Students from China and India are familiar faces at American universities. Now, after a sharp decline over the past decade and a half, they’re being joined by an influx of Japanese, particularly young women.
The number of Japanese students studying on U.S. campuses hit a peak of 47,000 in 1997, then fell to 19,000 in 2011, according to the Institute of International Education, cited in a recent New York Times article. But the number of new visas issued by the U.S. State Department to Japanese students rose 10 percent from 2011 to 2012, from 16,811 to 18,668. And, notes Kageaki Kajiwara, dean of the School of Asia 21 at Kokushikan University in Tokyo, “Overwhelmingly, it is female students who show interest.”
An obvious reason is an increasing emphasis from the Japanese government and major employers to globalize their talent. Major employers, such as Rakuten, a major online retailer, and global clothing chain Uniqlo recently introduced in-house English-language policies. Other employers are demanding solid foreign language skills and international experience.
But there’s another force at work, too: Japan’s limited professional opportunities for educated women.
Our own research in Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Japan paints a detailed picture of the obstacle course awaiting Japanese women with career ambitions. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of college-educated women in Japan voluntarily quit their jobs. The overwhelming reason? Not childcare nor eldercare, as one might expect. Instead, 63 percent of our survey respondents quit because their career wasn’t satisfying and nearly half (49 percent) felt stalled.
More troubling, career-minded Japanese women don’t see a future at domestic companies. Survey respondents overwhelmingly prefer to work at multinational companies, even those located in Japan: 68 percent believe that U.S or E.U.-headquartered companies are more women-friendly than Japanese firms.
Given this trend, the large number of young women in study-abroad programs isn’t surprising. Dean Kajiwara concedes, “Unfortunately, there is a disparity in career opportunities available in this male-dominated society, and opportunities might be greater overseas for Japanese women.”
Facing a shrinking workforce, a stagnant economy, and soaring pension and healthcare costs, Japan desperately needs to tap its pool of under-utilized and under-leveraged educated women. According to a 2010 Goldman Sachs study, Womenomics 3.0: The Time Is Now, if Japan could close its gender employment gap, the workforce could expand by 8.2 million and the level of Japan’s GDP could increase as much as 14 percent.
Yet when the smartest career choice for ambitious Japanese women is to emigrate, the question for the students signing up for study-abroad programs is: Will they return home?
- Catherine Fredman