The Japanese government relaxed coronavirus border restrictions in March this year, but after almost two years of severely limited entry, “there needs to be a concerted effort to restore Japan’s image and lure back all the (international) talent that has been lost,” one expert told the Mainichi Shimbun. Professor Takakazu Yamagishi, director of Nanzan University‘s Center for International Affairs in Nagoya, says that foreign students and other newcomers can be divided into some broad categories when analyzing the entry ban’s impact.
The first, “core group” is made up of people he calls “Japan maniacs” — those which Yamagishi says want to come to Japan no matter what. These students, he says, made up the bulk of those expressing dissatisfaction at being kept out. Then there is the “middle group” who don’t have the same “Japan or bust” enthusiasm as the core group. For example, Yamagishi says, people who are fans of the talent agency Johnny & Associates’ boy bands, but who also like K-Pop are likely to belong to this middle group. He adds, “There are also those who think that, if pursuing business, then China is the way to go.”
He adds that many in this “middle” category have high intellectual levels and are able to communicate easily and effectively internationally, and they often examine many different countries for their next career steps. Furthermore, frustrated by Japan‘s entry restrictions, these people may have just switched destinations before complaining openly about the closed borders. Lacking the heavyweight diplomatic and military “hard power” of other major nations, it is essential for Japan to strengthen its “soft power.” And Yamagishi says that expanding the number of “middle group” talent and cultivating “Japan hands” is indispensable to building soft power.
“Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Japanese government was pressing universities to act on this, but the entry restrictions were like the government slamming on the breaks” when it came to attracting international students, Yamagishi points out. Yamagishi offered South Korea as a counterpoint to Japan’s nearly no-entry policy. “They’re next to North Korea, and have half the population of Japan, but they understand the potential of soft power and are very conscious of making themselves attractive to an international audience,” he says, noting that Seoul also continued to let in foreign students a bit at a time even at the height of the pandemic.
Many would-be foreign students decide where to go based on the experiences of peers who have already studied abroad. Particularly “middle group” students will find it easier to turn away from Japan if they hear good reviews about someplace else when they find themselves unable to enter Japan. Yamagishi believes that Japan’s pandemic entry restrictions did not have that severe an impact on people in the “core group,” but that Japan probably lost a lot of people from the “middle group.”
The government and other players “will soon need to come up with a medium- to long-term strategy” to really work on rectifying the situation, he tells the Mainichi. Yamagishi also points out that the block on foreign arrivals severely exacerbated an existing exchange student imbalance between Japanese universities and their overseas counterparts. Namely, Japanese schools sent more of their own students than they accepted from abroad.
And Japan’s entry ban has further disrupted the foreign exchange student balance with overseas universities. As a result, some universities abroad froze their exchange relationships with Japanese schools. In February, it was reported that the University of California had suspended exchange programs to Japan until March 2023. Yamagishi says that some of his own university’s partner institutions have demanded Nanzan stop sending them exchange students.
In short, increasing foreign student intakes here creates more opportunities for Japanese students to go abroad. However, “opening the country alone will not naturally increase foreign student numbers and solve the exchange student imbalance,” Yamagishi declares. “It won’t be that easy to restore trust in Japan among the world’s young people.” He adds that Japanese society as a whole “needs to fundamentally reconsider how it treats foreigners.”