A reader who is a foreign mom married to a Japanese national posed an interesting question to me recently. She has an 18-year old who is finishing off high school and she wonders whether to send her daughter to a university in the US, or let her stay here in Japan. Her daughter is bilingual and until now has been going to a Japanese high school.
I found this question quite relevant for me, because like many other long-term foreign residents in Japan, my kids are growing up and having to make some of the same decisions. Indeed, I have a 21-year old daughter already at university here in Japan and an 18-year old considering what her next step should be. My kids are also bilingual.
Like so many life decisions, I’m not sure that there is a right and wrong answer for what you should do with your kids’ advanced education, except to say that you MUST make sure that they are bilingual. I don’t necessarily mean they have to be completely literate, spoken Japanese/English is initially enough to get most jobs in international companies. However, obviously not being literate makes advanced study in that language difficult and adds an extra 1-2 years in language preparation first.
The first question in helping your teenager decide what to do is of course to listen to their own ambitions and dreams, and to realize that whichever country they graduate in, that is probably the country they will also start working in. So, if they want to save the animals of the world, probably you’re not going to find a lot of job opportunities here in Japan. There are of course academic jobs in the field, but generally in Japan conservation is a hobby, not a vocation. Nor, will you find many “soft” fields of study outside of politics, culture, and history. For example, psychology is not well advanced here and I would recommend any bilingual person to study that field overseas.
On the other hand, the sciences and engineering courses are well established and are generally world class. My 21-year old is studying DNA research at Kitasato University, here in Tokyo, and has told me that it is as good as courses in the US. Once she graduates, however, we’ve been discussing whether she should do an advanced degree here or go to the States.
The next thing to consider is your child’s social abilities. Going overseas and leaving home and friends behind can be highly stressful and of course impacts study and scores. If your child is happy with a Japanese learning environment, perhaps they’ll do better here. This is especially so if they do well in an examination culture. Going to a foreign College where they’ll be asked to observe and deduct can be a challenge to children who have followed rules and rote learning all their lives. Both my kids have mentioned this as a reason for wanting to stay in Japan. They’re both good exam takers.
In terms of job opportunities and mapping a career out before going to university, as I mentioned, in my opinion the language skills are most important. Remember that your children have a huge advantage having grown up in Japan as bilinguals – so build on that advantage. Those kids, who haven’t learned one of their mother tongues well, would be well advised to do a one-year exchange in the country of the weaker language skills. I’m always amazed how quickly 15- and 16-year olds can learn another language. And it sticks with them for life.
Younger kids also benefit greatly from a year overseas, but earlier than around 10-11 years old, they tend to lose it over time. For the language to stick, the study needs to be after the brain becomes “hard-wired”.
Beyond language, what else to study? Although courses labeled “International Business” and “”Comparative Culture” sound like they might be appropriate, in my opinion, the best courses to take are the ones that give your child a specialty. Large companies, and multinationals in particular, are always short of bilinguals with technical skills. This means finance, accounting, HR, technology, mathematics, law, medicine, education, administration, etc. Of course, if your child doesn’t find these attractive and has their heart set on an arts degree, you could at least try to negotiate with them to take some side courses in a business-focused discipline as well.
Foreign firms love international undergrads, whether they come from Japan or overseas, so long as they are bilingual and demonstrate the right behaviors and track records. Undergrads score positions with such companies at job fairs, and through direct applications to their company of choice. The general rule of thumb is that large-to-medium sized companies are the best place to start, because they can afford to take on batches of fresh undergrads whereas smaller companies need to have experienced people.