(Paul J. Richards/AP)

“We had an interesting discussion about why fewer students are coming to, particularly from Japan, to study in the United States.  And one of the responses I got from our officials, from conversations with parents here, is that they’re actually scared.  They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come.”

— Secretary of State John F. Kerry, interview with CNN, April 15, 2013


Kerry’s comments, made in an interview as he ended a 10-day around-the-world trip, spawned numerous headlines, including this one from CNN:  “Kerry: Foreign students ‘scared’ of guns in U.S.”

In the interview, Kerry specifically cited Japan, noting that it has highly restrictive gun laws and thus relatively few deaths from gun violence.  “They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come,” he said, before noting that he was “out of politics” and so no longer involved in the debate.

Yes, but he is Secretary of State now, so his words resonate around the world. What do the facts show?


The Facts

The Institute of International Education, which promotes international education, tracks both the number of students who study in the United States and where U.S. students study abroad. Its annual report also provides country by country assessments of the changes in numbers.

For 2011, IIE said that the number of international students rose nearly 6 percent from 2010, to nearly 765,000. The increase was primarily because of a 23 percent jump in students from China. There was also a 50 percent increase in students from Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, among other top nations, there were slight declines in students from India and South Korea and Canada, and 6 percent declines in students from Taiwan and Japan, the sixth and seventh place countries, respectively. But none of the country reports list fear of gun violence as a reason. Instead, economic woes — such as impact of the global recession in Asia — are listed.

For Japan, the country report says:

The number of Japanese students on U.S. campuses decreased by 14% in 2010/11 following a general trend of decline since its peak in 1997/98. From 1994/95 until 1998/99, Japan was the leading sender of students to the U.S. but has since fallen to seventh due to surges in students from India, China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, the effects of a rapidly aging Japanese population and other factors including the global economy and the recruiting cycle of Japanese companies.


In other words, this decline has been going on for 15 years — ever since the Japanese economic boom stalled.

 State Department officials said that Kerry was simply repeating something he had heard anecdotally while attending an event with youth associated with “Tomodachi,” a public-private partnership that seeks to build  U.S.-Japanese ties in the wake of the 2011 earthquake. The public transcript of the event does not show anyone speaking about fears of gun violence, but at one point U.S. Ambassador John Roos said:


Mr. Secretary, one thing, a statistic that’s concerning that we’re trying to reverse, the number of Japanese students choosing to study in the United States has declined by over 50 percent in the last 10 years. The number of students in the U.S. coming to Japan has been flat but at a lot number. So many of these students who are looking to connect to the United States are part of a broader effort to reverse that trend.


 Apparently, then, someone said something to Kerry off camera. In the transcript of his interview with CNN, Kerry referred to “a couple of quiet conversations with a few officials… one of the responses I got from our officials, from conversations with parents here, is that they’re actually scared.  They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come.”

State Department spokesman Patrick H. Vendrell, who provided the transcript, explained: “He was just relaying an anecdote he had heard from some folks in Japan — not stating it as definitive causal relationship or fact, just reporting what people had told him.”    


The Pinocchio Test

As Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, can attest, it is sometimes difficult to make the transition from the Senate to chief U.S. diplomat. Simple musings that would go unnoticed in the Senate corridors may now have international consequences.

 In this case, Kerry heard some anecdotal information; apparently, a parent or two had said something to a U.S. diplomat. And then Kerry repeated the anecdote on CNN, adding that foreign students are “actually scared” of U.S. gun violence, and that quote went around the world. He also appeared to say that “fewer students are coming” to study in the United States.

But the hard data shows that more students overall are studying in the United States — and that the decline from Japan has been ongoing for more than a decade because of factors that seem much more compelling (such as money woes and fewer students) than an anecdotal fear of gun violence.

By some measures, this should be a Four-Pinocchio error. But Kerry’s new at the job and just learning the impact of his words, so we’ll keep it at three. He should realize he has a vast State Department that can vet his facts before he repeats a a similar anecdote.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook