Photo/Illutration Comedian Kinnikun Nakayama, center in the front row, poses for a photo with students at a government event to encourage studying aboard held at the education ministry in Tokyo on Aug. 5. (Jun Miura)

The education ministry has set a goal of boosting the number of Japanese students studying abroad to pre-COVID-19 levels of around 100,000 a year by 2027.

The number of Japanese students studying overseas has plummeted amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The ministry has decided to continue a public-private program to support such students, which was scheduled to end in the 2022 academic year, until the 2027 academic year. It will also boost support for high school students studying overseas in the hopes of increasing their numbers.

The ministry held an event to encourage students to study aboard on Aug. 5.

Three high school students who are studying in New Zealand and Canada spoke online about their lives overseas to around 300 junior high or high school students who attended the event.

They asked the students to not give up studying abroad and that studying overseas is a valuable experience for personal growth. 

“I wanted to see the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the three said. I thought the rare experience of studying aboard amid a pandemic would be useful.”

Japanese comedian Kinnikun Nakayama, who studied at a university and other schools in the United States for four and a half years from 2006, also appeared in the event.

He stressed the value of studying in a foreign country while answering questions from students.

“When you study abroad, you have to do things on your own,” Nakayama said. It was hard, but I gained confidence when I overcame the difficulties.”

Tamao Matsunaga, 17, a second-year student at the Yokohama Senior High School of International Studies who hopes to study at a university in Australia, said: “Beyond worrying about the pandemic, I also have financial concerns about the weaker yen. However, I’m more motivated now after hearing the experiences from students studying aboard at the event.”

The number of Japanese students studying abroad fell sharply amid the pandemic.

According to the ministry, the number students including university students studying overseas was increasing pre-COVID-19, marking a record 115,146 in the 2018 academic year.

That number plummeted to 1,487 in the 2020 academic year, however, showing a 98.6 percent year-on-year decrease.

The number of high school students studying abroad reached a record 46,869 in the 2017 academic year.

Although data on high school students in more recent years are still not available, “Their numbers could have declined more sharply than university students because, as they are minors, their parents are more concerned (about their studying abroad amid the pandemic),” a ministry official said.

The official said that although more high school and university students have gone aboard to study this year, the number hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels.

In July, the ministry set a target to revive the number of students studying overseas.

“As globalization is accelerating, it is essential (for Japanese students) to experience diverse cultures and values overseas and gain abilities that enable them to cooperate with people from all over the world,” said a ministry official. 

The ministry announced a new policy to enhance support for high school students studying abroad to return the number of Japanese students studying overseas, including university students, to at least around 100,000 per year by 2027.

“Our policy is intended to encourage students to study overseas earlier, so that it will lead to the next steps in their studying aboard, the ministry official said. We would like to return to the pre-COVID-19 level (in the number of students studying aboard) soon to create more global leaders.”

One of the pillars in the ministry’s new policy is the expansion of the program “Tobitate! Ryugaku Japan” (Fly! Studying Abroad Japan”).

It’s a public-private program started in fall 2013 to encourage Japanese students to study aboard. The ministry decided to continue it until the 2027 academic year.

The program has raised about 12.3 billion yen ($88 million) in donations from companies, organizations and individuals, which were then used to give scholarships for studying abroad to 9,471 students.

There were 6,082 university students and 3,389 high school students who received the scholarships, and they have no obligation to pay back the money.

For four years from the 2023 academic year, the program will invite 700 high school students per year in three categories.

One of the three categories is “Exploring My Interests Course,” in which 360 high school students per year can study subjects they are interested in.

Another is “Exploring Society Course” for 200 students per year, who can learn about various social issues.

The last is “Exploring Sports and Art Course” for 140 high school students per year.

High school students who want to participate in these courses in the the courses' first year can apply from October 2022 to January 2023.

Those who are successful can start studying aboard in or after July 2023 under the current plan.

The program will also support local authorities responsible for areas where fewer students go aboard to study compared to major cities.

A total of 1,200 high school students living in those areas will be supported to study overseas under the program.

This means the program aims to send 4,000 high school students to foreign countries to study.

The program has so far supported between 800 to 1,000 university students studying in foreign countries per year.

However, it will reduce the number to 250 a year, thereby inviting 1,000 university students for four years.

Of the 250 university students, 50 will be in the “Innovator Course,” which is designed to encourage students to “create new value.”

In addition, there will be a “STEAM Course” for 100 university students majoring in science subjects.

Another 100 university students can study abroad in the “Diversity Course.”

Applications to study overseas taking part in the courses' first year will be accepted from October 2022 to February 2023.

The students will start studying abroad in or after August 2023.

Students at colleges of technology, called "kosen" in Japan, can also apply for these courses for university students.

The program’s official said it will require university students to submit “plans to learn from taking part in the society of a foreign country” when they apply, to ensure their experiences aboard will be meaningful.

The official said one example of such plans could be working an internship in Silicon Valley or disadvantaged areas in foreign countries.

Apart from this program, the government plans to improve its scholarship program to encourage university students to study overseas.