Post-disaster Japan puts out a fresh welcome mat

Visa changes and academic-year shifts may help boost overseas interest. Michael Fitzpatrick reports

Faced with an exodus of foreign students after the earthquake and tsunami in March, the Japanese government has launched a multifaceted strategy to staunch the flow.

Initiatives include loosening visa requirements for prospective students, increasing the number of scholarships on offer, paying for young social media-savvy Japanophiles to have holidays in the country and even shifting the academic year to be in sync with North America and Europe.

So far, the government's efforts appear to be working.

According to Japan's education ministry, 95 per cent of all overseas students who were expected to enrol on courses at Japanese universities have done so, albeit with some postponing their date of entry.

It is heartening news given that a month after the devastating quake, about half of the country's 140,000 foreign students had departed, according to official figures.

"Certainly, the mass escape in March was alarming," said Paul Snowden, professor in the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

"But since it happened during the spring vacation, it was not as disruptive as it might have been.

"What we have seen at Waseda is foreign students who were due to enter as freshmen in April postponing entry until September."

He said this deferment had been particularly common among Japan's large Korean student population, although those from China and Taiwan had seemed more willing to start the academic year in the spring as normal.

Waseda's School of International Liberal Studies has already switched to a semester-based curriculum that permits entry in either April or September, he added.

Another tactic employed by the government has been to increase the number of state-funded scholarships, which the education ministry said had resulted in a spike of interest.

Scholarships, which typically are offered to students in developing countries, include benefits such as tuition fee exemption, a monthly allowance and round-trip air fares to Japan.

Facebook friends sought

The government is also seeking to enlist the help of more than 1,000 international students already based in Japan, as well as young people interested in visiting the country, to use Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms to disseminate information about their experiences. It is offering free travel and accommodation in exchange for such services.

Meanwhile, some visa restrictions on incoming students have been lifted.

In a bid to help the country's vocational and Japanese-language schools, which have been hit harder by the drop in the number of overseas students than the universities, foreign graduates from such institutions who previously needed a degree to work in Japan will no longer be required to have one.

Potentially the most influential move, and one that policymakers hope will serve to boost foreign student numbers in the long run, is a proposal by the University of Tokyo to move the start of its academic year from spring to autumn.

The shift would make it easier for students from Western institutions to participate in exchange programmes, but would also pose challenges - not least the question of what Japanese students would do during the six-month gap after finishing school.

Overall, the country is still facing a huge challenge if it is to realise its goal of attracting 300,000 foreign students a year.

The number of non-Japanese students at Japanese universities has increased by about 20,000 over the past two years, reaching 140,000 in May 2010.

William Saito, an adviser to Japan's education ministry, told Times Higher Education that Tokyo's plan to change the structure of the academic year, which is presently only in the planning stages and has yet to be confirmed, was "a good start - but it is only a start".

He added: "Other things have to be dealt with, including credit reciprocity and suspending tuition fees while students are abroad - because currently at some universities you have to pay the Japanese tuition even while you are attending another university abroad."

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