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Japanese Youth and Experiences of Study Abroad in a Globalizing Era: The Current Situation and Challenges from the Viewpoint of a Quarter - Century Life Overseas

Takamichi Mito
Professor and Associate Dean, Center for International Education, Waseda University

A Japanese Nomad

I often introduce myself as a Japanese nomad, because I have not only lived overseas for as long as a quarter of a century, but also moved from continent to continent - five years in Canada, twice in the U.K. for eight years in total, four and a half years in Australia, and seven years in Hong Kong. Accordingly, I have permanent resident status of Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Hong Kong alongside my own Japanese nationality. Last August, I left many friends abroad and returned to Japan after a long absence to join Waseda University. Apart from a three year period in London working for an American investment bank, I have almost always worked with young people from various backgrounds and nationalities.

Waseda University's International Education Strategy

I am engaged in the international education exchange program at the Center for International Education at Waseda University where I am mainly in charge of sending students overseas. Waseda University plans to increase the number of international students from the current level, about 3000 students, to 8000 students in the medium term. It also has an international strategy which would allow almost all of its students to study abroad at least once while at Waseda. Currently only over a thousand Waseda students go overseas. I believe that the university is, and will remain extremely active in international exchange both at present and in the future.

It is my important task to encourage and support more and more students to study abroad. As part of that goal, I will teach a subject titled "Human Resource Development Program in a Globalizing Era" in the on-demand general academic course for freshmen "Waseda University Basic Lecture" to be offered for the first time next year. The other day, I recorded this lecture. Amid rapidly growing globalization, the development of global citizens Japan and the international society will demand is one of Waseda University's biggest missions as well as my modest hope. In my recorded lecture, I dealt with how to promote internationally-minded human resource development using study abroad as a tool.

What is globalization?

First, we need to consider the meaning of globalization. Globalization is hardly new: It began with the history of human migration long before Marco Polo went down the Silk Road to China and wrote Il Milione. However, its present characteristics are not only more accelerated interdependency but also more active and robust exchange in all fields. Given this conception of globalization, the present time can be defined as an era of frequent meaningful contact with people or organizations from different cultures or backgrounds, the free choice to work for foreign or domestic companies or countries to live in, and the possibility of marriage between ourselves or our children and foreigners. For better or worse, globilization is an increasingly pervasive feature of all of our lives.

How can we best function in these globalised settings? The answer is to develop a wide and diverse knowledge base, and master cross-cultural communication skills in order to understands one's own as well as others' cultures and societies; become a person who can work and relate to people from different backgrounds; and develop our skills for self-learning, logical and critical thinking, and action based on an independent analysis of the past, present and future. There are a variety of ways to learn how to do this, and I believe that studying abroad provides one such valuable learning opportunity.

"Weaknesses" of the Japanese youth and their causes

Coming back to Japan after a long period of working overseas, and teaching many international and Japanese students at Waseda University, I found many things to consider. One overall impression I get is that few people in Japan regard language skills as a matter of course, despite the knowledge that the world relies evermore upon English as its lingua franca. At the Department of Japanese Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to which I belonged immediately before returning to Japan, almost all of my students spoke English, Japanese and Mandarin in addition to their mother tongue, Cantonese. They would not be able to work well in other Asian countries without their foreign language skills, and indeed, these skills were an intrinsic requirement affecting their future employment. Aside from language skills, however, Japanese youth seems to be poor at considering and finding logical and consistent answers by themselves. Some if in the minority also seem unskillful or unaware of the need to cooperate with others in a group to solve problems.

Many Japanese university students have been brought up in a greenhouse environment with great care as the "only child". What is more, their education has focused on memorizing knowledge rather than developing ideas and questioning that knowledge. As a result, they tend to think less independently and are less active in class than American and European students. My classes always require oral presentations and essay-style midterm and final exams, even if they are merely two-unit courses. The exam questions are given to students about two weeks prior to the deadline. In a course titled "Japan in the Global Age," for example, I announced at the end of the first month that one of the questions in the final exam would be, "Discuss what type of companies or business sectors will grow or decline in the future, giving reasons." This style of question requires students to offer their calculated opinion based on research collected from a variety of sources which is analyzed employing an appropriate framework for analysis. It further requires that students display a logical and comprehensive insight into the current situation so that they make sensible predictions about the future. To my disappointment, Japanese students are less able to cope with this style of inquiry than their overseas counterparts.

