some analysts feel this is almost inevitable. As Japan's economic ties with China strengthen – China has been its biggest trading partner for the past four years – numerous opportunities are springing up for people with the right language skills.

"Young people are asking where the jobs are going, and they see Japanese companies putting everything into China," says Richard O'Rourke, regional coordinator for EducationUSA, which brings foreign students to the United States. "An ability to speak Chinese and a knowledge of China are going to get you employed."

Sakane, whose parents initially wanted her to go to America for her studies, says that she persuaded them that "a lot of people in the world today can speak English, but very few foreigners speak Chinese. By starting to learn it early I am improving my chances" of a job when she graduates from Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Japanese parents are also sensitive to cost, says Naomi Tagashira, an adviser to the Japan Student Services Organization, JASSO, which helps place students abroad. "We've seen an increase in the number of students asking about countries where the fees and the cost of living are not so high as they are in the US," says Ms. Tagashira, and those concerns give China an advantage.

Lower costs – and standards

Lower costs, however, are matched by lower standards: Even the best universities in China do not match their US peers in world college rankings. Nor are students at Chinese universities exposed to the same range of intellectual opinions or the same depth of debate familiar on campuses in the West, or in Japan itself.

"If you go to China to study, you are not looking for liberal arts courses nor for world-class research," says Dr. Satterwhite. The growing number of Japanese students with a Chinese university education, he fears, "will have implications for Japanese society; Japan will be less adaptable and less competitive in the world economy."

US recruiters are not giving up. Aware that Japanese parents prefer sending their children to places with which they are familiar, US institutions are keen to give Japanese teens even a brief experience, be it a week-long school trip to Hawaii or a short exchange program. "You have to get them at a young age," says Mr. O'Rourke.

The Chinese are wise to this strategy, though. For the first time this year, Youth for Understanding, an international group that sponsors high school exchanges, will be sending Japanese pupils to China for year-long visits.

Fewer Japanese high-schoolers are going to America, though. In 1992, Youth for Understanding sent nearly 3,000 to study in America. By 2008, that number had fallen to 1,150.

Meanwhile, the number of secondary schools offering Mandarin classes, besides compulsory English, has ballooned from 154 in 1993 to 831 last year, according to the Ministry of Education. "Our impression is that the number of secondary school students from schools offering Chinese who go to university in China is on the rise," says Kazuko Tsuchiya, an official with JASSO.

Still, speaking good Mandarin is not a panacea. Yuji Fujikawa, finishing up an economics degree at Waseda University in Tokyo, spent a year in Beijing but says that "speaking Chinese is not proving to be as much an advantage as I had hoped."

She has found a job with a securities firm in Tokyo, but she will need to improve her English. "The human resources people told me that my Chinese is a good thing," Ms. Fujikawa explains. "But they say I need to master English, too."

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