Japan-U.S. talks spark efforts to combat decline in exchange students

Japan and the United States held a symposium in Tokyo on Friday about a recent decline in Japanese students going overseas and pledged to double the number of Japanese and U.S. exchange students by 2020.

"Exchange experiences open minds and hearts and make human beings richer in spirit," U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos told the symposium organized by the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange, or CULCON, and Waseda University.

Such experiences also provide a "hard-edged, strategic" advantage to the relationship between Japan and the United States, he said.

Participating in the symposium were representatives from the Japanese and U.S. government, education and business sectors.

CULCON panel member and Harvard University Japanese politics professor Susan Pharr said, "The incentives have just been too weak" for Japanese students to consider exchanges, while Chinese and South Korean systems encourage students to go overseas and bring back global expertise.

The drop in the number of Japanese going abroad to study began in 2004 when many Japanese companies started interviewing job-seeking students in their third year of university, instead of the fourth year as previously, leaving students less time to go overseas.

The Japan Business Federation or Keidanren, which represents Japan's largest companies, is investigating the job interview issue and will release its recommendations in a few months for its 1,285 member companies, said Keidanren Vice Chairman Kunio Ishihara.

Shigeharu Kato, director general for International Affairs at the education ministry, said his ministry increased its exchange scholarship budget from 632 million yen in 2009 to 3,518 million yen in 2013 to put the experience within the reach of more students.

Kato said the ministry, which funds both incoming and outgoing students, is now focusing its funding on shorter exchanges to give students a low-risk introduction to other cultures.

The ministry Thursday announced 10,000 student scholarships of less than one year's duration would be awarded in 2013, compared with just 740 such scholarships in 2009, he said.

The U.S. government's Tomodachi Initiative, a public-private partnership, has already sent hundreds of students across the Pacific Ocean funded by over $20 million of private sector contributions.

The second batch of participants in the Japanese government's short-term exchange program "Kakehashi Project: The Bridge for Tomorrow" are in Tokyo this week.

"The more time we spend here, the more we realize we actually have in common with Japan," Kakehashi Project student Joanne Guidry of Rice University in Houston, Texas, said after the symposium. "Spending time adjusting to other people's way of thinking is a crucial skill for everyone's career this century."