COVID-19 crisis brings sharp drop in foreign students studying in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An 18-year-old American from Florida, on the screen, takes an online course offered by the Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute on April 9.

New foreign students have stopped coming to Japan since January, due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, prompting Japanese language schools and universities to use online classes in a bid to secure enrollment.

Nevertheless, some people have given up on studying in this country, as the prospects for the future remain uncertain. This has led to growing concerns about a shortage of foreign manpower in Japan in the years to come.

‘Online courses’ before dawn

“I’m interested in Japanese culture. I want to go to Japan right away.”

So said an 18-year-old American who is taking online classes with the Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute (SNG) from his home in Florida. The time he originally planned to come to Japan coincided with the Japanese government suspending the new entry of foreign students, making him unable to realize his dream.

According to SNG, 277 foreign nationals are waiting abroad to enroll at the school, with 74 of them taking online classes. To deal with time differences, the school conducts online classes in three slots: from 3:00 a.m., 9:10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Japan time.

As the prospects for their actually coming to Japan remain dim, an increasing number of students are said to have either entirely given up, or changed their study abroad destination to another country.

SNG Principal Takahide Ezoe, 70, said: “Most of our graduates are people who would go on to a university in Japan and find a job here later, thus contributing to Japanese society. We want to secure their interest in Japan one way or another.”

Teachers also suffering

According to a survey conducted by six organizations comprising Japanese language schools, including the Tokyo-based Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, there were 25,442 foreign nationals who hoped to be enrolled at these schools last academic year and who had been granted a certificate of eligibility for residence needed to apply for a student visa.

Of this number, 13,269 people, or 52%, entered Japan, but 4,102, or 16%, canceled their plans to study here. Another 8,071, or 32%, have yet to come to Japan.

The number who sought enrollment this April, the start of the new academic year, declined by 40% from a year earlier, according to the survey, to which a total of 242 schools responded.

This has meant problems for Japanese language teachers as well.

A part-time lecturer, aged 54, who teaches the Japanese language at a private university in Tokyo, had four classes canceled last academic year, causing her yearly income to drop about ¥700,000 from the preceding year. The woman sought compensation for the loss, but the university turned her down, saying it was not responsible for the decline in foreign students.

Online classes for foreign exchange students resumed in April, and the number of classes the woman is assigned recovered to its previous level. However, she is worried about whether her classes would be cut again.

Nihongo Kyoshi Union, a Japanese language teachers’ union based in Kanagawa Prefecture and comprised of about 100 Japanese language teachers, said, “If the new entry of foreign nationals into Japan continues to be suspended, some Japanese language schools will have trouble staying open.”

Globalizing education

The number of foreign students studying at Japan universities has also declined sharply.

Larissa Pereira, 23, who lives in Germany, had planned to start studying at Kyushu University from April but has given up, as there is no prospect of her being able to enter Japan. She had already obtained a scholarship to study biomedical sciences in this country.

“Studying at Kyushu University is fascinating and I want to go if there’s a chance. But under the present circumstances, I can’t work out such a plan,” she sighed.

At Akita International University, where foreign nationals account for about one-quarter of the student body in normal years, there are currently only 36 foreign students enrolled, or 4% of all 844 students. All 36 are taking online courses from abroad.

At International Christian University in Tokyo, a combined total of about 150 foreign exchange students were scheduled to be enrolled last fall and this spring. But only 22 such students have registered.

Of this number, 19 students are taking online courses. An official in charge said, “Due to time differences, some students even experienced health problems, and their will to study declined.”

At Hiroshima University, 98 foreign nationals who were supposed to be enrolled this April decided not to do so.

Prof. Carolin Funck, vice president in charge of global education, expressed concern that the decline in foreign nationals studying at Hiroshima University would deprive its students of an opportunity to be inspired by a diverse range of values, and that the number of foreign human resources in Japan would decrease.

“Once it declines, it won’t be easy to bring the number of foreign students back to the previous level. We need to contemplate seriously how we can work to globalize education and study amid the coronavirus pandemic,” Funck said.