Japan’s deglobalization

Japan’s deglobalizationAround the world, students at the best universities are experiencing a more international upbringing than their parents. Japan, however, stands apart because of its continued seclusion. In particular, the decline of the number of Japanese students at leading United States (US) institutions is startling: In 1998–1999 there were 705 Japanese enrolled at three of the best US universities—Columbia, Harvard, and MIT—but this number had dropped to 339 by 2011–2012. Enrollment has also declined over the past seven years at Yale and UC-Berkeley.

Overall, the figure of 46,872 Japanese studying in the US in 2000–2001 had dropped to 19,966 by 2011–2012. We also looked at doctoral candidates in several renowned, mostly US English-speaking universities in business, economics, and science. These are global disciplines where moderate English proficiency is sufficient. Japanese students accounted for less than 10% of the students from Northeast Asia. Out of 1,306 faculty members, six were Japanese (plus four with some Japanese background), whereas over 60 were from Northeast Asia. (Our figures are not perfectly accurate but the very low profile of Japanese is evident).

Some of the decline in Japanese studying in the US has been balanced out by increased enrolment in other countries, but overall Japanese participation in international education is declining dramatically. Moreover, the centrality of the top US universities as the training ground of the globalized elite’s next generation makes it impossible to compensate for a lack of presence in the US.

Is this relevant? The answer is, yes.

First, Japan’s national security requires Japanese who can interact with the rest of the world. It suffers from a paucity of officials, politicians, journalists, and public experts who can engage foreigners. Its national security apparatus is woefully short of men and women who can participate in international meetings, negotiate with foes, work with allies, and understand the outside world. The situation will worsen.

Second, the country is not producing enough internationalized Japanese when corporate Japan is embarking on a new wave of expansion, fueled by a falling demographic at home, increasing costs of production (temporarily lowered by “Abenomics” but nevertheless high), and growing opportunities overseas. But unlike the Republic of Korea, Japan lacks the internationally minded young men and women who are best suited for these tasks.

And third, Japanese academia needs to integrate with the rest of the world, starting with Japanese studying and teaching abroad. As other countries engage in “brain circulation,” Japanese schools are stagnating because of their isolation. This happened in the Edo period (1603–1868), when the lack of sufficient intercourse with the outside world led to Japan falling behind in every area of science, technology, and administrative efficiency.

Will Japan change?

Despite calls for Japan’s globalization, change is unlikely. First, the rising cost of tuition is one factor. US university tuition has been climbing into the stratosphere and acts as a barrier to Japanese contemplating a US education. But the increase in students from poorer countries in US universities indicates that those who are committed to schooling in the US find ways to fulfill their goals. Some are funded by their governments, but many rely on personal funds, loans, and scholarships awarded regardless of nationality by US institutions. Surveys also show that young Japanese company employees are increasingly reluctant to work overseas. A Japanese diplomat commented that his ministry’s new recruits prefer to remain in Japan rather than be posted abroad.

Second, with some exceptions in the natural sciences, Japan’s universities play in the national leagues, not in the Olympics. This is not due to a lack of intellectual firepower but is a result of the evolution of Japanese tertiary education since the 19th century. For elite Japanese schools, a globalized Japan would be like bringing in a T-Rex to roam free in their erstwhile-protected enclosure. Good students and the best faculty would leave and globally oriented funding would flow elsewhere.

Third, the elite will suffer because their power comes from their Japanese credentials (education, experience, recognition, connections, etc.). Globalization would make status far more dependent on “international social and educational capital.” Thus those whose capital is solely Japanese would see their assets trade at a discount. This explains why many Japanese feel that spending too much time overseas will be detrimental to their career prospects, as they will miss out in the race to acquire Japanese credentials.

Fourth, Japanese women have outperformed their fellow countrymen in the globalized workplace. They outnumber Japanese men at the United Nations and are a higher percentage of the managerial workforce of many foreign-owned businesses in Japan. They will be the first beneficiaries of a more globalized Japan. Since the men run the system, the political economy of gender politics is aligned against internationalization.

Finally, an internationalized Japan would delegitimize the idea of the archipelago as a unique harmonious, homogenous, and “Japanese” homeland and open the door to a more liberal society with different values and new elites. This runs contrary to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s cabinet’s emphasis on Japanese values and history.

When the Tokugawa shogunate ended in 1867 with the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japanese people opened up to radical new ideas as it was clear that the old order was finished. Historian Albert Craig wrote of Fukuzawa Yukichi, Japan’s foremost 19th century thinker: “He seems not to have set aside as sacrosanct any core of Japanese culture” (Craig 2009). Today, those who decide Japan’s destiny benefit from a system that is much stronger than that of the Tokugawas. The institutions that define the country are old and powerful. Those who rise to the top of this system are rarely revolutionaries, but mostly diligent functionaries who fear reform.


Craig, Albert. 2009. Civilization and Enlightenment: The Early Thought of Fukuzawa Yukichi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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Robert Dujarric

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Robert Dujarric is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan.
Shin Woon

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Shin Woon is an economics student at Barnard College at Columbia University.
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