A Lonely World

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2003

Japan's latest export: jaded students who have few hopes of finding fruitful careers at home

by Debbi Gardiner

Nozomu Shinozaki's stay at West Harbour in Auckland, New Zealand, was meant to be a respite from Japan. The 22-year-old from Yokohama, with his parents' support, enrolled in the New Zealand chapter of the International Columbus Academy, a nonprofit group designed to help troubled Japanese teenagers. School director Kutso Kanamori had said years earlier that the academy was designed to offer students "a chance to experience childhood." But far from home, Shinozaki seems to have been more lost than ever. On February 27, he died from head injuries. Nine Japanese students have been charged with the young man's kidnapping and assault, according to news reports, and all but one entered New Zealand without visas. Kanamori is also in trouble for obstructing police justice.

Shinozaki's death highlights the dark side of Japan's penchant for overseas studying. A record number of Japanese students are heading abroad these days, but many of them are doing so because of a complete lack of hope and opportunity in their homeland.

"When I'm home, my friends complain
about their jobs. Everyone fantasizes
about quitting -- but nobody ever does.
I don't want to wind up like that"

The New Zealand murder raises some ugly issues. New Zealand's immigration, health and education officials were working to understand how the Japanese students entered the country and how the school existed in the first place, since it was not registered. On March 5, New Zealand politician Winston Peters said the death of the student was a sign that immigration was "out of control." Earlier, Peters said New Zealand is being used as "a dumping ground for Japan's troubled youths."

For decades young Japanese have studied on their parents savings in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Typically, students would study English or professional disciplines for a few months, then head back to Japan to jobs that would put their precious skills to work. But now, the continuing slump back home has prompted more students to try to find jobs overseas.

The number of Japanese students studying abroad is at its highest yet. Almost 47,000 Japanese students were studying in the US in 2001 and 2002, according to the most recent report by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit group. That's up 20 percent from a decade ago. There are more students from Japan on US campuses than students from any other East Asian group, the group's annual report said.

During the last two years, the number of Japanese coming to the US to study has risen 40 percent, says Chiey Nomura, director of the ARC International Educational Consulting Office, a nonprofit support group for overseas students in Los Angeles. More students want to extend their stays in the US, she says, citing as an example the 30 percent rise in Japanese students applying for internships with companies in the US in the last two years.

Japanese office culture can be
traumatic for a student after whooping
it up somewhere free and
breezy in the West

Terry Simon, director of the Texas Intensive English Program, a private language school, says Japanese stay the longest out of any student group. Europeans tend to stay at the school three months, whereas the average stay for Japanese students is seven months. "Japanese just don't seem to be in a hurry to leave. They are the only group we have that asks to move down a level in order to stay longer," Simon says.

Part of this exodus is natural, education experts say. Like students from any country, "Japanese students tend to study abroad more when there is economic turmoil back home," says Amy Baker, the editor of Language Travel magazine, a trade publication in London. "It's the perfect time to build skills."

But today's exodus is also sparked by fear. Many students say they worry about not finding a job upon returning home. Anecdotal evidence and unemployment figures only bolster those worries. Unemployment stood at 5.5 percent in January, but many more people are under-employed, working part-time jobs to make ends meet.

The job market shows some signs of improvement -- the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading business newspaper, found that Japanese companies plan to hire 5 percent more college graduates in fiscal 2004, for example -- but the overall picture for young people is bleak.

The problem goes deeper than just finding a job, students say. The gifted ones know they can find something in Japan, but they worry they will have to take jobs that are dull, uninspiring or just plain awful.

Foreign companies are
attractive to Japanese students
because there is less overtime.
"Vacations and benefits
are better, too"

Take the case of Kiyomi, an overseas student who asked that only his first name be used. He is from Osaka, has a bachelor's degree in business from a university there and has spent over two years studying English at the Broward Community Center (BCC) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Over a cup of coffee at the Starbuck's on Los Olos Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Kiyomi explains how his parents pay his rent, expenses and tuition. Kiyomi doesn't seem proud of this; after all, he's 28. But if this is what it takes to secure his dream of working as a flight attendant, then so be it, he says. Kiyomi says he was supposed to return last April but couldn't bear the thought of it. He says he worries about losing his English abilities and not finding a job in Japan. "When I'm home (in Osaka), my friends complain about their jobs. Everyone fantasizes about quitting -- but nobody ever does," he says. He is quiet for a while, then adds, "I don't want to move back to Japan and wind up like that."

