COVID-19 blocks foreign students from entering Japan

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on education systems worldwide, a Japanese program to welcome more than 300,000 foreign students is at a crossroads. Entry restrictions are blocking many international scholars from coming to the country, curtailing a strategy that boosts Japan’s universities and addresses labor shortage problems.

Some hopefuls, like 19-year-old Gyudo Back, find themselves in limbo. Back lives near Seoul and wants to study marketing in Japan. She quit high school in May 2018, and now attends a cram school that supports people who want to learn at a university in Japan.

Back was unable to sit the university entrance exam in September because Japan restricted entry of people from South Korea amid the pandemic. “I hoped the university would postpone the exam, but that didn’t happen,” she complains. “It’s depressing and regrettable that I couldn’t take the test despite all the preparations I had done.”

Japan’s internationalization strategy on the brink

As part of an internationalization strategy, Japan came up with a plan 12 years ago to increase the number of foreign students to 300,000, up from 120,000 at the time. That target was achieved in May last year when the figure topped 310,000.

The presence of foreign students has become essential for Japanese universities taking a hit as a result of the country’s declining birthrate. At some institutions, internationals account for half of the student body. But according to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency, the number of foreigners who entered Japan to study stood at 2,298 in August this year. That marks a sharp fall from a tally exceeding 86,000 in September last year.

At the Aoyama School of Japanese in Tokyo, enrollment is expected to fall. Foreign students and residents have been studying Japanese there for more than 40 years – and about 70% of the students aim to go on to university or vocational schools.

School chief Nakanishi Ikutaro is increasingly concerned about how to secure new students: “I’ve heard students and parents voicing worries about the coronavirus. I used to go abroad every year to promote Japanese culture and talk about schools in Japan in a bid to encourage people to come here. But now that’s not possible.”

Foreign students as members of Japanese society

Ota Hiroshi, professor at the Center for General Education at Hitotsubashi University, is an expert on policies related to foreign students. He worries about the impact that a dwindling number of foreign students will have on Japanese society. He is calling on universities to review how they screen applicants, and is urging them to consider new measures like conducting interviews online.

“Japan is grappling with a labor shortage amid a declining birthrate and an aging population,” he says. “It’s hoped that foreign students would join Japanese firms after graduation and continue living in the country. Furthermore, foreign students are, in fact, supporting Japan’s workforce as part-timers. It’s necessary for Japanese public and private sectors, and academics, to jointly develop a system to welcome foreign students as members of Japanese society.”

The Japanese government partially eased entry restrictions in October. Foreign students wishing to take entrance exams for Japanese universities are now allowed to make a short-term stay, on the condition that their hosts guarantee measures to prevent infections.

Back’s cram school has asked multiple universities for documents to support that guarantee, but so far they have all said the process is too difficult. Nevertheless, Back remains hopeful that one day she can realize her aim: “I can’t give up on my dream to study and work in Japan, so I’ll just stay positive and do my best.”