Yoshiko Nakano's essay in Yomiuri Newspaper

“Young people in Japan no longer want to go abroad.” This news reached me in Australia last year and formed part of the background for our analysis of the Japanese TESOL industry in “The Dark Side of TESOL.” Since then, there has been no shortage of academics, politicians and business leaders, all criticising today’s Japanese youth as ‘inward-looking grass-eaters’, afraid of venturing overseas. For Japan to survive in the globalizing world of the 21st century young people must go overseas for their education, or so the media hype goes. Be a global player and fluent in English and save sinking Japan! Look at those highly motivated young people in other Asian countries! They are dying to go overseas, and speak fluent English! An essay that I read in the Thai version of Yomiuri Newspaper recently (5 Jan 2011) is a typical example.

In “高校の逸材争奪戦 [High school student talent up for grabs]”, the author, Yoshiko Nakano of the University of Hong Kong, begins with a comment by a Japan-based Chinese friend of hers: “If Japan is a zoo, China is a safari park”. Her friend was talking about the difference between Japanese and Chinese students. The former are ‘kept’ in a safe environment, while the latter are hungry and out in the semi-wild with millions of predatory competitors. After talking up the qualities of Chinese students and talking down the qualities of Japanese students, the author concludes: “Looking at these highly motivated Chinese students [as evidenced by their proficiency in English] makes me concerned about the future of Japan.”

Personally, I think “hungry” Chinese students equipped with English language skills are the least of Japan’s worries. However that may be, the fashionable criticism of Japan’s ‘inward-looking’ youth is flawed for at least two reasons.

First of all, even if we were to accept that not going overseas to study is a sign of being ‘inward-looking’ there is the problem that no actual statistical evidence exists for fewer Japanese students going abroad. The discourse of the “inward-looking” Japanese youth as measured by a drop in outbound student numbers originated from an observation by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who noted that the number of Japanese students studying at Harvard University has halved since 1994. To take statistics such as this one as evidence for being inward-looking is problematic for two reasons. First, this statistic ignores the overall decline in the population of university-age Japanese. Second, the statistic also ignores the rapidly growing number of Japanese who instead of heading to the USA head to other Asian countries for their university education, particularly China. According to the Central Council for Education, the number of Japanese studying in China has increased from 5,055 in 1994 (9.2% of the total number of Japanese students overseas) to 18,363 in 2006 (24%). While the number of Japanese students going to the USA may have halved, the number of those heading for China has almost tripled over the same period!

The attractiveness of Chinese universities to Japanese students is not surprising given the fact that China has emerged as the economic superpower, that it offers the opportunity to learn both Chinese and English, and that tuition fees are significantly lower than those charged by US universities. For these reasons overseas education in China has emerged as a much more sensible investment in for contemporary Japanese than going to the USA. Furthermore, the shift from Western destinations to China is probably also rooted in a sense of disappointment among so many Japanese who returned to Japan from the West in the 1990s only to find that their hard-earned qualifications and experience proved to be of limited use in finding work and received little recognition.

Overall, the fact that more Japanese are going to China to study is a welcome development for the future of both countries. To my mind, it is a sign of Japan’s youth being forward-looking rather than inward-looking. The “inward-looking” ones are those who chide them for no longer heading to the USA and other English-speaking countries en masse.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Liu Hailin


  • Hongyan

    Thanks, Kimie, wonderful post. I agree with you: The
    “inward-looking” ones are those who chide them for no longer
    heading to the USA and other English-speaking countries en masse.
    Personally I think the choice of which country to go for pursuing
    further education depends on the following factors: the cost of
    study and its foreseeable return, the prospect of the economic
    development of the target country and its potential position in the
    world and the immigration possibility after getting a degree (of
    course, China is not in the list). The immigration factor greatly
    determines the choice of most students to study overseas. I want to
    share some popular words Chinese people use to address the overseas
    returned students. 1. 海归 Haigui : They are in hot demand in
    employment market. It represents decent job with wonderful pay.
    (before 2000) 2. 海燕 Haiyan: They are no longer in hot demand but
    still can find jobs. (2001-2008) 3. 海待/带 Haidai: They are
    temporarily unable to find a job.

  • khan

    Dear Kimie A thought provoking post. It brings out so
    clearly that students are smarter than politicians, They know what
    works for them. Your post is also interesting in terms of metaphors
    used by the writer for country and human beings: Zoo, Safari,
    Predatory. They are very helpful in understanding the authors
    conceptualization of human world through jungle/ animal metaphors.
    Are we really in a zoo, safari or jungle if we dont go to a
    particular country? Very interesting read Khan

  • steven

    it will be interesting to see if Japanese business recognises graduates with Chinese experience and ability.. after 20 years of economic stagnation, it is really important for Japanese business to re-invent itself to meet the economic and social changes the country faces…

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Kimie
    That might be true. However, in my personal experience, I believe the reverse.
    I’ve been teaching English at the Center for Macquarie English (CME) for the past two years. I’ve met lots of Japanese and Chinese students. I also had both of them in my class. Almost all of the Japanese that I knew and taught weren’t interested to do group work with their Chinese counterparts! More interestingly, when they (the Japanese) were asked to do an assignment or share half of a presentation as a group work assignment with their Chinese counterparts, the performance was remarkably poor! ,compared to those Japanese who did so with other nationalities say the Spanish, the Arabs or even the Koreans!
    On Facebook, some of my students usually comment that they love to stay here in Australia and that they don’t want to get back to Japan even for holidays! Some would even prefer to study in the US!

    • Well, in a nation of 130 million there’s bound to be some diversity … based on the stats, the Japanese students you’ve met seem to be an even smaller minority than those going to China, and in all likelihood neither is particularly representative …

    • Hongyan

      I agree with Ingrid. Neither is particularly representative. If we want to explore the reasons that caused what you have observed in CME courses, we have to dig into a lot of different reasons including the learners internal reasons and other fatctors caused by educational tradition, social, cultural and history factors, etc.

  • In choosing between China and America to study, I would have thought that the cost of study and the economic return obtained from the education and qualification would be the least important factors. I’ve never been to China, but wouldn’t students expect to obtain a radically different experience from living there as opposed to the USA? Surely interest in the country, it’s people and culture must be much more major factors than how well recognised the qualification will be if the students return to Japan?

    And that article seems to suggest that it is company managers who discourage Japanese from going abroad – by not valuing their qualifications or the skills they learn – not that Japanese people don’t want to study in other countries.

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    Interesting piece but the situation at my institution, Sophia University in Tokyo, is quite different. Over the past few years we have witnessed a significant drop in the number of applicants for ALL our overseas study abroad exchange programmes, whether they be to English or non-English-speaking countries. We believe that this is related primarily to economic factors: parents can no longer afford to send their kids overseas for extended periods of time and many students believe (probably falsely) that studying abroad will lower their chances of getting a good job because they won’t be in Japan for the full job-hunting season.

  • Hiddenmaverick

    While your article is appreciated. Now in 2014 there is statistical evidence from Japan’s own government that since 2004 Japan’s students have been studying abroad less and less.
    2004 saw about 82,000 students abroad.
    2010 saw nearly 58,000 students abroad.

    Even when calculating for population growth and decline, it’s still a clear indicator that the last decade was in decline.

    This is for anyone who read this article for research purposes and needed some clarification.