where are the japanese exchange students?

I was recently reading Jake Adelstein’s review of Reimagining Japan and he noted the need for openness as a topic explored in the book – and defined that as a reluctance for both young Japanese to go abroad, and for companies to reach outside of their own borders. I don’t have any profound insights into this issue (or even on whether it is the issue that people make it out to be), but it reminded me of a touching conversation I had last year.

I organized a flower-viewing party (for cherry blossom season) in the last April that I lived in Tokyo. For those of you who haven’t had the experience of cherry blossom season in Japan, I’ll give you a representative image: cold, cloudy, miserable day, often with no cherry blossoms in sight, a park completely covered in blue tarps (“leisure sheets!”), populated by shivering drunk people trying their damndest to get even more drunk while snacking on party foods like octopus dumplings. Doesn’t it sound like that romantic image of an elegant branch of cherry blossoms against the clear blue sky, perhaps with Fuji-san lurking nearby, that has become the representative of Japan? Well, don’t believe it. The version I’ve given you is hard cold reality.

Still, you do hanami (“flower viewing”) in late March and early April, flowers or not, and regardless of whether you need a winter coat. Once you’re plastered, you won’t notice anyway! Well, let’s move on now that I’ve set the scene.

I was chatting with my friend Naoko who had brought her shy but nice cousin along with her, who was interested in learning and practicing English. We got to talking about how I’d come to Japan in the first place and how my experiences were.

As we talked, she surprised me with her reaction: She revealed that she’d love to live abroad for a year or two after college, and she was so jealous of people like me and my friends who had been able to do that in Japan. It really threw me. After all, she was shy and hesitant about speaking, but her English was passable enough that after a few weeks in a place like the US or UK, she’d be doing fine. Her interest in foreign countries and languages was obvious. So why the resignation to not having a chance? What was stopping her?

Her answer to this really blew me away. “Well,” she said, “companies want to hire their new employees when they graduate from college, on time.” (By this she means that graduation is in late February, and the start of the new school/employment year is in April. Because of this, if you happen to not pass your entrance exams or not get a job offer, you have to wait until that time in the next year to try again.) “So if I were to go abroad, I’d come back and I wouldn’t be a new graduate, and I wouldn’t be with the class I graduated with. So it would be really difficult to get a job because I wouldn’t be in the category of people that companies want to hire.”

It really shouldn’t have surprised me so much. After all, it’s true. There is a deeply ingrained system of when and how, from college exams to job interviews. Of course, part-time jobs, and going into business for yourself, are different. But overall, despite a lot of shifting preferences and more varied ways of living compared to a decade or two ago, that system is still there. And if you don’t fit into the path that leads you to a position as a regular company employee (as opposed to contract or part-time), you are going to be stuck in what’s still considered by many to be an underclass.

The irony here is that Japanese firms would benefit immensely from young employees who have at least traveled, if not lived, abroad – anywhere. In fact, I worked very informally at a large company in Tokyo and my contact there confided in me more than once that he’d like the old guard to open their minds to hiring foreigners as in-house workers, instead of using contractors to do tasks like translation. His argument was that it would be more cost-effective and flexible (at one point they needed a rush translation and had to pay through the nose to get someone else to do it), and even more than that, that it would change the culture of the workplace in a positive way. But at the same time, he sighed when he said this and said, “There’s no way that could happen now. I’m hoping in two or three years, it might be possible, if I keep working on them.”

I see how this system is set up and I understand the logic of it, because everyone knows how it works and it’s self-perpetuating because of it. But looking at it from the outside, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the one hand I’m reassured and even inspired by the people I’ve talked to in Japan who have either made a path that weaves in and out of the system as they like, or who have become successful within powerful companies and used that position to shape their work into something international. There are plenty of people I know who lived abroad for a while (from three months to like 20 years) who were then perfectly successful when they returned. But by and large, if this attitude is there – well, the fear that success can only be had along one specific, limited path is self-fulfilling.

I can only hope that more people like my friend’s cousin who have a desire to go abroad and experience life in other countries do get the courage to do it regardless of the rigid system that they live in, and make something successful out of it. But in the meantime, I am a lot more understanding of why the Asian exchange students at my university come to us from every nation but Japan.

2 thoughts on “where are the japanese exchange students?”

  1. lol. Hanami in Japan really is *just* like that. I was surprised to discover I actually found the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Sakura Matsuri much more fun. Warmer, sunnier, much pinker, and, just, somehow, more active and engaging.

    As for the more serious side of your post, well, I’m not sure I have much to say, except that I agree. Japan’s insularity never ceases to amaze me. The idea that you can’t go abroad because in doing so, you’ll be falling off the one set path to success… and the way 帰国子女 are treated (according to things I’ve read), that it’s actually embarrassing to have different experiences and language skills… Overseas, international, intercultural, and multi-lingual experiences/skills are precisely what Japan’s corporations etc need. And they know it. They’re just too rigid, and too afraid of deviating from the corporate culture that already exists to see what kind of flexibility and benefits there might be.

    … I wonder if this “hiring season” thing is part of what is throwing off a good friend of mine, who has been living and working in Tokyo for about three years, but who has been unemployed since October, and it seems the longer he’s out of work, the less people want to hire him. The April season has come and gone.. I wonder if and when something will come through for him.

  2. It wouldn’t be hanami if there were actually cherry blossoms anywhere! 😉

    I think the hiring season is pretty rough. What I’ve heard consistently is that the ronin problem applies to job seeking as well as getting into university. If you don’t get accepted somewhere during the hiring season, which is right when new students graduate from university, you are stuck waiting another year because hiring really doesn’t take place outside of that window.

    I hesitate to say this like I’m an authority on the subject, especially because things are changing quite a lot compared to like, ten years ago. But for many companies, I’m surprised to hear that this is still reality. On top of that, finding a regular employee job seems really difficult even if you’re generally following the system. Most of the company employees I know are contract or part-time, so they get paid a lot less, get no benefits, are easier to fire, and don’t really get absorbed into the company culture (or have room for advancement). It sucks.

    That’s interesting about the reaction to having international experience and language skills but sadly not that surprising. And yeah, companies are not taking advantage of what’s already there, let alone encouraging students to gain language skills or travel before they enter the work world.

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