For other students it's the fear of reverse culture shock in Japan that motivates them to stay abroad. Japanese office culture, notorious for its strict rules, overtime and hierarchical systems, can be traumatic for a student after whooping it up somewhere free and breezy in the West. "Employees who haven't traveled might be jealous," says Nomura from ARC. "Managers might force the employee who lived abroad to obey the Japanese system, social conventions and company policies. Many international students find they cannot accept the traditional system in Japanese companies."

Other overseas graduates haven't even bothered trying to return because they are convinced they will be discriminated against for having international, not Japanese, qualifications. Tae Twomey (her married name) studied English in London for seven years and Italian in Italy for several months and graduated with honors from the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at the University of London. Twomey now lives with her baby and husband in London. After she graduated, Twomey tried working for Japanese companies in London. She applied at Taisho Pharmaceutical and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, she says, but neither would grant her an interview. In contrast, consulting firm Ernst & Young offered the new graduate a well-paying position.

Stories like this have helped raise the status of foreign companies among young Japanese, especially Japanese women. Ken Anderson has been teaching in Japan for 24 years and is a professor at Joshi Seigakuin Women's Junior College. He says foreign companies are attractive to his students because there is less overtime. "Vacations and benefits are better, too," Anderson says.

With students feeling skittish about working for traditional Japanese companies and some even questioning the worth of having a degree, the level of disenchantment among Japanese students is at an all-time high. Anderson says university used to be the one chance for Japanese people to relax and enjoy life before starting to work. Now, that respite has gone away.

To escape or at least circumvent the rat race, many young people, known as freetah, work part-time in department stores or other nonprofessional jobs. Anderson says many of his students this year opted for this kind of work. Others, like Kiyomi, choose to sponge off their parents. They're called "parasites."

So far, Kiyomi's only office job has been a brief stint working for H.I.S. Travel. Since studying in Florida, he has interviewed with one airline in London and another in San Francisco. He is hopeful despite the industry's troubles.

Japanese schools are doing their bit by sending more students overseas. Some universities, like Seigakuin, are setting up summer programs with sister schools in the UK and the US. "Even a glimpse, a little one, gives them a new perspective and opens their horizons a bit," says Anderson, who recently helped establish the university's UK summer program.

But a student's desire to stay overseas coupled with an inability or unwillingness to work can create family tension, especially as families are trying to save money in these uncertain times. Kiyomi says his parents are furious that he is still in the US on their funds. During our talk, he admits that his parents have finally cut him off. He has to return to Japan. When I ask what he'll miss most about the US, he chokes up with tears. "I don't want to return," he says. "I'll miss the freedom here."

Kiyomi says his parents won't even pick him up at the airport in Osaka. And they've given him a limit on how long he can stay at home. "I have one month," he says. "Then, I have to find a job and a place to stay."

For all the turmoil, though, students concur with Anderson's sentiment that the broadened perspective overseas living provides is invaluable. Students seem to feel that the challenges and strife are worth it. Yoko Niyoshi, a 24-year-old English language student in Christchurch, New Zealand, says her Japanese friends get harassed on the local buses by teenagers who assume the foreigners don't speak English. "They think we can't speak or understand what they say," she says. Even so, she's planning to work in Australia as a Japanese-language teacher. But first, there's something she has to take care of back in Japan. It dawned on her when some Japanese officials visited her school. "They spoke keigo," Niyoshi says, referring to the polite Japanese reserved for formal settings. "I had no clue what they were saying and thought: Oh my God, I don't speak my own language." So before she settles into an overseas teaching post, she may just head home for some lessons in her native tongue. @

Debbi Gardiner is a freelance writer living in Florida and a frequent contributor to J@pan Inc.

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