Geopolitical tensions versus boosting foreign student numbers

Japan’s universities are hoping the country’s reputation as a modern democracy and a high tech magnet in Asia can attract an increasing number of overseas students.

But its plan to boost foreign student numbers, announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month, could be jeopardised by rising political tension between Japan and its closest East Asian neighbours, which send the largest number of students to Japanese universities.

Chinese topped the list with 60% of Japan’s 137,756 overseas students in 2012. South Korea and Southeast Asia followed in second and third place respectively, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Japan has set a goal of doubling foreign student numbers to 300,000 by 2020. Foreign students are currently 3.8% of the total university student population in the country.

However Foo Choo Wei from Singapore, who has been working in Japan since graduating from the University of Tokyo, says Chinese students privately express concerns that they might become victims of a backlash from right-wing nationalist groups in Japan.

A “warmer political climate is imperative” to attract Asian students to Japan, she said. “Japan has a tough fight against the United States and the United Kingdom, which are the first choices for Chinese students.”

Data from the Japan Student Services Organization, the official arm for foreign student support, reported that the number of Chinese students in May 2012 had declined by 1,209 and South Koreans dropped 5.6% to 989 during the same period.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster, sparked by a major earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, has been reported by Japan’s Asahi newspaper as a major reason for the drop

But recent geopolitical tensions, in particular the 2013 December visit by the Japanese prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine that memorialises the war dead and Class A war criminals, led to protests from China and South Korea and may well have an impact on foreign students’ plans in the future.

Uneasy history

Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, while economically strong, have always been under the uneasy shadow of history.

Japan invaded the Korean peninsula in 1910 and later entered Manchuria in northern China and conducted brutal colonial rule until 1945, which marked the end of World War II, when Japan surrendered to Western allies.

Tensions between China and Japan in particular had already begun to affect some student exchanges in 2012.

Other territorial disputes have blighted the region, with both Japan and South Korea challenging ownership of the Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan, thought to be close to natural gas deposits.

Some Japanese organisations are already bracing themselves for problems to come.

“The fallout from political bickering over historical differences between Japan and its former colonies, China and South Korea, is the worst for organisations such as ours that have long strived to increase [the number of] Asian students in Japan,” said Tomoko Fuse, an official at the Asian Students Cultural Association.

The association, founded over 55 years ago, provides housing for cash strapped Asian students. It has developed a vital network of Asian alumni who studied in Japan. “This network is crucial to support Japan’s globalisation process,” she said.

Deteriorating opinions

The most recent data from the Japan-China opinion poll collated by Genron NPO, which gauges public feeling on Japan-China relations – including among students and academics in both countries – found that mutual impressions had significantly worsened compared to the previous poll in 2012.

The survey carried out in June 2013 and released last August found that 90% of Japanese surveyed had unfavourable impressions of China while almost 93% of Chinese reported unfavourable impressions of Japan – the worst results since 2005, when the annual surveys began.

The attitudes of those classed as ‘intellectuals’ in both nations – including students at China’s top five universities, academics, officials and journalists – are more moderate, with 52.8% of the Chinese group and 36.3% of Japanese intellectuals seeing each other in a positive way.

The main reason for unfavourable impressions was the continuing confrontation between the two countries over a group of islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan. The islands are claimed by both sides.

Others in the survey were willing to go even further back in justifying their negative opinions. Almost two-thirds of Chinese cited Japan’s “lack of a proper apology and remorse about its invasion” of China – far surpassing the survey’s 2012 figure of 40% who thought this.

Economic rationale

Some Japanese institutions are banking on economic ties to lure prospective foreign students.

Toshihiko Miwa recruits overseas students for the prestigious Sophia University in Tokyo. The majority of Chinese graduates from Japanese universities are recruited by Japanese companies seeking employees with international backgrounds, he said.

“I do not think the current bilateral political clashes will negatively affect Chinese students coming to Japan.”

Miwa said his recruiting visits to China continued to be “enthusiastically welcomed” by young people there who aspire to study and work in Japan. Japanese universities are now providing courses in English and the country has streamlined the visa process, which are new advantages for foreign students, he added.

Chinese students comprise one third of the approximately 900 foreign students enrolled at Sophia University. The main areas of study are economics, journalism and environment.

Some Chinese students have stayed in Japan for decades. Lin Hayashi came from China to study business management in Japan almost 20 years ago.

She said she had longed for a “modern career” that included trips abroad and freedom not possible in China at that time. Today she is the owner of a large apparel company in Tokyo and a naturalised citizen. “I have no regrets of the choices I made in my life,” she says.