Rise in foreign student numbers as employment route eased

Japan is on course to reach its goal set almost a decade ago to attract some 300,000 foreign students in higher education, backed by an easing of employment restrictions on foreigners in the country

The Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), a government affiliated body, recently reported that the total number of overseas students in 2018 was 267,042 – up 11.6% from the year before.

However, recent figures show a wide discrepancy in enrolments, with a 14% increase in foreign enrolment in undergraduate and graduate studies compared to a more than 32% increase for two-year language courses and specialised and vocational schools which teach subjects like nursing, welfare and hospitality.

Overall, however, the number of foreign graduate students rose by 46,373, up 6.7% on the previous year. By contrast foreign student enrolment in Japanese language courses surged 17% over the same period.

The top three countries of origin of students enrolling in Japanese-language schools are China – accounting for 40% – Vietnam (23%) and Nepal (8%), fuelling criticism that students are enrolling in language schools to work in Japan as employment restrictions have been eased for foreign students.

Japanese media reported that new language schools have been set up in Japan – increasing from 461 language schools in 2011 to 680 by April 2018 – and abroad to attract foreign students, who can legally work up to 28 hours per week if they are proficient in Japanese.

More than 23% of Japan’s 1.46 million foreign workers – 2% of the Japanese workforce – are students from Asian countries who work in convenience stores, fast food shops or factories.

Kenji Ito, of the president’s office at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, pointed out that students in reality work much longer hours than legally permitted, a schedule that interferes with their studies, and he expressed concern that Japan’s image could be damaged by reports that foreign student visas are a cover for entering the domestic workforce.

Ito pointed out in a commentary published in November by Nikkei, a leading financial daily, that, unlike the United States where students work to be able to pay for their tuition fees that are more expensive in comparison to Japan, in Japan, “grants are available for students who study hard”.

Reflection of demographic trends

Experts note that Japan’s overseas student intake reflects the country’s demographics and economic trends as an aging population has meant a dramatic decline in university enrolments.

It has led to a rise in foreign students enrolling in nursing studies and other vocational courses amid a labour shortage and high demand in the nursing and elderly care sector. The government estimates Japan will face a shortage of 340,000 caregivers in fiscal 2025.

Japan is planning a new visa category for foreign workers in the nursing, construction and farming sectors that will come into effect this April, which will allow a residence visa for foreign students who train at Japanese care facilities and pass a national board examination to live and work in Japan.

According to figures released last year, one in six students studying nursing in Japan is now from overseas, the majority from Vietnam. Others are from China, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines.

For example, in an unusual initiative Taiwanese students now receive scholarships to study at vocational schools in the town of Higashikawa in Hokkaido, Japan’s main northern island. Higashikawa belongs to an organisation created with three other towns and local universities offering scholarships to foreign students, starting from 2018.

Scholarship work incentive

The students are not required to repay the scholarships if they work for a designated care facility for three to five years after graduation.

The tourism industry has also been hit by a lack of workers in hotels and eateries. Japan currently receives foreign students as trainees in Japanese companies that rely on these workers.

Foreign students are also choosing to enrol outside the major cities. JASSO reported that the capital Tokyo has just 67,000 students from overseas or 7% of the total student population in the country, while Japanese universities in rural areas had risen to more than 5.4% of total student enrolment – the highest level yet, with 39 prefectures outside the main Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi regions the main beneficiaries.

Half a dozen prefectures had a higher proportion of foreign students than Tokyo. "In non-metropolitan areas, where the population has declined sharply, there is an increasing movement to turn to study-abroad students to secure needed human resources," Miki Sugimura, a professor at Sophia University, was quoted by Nikkei as saying.

According to another Nikkei report, the landlocked Gunma prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, recorded a swift increase in foreign students, growing to 15% of total student enrolment from just 3% in 2013, a time when Japan was still experiencing several years of decline in foreign students in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown.

The surge in foreign students was particularly evident at Nippon Academy, established in 2013 by the Gunma Royal Hotel to teach students practical studies in services for Japanese hotels. Another big rise was registered at Tokyo School of Social Welfare based in Gunma prefecture, with some 800 foreign students, who now comprise around 20% of the total student body. Most of the foreign students are from China, with other large groups from Vietnam and Nepal.