Japanese Entrepreneur in U.S. Stresses Need to Study Abroad; Govt Working to Expand Scholarships to Support Students

The Japan News
Yuichi Fukunaga

It has been a while since Japanese youth are said to have become inward looking, shunning the challenges of studying abroad for various reasons. They are said to have no interest, not enough money or simply cold feet.

Even as the number of Japanese students abroad has recently increased from the sharp drop caused by the pandemic, Japan lags behind other developed countries.

Yuichi Fukunaga, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, who studied neuroscience at Williams College in Massachusetts, stresses that “it has become more important than ever for Japanese people to look overseas.”

Fukunaga founded the startup Taxa Technologies in San Francisco with his former college roommate in 2023. The company utilizes synthetic biology and microbiology to develop new ingredients derived from microorganisms for cosmetics and medicines through genetic modification and other means.

For example, if Taxa can develop a cream that combines the effects of deodorants and bacteria that is naturally found on the skin, the company might be able to create a deodorant that lasts for weeks with just one application.

Research and development of such ingredients derived from microorganisms has been attracting researchers’ and investors’ attention in recent years because they might be safer and more effective than the chemical compounds commonly used today.

“I would like to work with other companies to help develop new drugs and cosmetics,” Fukunaga said.

Currently, he is working with a company to commercialize cosmetics that utilize ingredients developed by his company in preparation for the launch of a full-scale business.

The Japan News
Yuichi Fukunaga

Fukunaga was born and raised in Osaka Prefecture. While he was going to a prestigious high school in Nara Prefecture, he questioned the significance of attending a Japanese university. Both his parents did not graduate from college but seemed happy with their lives. Fukunaga was also disappointed to hear that his older high school friends, who entered one of Japan’s top universities, were spending most of their time going out drinking.

Fukunaga attended an event for students considering studying abroad and was impressed by a Japanese student from Harvard University. Fukunaga then decided to apply to a university in the United States.

After intensely studying for the SATs and practicing writing essays, not to mention improving his English, Fukunaga was admitted to Williams College in 2019.

Once in college, he faced a series of new challenges. At Williams students don’t declare majors until their sophomore year, so he took many classes in different fields, including art history, math, psychology and philosophy, but Fukunaga felt uneasy as he couldn’t decide what to study. He also wanted to be able to speak English well enough to tell jokes and make his classmates laugh, so whenever he returned to his room, he practiced with his roommates.

In 2020, while taking classes online from Japan amid the pandemic, Fukunaga began thinking about starting a business in the health care industry. While continuing to study neuroscience, he also read books on entrepreneurship to learn about starting his own company. As graduation neared, Fukunaga and his roommate, a biotechnology major, decided to start their own business.

Fukunaga has been talking with potential investors he met through college alumni. Taxa closed its $2.5M pre-seed round from U.S. investors this February, as biotech is a field that is attracting a lot of attention. Fukunaga said biotech is not something many Japanese angel investors are particularly interested in, but he still hopes that one day, products using his company’s ingredients will be sold in the Japanese market.

The number of Japanese students abroad fell 31.1% to 42,709 in 2020, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s research compiling data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, UNESCO, the Institute of International Education and other organizations.

The lack of scholarship programs, soaring tuition fees of educational institutions overseas is also believed to have contributed to the sluggish growth in the number of students choosing to study abroad. The recent weak yen is expected to add to this trend.

The Japanese government has set a goal to increase the number of high school and university students studying abroad to 500,000 per year by 2033, including long-, medium- and short-term students, and is working to expand scholarship programs. The development of people who can play an active role in the global arena is an urgent need for Japan as well.

“If people don’t want to leave Japan, with its shrinking population and lack of economic growth, or learn any foreign languages, we will not grow compared to the rest of the world,” Fukunaga said, concerned about the fact that younger people do not seem to want to study overseas. “Meeting people from different cultural backgrounds and who speak different languages will make you question how you want to live your life. Although there are challenges, I would like more students to experience studying abroad.”