“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.