Many students are not accustomed to such questions. They are similar to students in Hong Kong, where almost all university entrance exams require students to memorize knowledge. I used video documentaries in class in Hong Kong several times, and was surprised by some students requesting me to summarize the key points of the narration. I had never been asked such a thing when I was teaching in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. I asked them why and they answered that teachers in their high schools had summarized the main points of textbooks and they had memorized these to get a perfect score. Educated this way, they needed to be told what was important and what was not in textbooks, otherwise they felt uneasy and unsure of themselves. While this is not the situation in Japan, the impact of memorization-oriented education is still substantial. It is my wish that independent learning and critical thinking come to play a more central role in school education.

Development through studying abroad

In creating the on-demand lecture mentioned above, we recorded two students talking about their valuable study abroad experiences at the University of Queensland in Australia, and Beijing University, and afterwards having a talk with me. Both students identified the rewards gained from studying abroad as things which are less attainable in Japan, including among other things, improvement of foreign language skills, an international network of friends, deep and high-level knowledge acquired by an enormous amount of reading and learning, improved problem-solving capabilities nurtured through working out practicalities in a foreign country, personal and host-country knowledge gained from overcoming homesickness, etc. In addition, they strongly stressed that they had come to an unequivocal understanding that all human beings are equal whatever their race, religion or nationality, and that all are the same in autonomy and activeness. Although the study abroad experiences of our two Waseda students were not always easy or smooth, they emerged with more developed problem-solving capabilities and better awareness of themselves and others. They see themselves as more autonomous, and more capable of acting with people holding diverse values. Congratulations to them! They have both emerged as psychologically fitter, more robust individuals.

Not all students manage the stresses of studying abroad, however. Some students unfortunately fall ill or become mentally exhausted. Some others may encounter an accident or disaster in their host country. One of my roles is to take care of these students, explore the causes of their upset, and try to prevent any recurrences. I am often reminded, however, that in life, gains cannot be obtained without a degree of risk. In study abroad, many things can be done to see off the majority of problems before they happen. Setting realistic goals, identifying support systems, and making well made plans increase the probability of success. The importance of collecting accurate and up-to-date information about your host country and program before the study abroad is also of vital importance

Hope for Japanese youth

I place my hopes in Japanese youth, mainly because most have wonderfully warm hearts and a touching consideration for others. For instance, around 70% of applicants for the long-term international education programs at Waseda University describe their motivation for taking part in a study abroad experience as their desire to work for an NGO or international organization after graduation, and to contribute to the development of an international society. This contrasts with the stated motivations of international students, which mainly include the improvement of language or other skills, indicating that Japanese students feel a sense of social mission compared to their international counterparts.

I hope to create more opportunities for our students at Waseda to study well, and acquire meaningful overseas experiences so that they can build a more peaceful, brighter and livable future.

Takamichi Mito
Professor and Associate Dean, Center for International Education, Waseda University


He was born on May 1st, 1954, and graduated from the Division of Social Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University. He also attended the Department of International Relations, Keele University in the U.K., and completed a Master's Degree of International Affairs at the Graduate School of Area Studies, University of Tsukuba. He left the Doctoral Program of Political Economy, University of Toronto, on earning all required units. In May 1999, he was awarded the Doctor of Law by submitting a dissertation to the Graduate School of Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba. He had held the positions of Affiliated Lecturer, the Faculty of Oriental Studies, the University of Cambridge; a Manager, the Department of Financial Engineering, Citicorp Investment Bank Ltd. in London; Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head, the Department of Japanese Studies, Monash University in Australia; and Professor of International Japanese Studies and Study Abroad, International Student Center, Kyushu University. Prior to joining Waseda University in September 2008, he was a Professor, the Department of Japanese Studies and International Asian Studies Program, The Chinese University of Hong Kong for seven years. His areas of specialization are international relations, international comparative political economy and public policy, Japanese and Canadian Studies.
His recent works include Japanese Language Education in the Asia-Pacific Region, Vols. 1 and 2 (Society of Japanese Language Education Hong Kong and Himawari Shuppan, 2008, co-edited); Japanese Studies in the Asia-Pacific Region (Society of Japanese Language Education Hong Kong and Himawari Shuppan, 2008, co-edited); Postwar Japanese Politics and Peace Diplomacy [Sengo Nihon Seiji to Heiwa Gaiko] (Horitsu Bunkasha, 2007, co-edited); and The Political Economy of the Oil Market: A Comparative Study of Japan and Canada (Kyushu University Press, 2006, single-authored).