Once drawn to U.S. universities, more Japanese students staying home

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By Blaine Harden
Sunday, April 11, 2010

TOKYO -- Takuya Otani would love an MBA from a top U.S. business school, but he won't apply. When he graduates from college in Tokyo next year, he'll pass on an American degree and attend graduate school in Japan.

"I am a grass-eater," Otani said wistfully, using an in-vogue expression for a person who avoids stress, controls risk and grazes contentedly in home pastures.

Once a voracious consumer of American higher education, Japan is becoming a nation of grass-eaters. Undergraduate enrollment in U.S. universities has fallen 52 percent since 2000; graduate enrollment has dropped 27 percent.

It is a steep, sustained and potentially harmful decline for an export-dependent nation that is losing global market share to its highly competitive Asian neighbors, whose students are stampeding into American schools.

Total enrollment from China is up 164 percent in the past decade; from India, it has jumped 190 percent. South Korea has about 76 million fewer people than Japan, but it now sends 2 1/2 times as many students to U.S. colleges.

Just one Japanese undergraduate entered Harvard's freshman class last fall. The total number of Japanese at Harvard has been falling for 15 years, while enrollment from China, South Korea and India has more than doubled.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said that when she visited Japan last month, she met with students and educators who told her that Japanese young people are inward-looking, preferring the comfort of home to venturing overseas. They also told her they view the economic advantage of attending a U.S. college as questionable.

"An international degree is not as valued," Faust said she learned from her encounters here.

Looking for 'harmony'

The skepticism extends beyond students. At big Japanese companies, many bosses don't like what they see as the sometimes uppity and overly independent ways of American-educated young Japanese, said Tomoyuki Amano, chief executive of Tomorrow Inc., which publishes a magazine about foreign education.

Amano said many employers prefer the "harmony" that comes from hiring the locally educated, who they believe work longer hours, complain less and request fewer vacations.

Amano, 28, said he speaks from bitter personal experience.

After graduating six years ago with a degree in management from California State University, Chico, he returned to Tokyo and took a job with Hitachi, Japan's largest electronics manufacturer.


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