Before Covid-19 hit, Japan wasn’t far off of its original target of 300,000 international students by 2020. According to a new report from the Japan Student and Services Organization (JASSO), 228,403 international students attended the country’s HEIs in 2019.
With an additional 83,811 students studying at Japanese language schools, last year there were a total of 312,214 foreign students in the country compared with 163,697 in 2011.
Although Japan’s state of emergency was lifted on May 25 and schools reopened on June 1, travel restrictions have – as in many places – left international students in Japan stranded both in other parts of the country and abroad.
A decision last month to base financial aid for international students on grades further attracted negative attention, with a group of professors launching a petition stating that “the measure would make students hoping to study in Japan feel the country takes the human rights of foreigners lightly and discriminates against them”.
However, steps are now being made to reopen borders.
“As we relax restrictions in stages, rather than relaxing them for the entire world at once, we will begin with certain countries where the novel coronavirus has wound down and then sequentially expand the countries,” explained foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi in a recent press conference.
A deal was made to restart travel between Japan and Vietnam – the source of 23.5% of Japan’s international students – and it is expected that the next to follow will be places like Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
“We will begin [relaxing restrictions] with essential human resources… The next categories will probably include exchange students”
“In regard to the type of people, we will begin with essential human resources such as businesspeople and experts. The next categories will probably include exchange students,” Motegi added.
There is a strong incentive in Japan for universities to attract more international students for several reasons. Around 80% of the country’s universities are private, meaning they are more reliant on tuition fees. At the same time, due to demographic issues, there are fewer Japanese students to take up university spots.
Although more expensive than some destinations, Japanese universities are relatively cheaper than UK or US counterparts, even if only 12,761 international students last year received either a Japanese government or foreign funded scholarship.
Over 90% of Japan’s international students come from elsewhere in Asia, mostly from nearby countries such as China – where Japanese is the second most popular foreign language to learn – or Southeast Asia.
However, over the last few years Japanese universities and language schools have faced criticism for lacking oversight when it comes to their international students.
Last year, the Tokyo University and Graduate School of Social Welfare “lost” over 1,600 of its international students. A Bhutanese company is also facing legal action on multiple counts for a work and study scheme that left participants overworked and living in unsanitary conditions.
Some universities, such as Waseda University in Tokyo, now have policies that make contacting students any time they miss a class mandatory.
Most international students are eligible to work up to 28 hours a week while studying, which makes it a more accessible option for those without large funds than other Asian destinations such as China, where students have no work rights and few options to stay on after completing their education.
By contrast, in 2018, the Immigration Services Agency announced that 25,942 students switched their residence status in the previous year, double the rate in 2013. Almost a quarter of those ended up working in translation and interpretation.