Time to leave the nest? Japan's Abe pushes youths to head overseas

New scholarships for college and graduate students aim to reverse a sharp decline in the number of Japanese young people studying abroad. Concerns have grown about a younger generation that is too inwardly focused at a time of growing tensions in Asia. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Students chat as they walk near the central train station in Sendai, Japan. Prime Minister Abe has instituted a number of reforms aimed at encouraging more Japanese young people to study abroad.

Isshu Fujii, a senior at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, has a sense he’s bucking a trend he sees among Japanese youths.

At a time when more of his peers are choosing the comforts of life in their island nation over studying abroad, Mr. Fujii has his sights set on graduate study in either the United States or the United Kingdom.

Wherever he ends up, the young advocate of a more robust global role for his homeland wants to pursue security studies – a discipline he says hardly exists in a country with an enduring – though evolving – postwar pacifist tradition.

“I do think Japanese young people are pretty comfortable and are content to choose an easier path,” Fujii says. “There’s this idea that the Internet and social media bring the world to you,” he adds, “and if they do think about going abroad, it’s more for a limited ‘experience’ than the hard road of studying and learning a new language.”

But the picture Fujii paints of a younger generation inwardly focused even as tensions rise in Asia, and many of their South Korean and Chinese counterparts study abroad, is prompting alarm in Tokyo – and spurring some initial remedial measures from the Abe government, which also envisions a more robust global role for Japan in the 21st century. Mr. Abe, whose concerns about Japan's lost luster extend to the stagnant economy, has called elections for Dec. 14 in hopes of delivering a boost to stalled reform efforts.  

“It’s not so much a worry for us if more Chinese and South Korean students are going abroad, it’s actually positive if instead of remaining in China, for example, the Chinese come to Japan or go elsewhere and learn a different view of human rights and universal rights,” says Takako Ito, assistant press secretary at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“But what is a challenge,” she adds, “is if our students are becoming more introverted.”

A decade ago, nearly 83,000 students were studying abroad, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But by 2011, the number was down to 57,500. Japanese studying in the US have declined even more sharply, from nearly 46,000 in 2002 to under 20,000 in 2011.

The concern over the phenomenon is both economic and political. A less globally conscious and entrepreneurial Japan could lose to more dynamic countries around it. At the same time, a key pillar for Abe – revising the pacifist Constitution to allow a stronger regional security posture – could also be thwarted by a population that sees little benefit from engaging more with an increasingly fractious region. Many young people here, mirroring the general population, may simply opt for a “status quo” that they see as having given Japan nearly seven decades of peace, some experts say.

 To begin to reverse the trend, the government doubled scholarships for undergraduate study abroad from 10,000 to 20,000, while increasing scholarships for graduate students to study abroad from 200 to 250 this year. More ambitious still is a new joint venture between the government and private sector that aims to send 10,000 students for study in the US by 2020. Called the "Tobitate! Young Ambassador Program," the initiative has already received $80 million in pledges from Japanese companies, and this fall sent the first 84 "ambassadors" to American universities. The government is also phasing in an earlier start for English instruction, beginning in primary school.

 But just how far such initiatives will go in stoking a broader interest in what many Japanese see as a threatening outside world remains a question for some experts. Fumio Ota, former director of Defense Intelligence and a retired professor at the National Defense Academy, sees an ambivalence about the world among young people, spurred by uncertainty. “They see the international situation is very severe, from the difficult relations with China to threats from North Korea, and the tendency for some is to turn away from the world and focus on life in Japan,” he says.

And young people who want Japan to assume the role of a more active regional power are still in the minority, Dr. Ota says. “You do hear more often among young people the idea that if Japan remains limited in its security capabilities by a postwar Constitution, that could actually encourage instability in the region by suggesting to others that Japan cannot properly defend itself,” he says.

A bigger factor behind “widespread indifference towards the world” is prosperity, Ota says. “When I was a youngster our society was poor, and young people were more driven to go to a more advanced foreign country,” he says. “For many that interest isn’t there anymore.”

High costs are a factor

Still, some students say there are reasons other than “indifference” to explain the falling numbers.

“Many students do want to understand global issues and develop a global view, but it costs a lot of money to study abroad so they study those issues in Japan if they can, or take advantage of less expensive options,” says Marino Mori, a political science major at Gakushuin University.

Tuition at an American university can be four times or more that of a Japanese university – which helps explain why many students studying abroad opt for programs in Australia and New Zealand. Others say Ja stagnant economy heightens worries about landing a good job out of university and discourages efforts to fit a year aboard into a tight study schedule. One reform has targeted the traditional post-college recruitment calendar to accommodate those studying abroad.

Ms. Mori, who is Japan vice-chairwoman of the Japan-America Student Conference, a prestigious student exchange and discussion program, says more students are seeking alternatives like the one she helps organize that offer a taste of international affairs without costing so much or taking them away from their studies.

Some young people are also simply trying new ways to energize their peers.

Ryo Masuzawa, a graduate student at Tokyo Institute of Technology, recently set up a food delivery service aimed at Millennials that delivers a monthly newsletter on a topic of interest along with the donburi and soba noodles. A recent issue focused on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement among Pacific Basin countries and the impact it could have on Japan’s agriculture and food production.

“Japanese young people don’t have a good view of politics, their participation in elections is very low. But at the same time surveys indicate they want to be involved in improving the world but they don’t know how to,” Mr. Masuzawa says. “The idea behind ‘Eating and Politics,’ ” his food-with-a-side-of-ideas project, “is to get young people thinking about how their involvement in something can make a difference.”

But will they think like Abe?

A more active youth population is almost certainly something the Abe government would like to encourage. But it’s also true that many of Japan’s more globally minded young people have a perspective that doesn’t align with Abe’s vision. 

Indeed, some self-described internationalists see merit in preserving Japan’s “status quo,” including constitutionally imposed limits on military activity –and they don’t believe that should hinder Japan from being an outward-looking nation.

“Japan was able to become a global economic power without abandoning our pacifist approach, and I think we should continue along that line,” says Yugo Kimura, who is majoring in global politics and economics at Waseda University.

Social media in Japan are full of belligerent discussions of the neighbors, in particular China, that are fueled by a small but loud slice of extremist youth, Mr. Kimura says. But he says his view is that East Asia will be better off if everyone focuses on cooperation.

“I don’t have a sense of fear of a rising China or of a progressing South Korea,” he says. “On the contrary, I favor a friendly approach because I think there are benefits for everybody in regional cooperation.”

Kimura holds so strongly to the idea of Japan avoiding conflict that he would favor his country ceding to China on territorial conflicts over open confrontation.

“I think Japan should focus on its economic relations in East Asia and find other ways to take up these territorial disputes,” he says. Concerning the Senkaku Islands – the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyu Islands and also claims – Kimura says Japan should consider international arbitration  – or even step back to avoid conflict.

“I wouldn’t want Japan to risk a war to keep them,” he says. “In the end, it’s just some very small islands and rocks.”

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