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

By Blaine Harden
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A15

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.

"I really felt that I could not question anyone who was older than me," Amano said. "I also learned that it was going to be hard to get a promotion or take a vacation. Promotions tend to go to those who attend the same Japanese schools as the bosses."

Bottom-line considerations are steering many young Japanese away from U.S. colleges, said Tadashi Yokoyama, chairman of the board of Agos Japan, a Tokyo company that prepares students to take language exams and other tests needed for admission to foreign schools.

"This is not a time in Japan for intellectual curiosity," said Yokoyama, who graduated from UCLA in the early 1980s. "You have to think about investment and return."

In the 1970s and '80s, when Japan's economy was booming, the bottom line did not matter for many young Japanese. It was fashionable, stimulating and affordable for them to travel the world, study English in foreign settings and attend college in the United States. Their parents had money, and jobs were plentiful when they came home.

The collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s changed those calculations. And the construction inside Japan of more than 200 new universities has made it easy to find an affordable education without enduring jet lag and having to learn English.

At the same time, Japan's low birthrate is constricting college enrollment, both inside and outside the country. The number of children under the age of 15 has fallen for 28 consecutive years. The size of the nation's high school graduating class has shrunk by 35 percent in the past two decades.

"When you combine a big decrease in the student population with a big increase in the number of Japanese universities and couple that with rising tuitions in U.S. colleges, you can understand why priorities have changed," said Tokoyama.

A mixed experience

An exception to the trend: Some in corporate Japan still send promising young employees to graduate school in the United States. Eighty major companies pay Agos Japan to prep their workers for graduate schools in the United States and other countries.

When these employees return to Japan with MBAs and other advanced degrees, however, they often find that their companies don't know how to make use of their skills -- and that they are penalized for having stepped off the corporate ladder.

NTT Data, a major information technology company, sent Masaki Honda to UCLA for an MBA. But "during the two years I was gone, I was regarded as a net cost to the company," said Honda, who is now president of Agos Japan. "I lost seniority compared to my peers and my performance while I was in business school was evaluated as 'C' for mediocre."

For all the risks and frustrations of higher education in the United States, some young people remain willing to go.

Nobuko Tabata, 29, is heading off next fall to Philadelphia for the two-year MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"I want to know the world's highest-level people," she said. "I want to be a higher-level manager. It would be easy for me to stay in Japan, but I need more."

Tabata, a certified public accountant who works for her family's transport company, has spent $25,000 and devoted the past two years to studying English, taking tests and polishing application essays. She is married to a CPA who works for Sony, who will probably remain in Japan.

She said she is eager to be challenged and to learn the latest skills in corporate management -- and ready to sleep just three or four hours a night. "I think I am a meat-eater." she said.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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