British Council February 2011

For an Outward-looking Generation

Why are fewer Japanese studying overseas?

Anyone who has even glanced at the Japanese media recently cannot fail to have noticed the concern over the future of the workforce. “Global personnel” and an “inward-looking” generation are hot topics. Journalists regularly lament young people’s perceived lack of ambition, initiative and adventurousness, while university staff and bureaucrats scratch their heads over the falling number of students heading overseas.

There is widespread anxiety that Japan is becoming unable to compete with its East Asian economic rivals. Finding suitably qualified Japanese staff is the biggest problem for firms establishing overseas branches, and various recent surveys have shown that fewer graduates are willing to work abroad. Meanwhile, Japan scrapes into 55th place for the extent to which employees’ foreign language skills meet industry’s needs. Several well-known employers—including Rakuten Inc., Panasonic Corporation and Lawson Inc.—have responded by hiring large numbers of non-Japanese.

So why, despite stiff competition for jobs and evident demand for global skills, are fewer Japanese choosing to study overseas? Are they unaware of future business trends or are they simply not interested? Of course, that is not the whole story. It is true that there are fewer young people, and these have a less-than-rosy view of the West and are cautious about spending money. However, when we surveyed young students and working people last year we found, if anything, a growth of interest in studying abroad: 30.8% were more interested than they had been five years earlier, while only 18.6% were less interested. Yet the majority will not convert this interest into action.

The main problem is that, in Japan, studying abroad is still not believed to confer career advantages. University students who participated in focus groups last year tended to value the cross-cultural experience, as well as opportunities to face challenges and gain independence. However, they were unsure whether overseas study would help them to find a job, even though the benefits mentioned in the focus groups are precisely the attributes employers say they seek.

Despite the rhetoric, the rigid and early recruiting cycle puts those who study overseas at a disadvantage. Students no longer want to risk going abroad in their third year, just when their friends are applying for jobs, and then having to study for an extra year after returning in order to land a job before graduation.

This makes very welcome the recommendation recently issued by Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) that firms should start graduate recruitment PR activities later.

The White Paper entitled Industrial, Academic and Governmental Collaboration to Develop Global Personnel, issued in 2010 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, addresses these systemic issues for the first time. Specific proposals included encouraging firms to hire those studying overseas, and making the recruitment process more flexible or even moving it to a later date. Subsequently, developing global personnel was named as one of the 21 strategic national projects to renew economic growth, and employers are now encouraged to widen the recruitment net beyond fresh graduates. For the sake of Japan’s outward-looking young people, and of the economy, change cannot come too soon.