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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 24, 2002)

Meteoric Rise in the Number of Chinese Students

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A series of recent Japanese government statistics indicate that Chinese nationals now hold pole position in a wide spectrum of social categories ranging from the highest number of foreign spouses to the largest percentage of overseas students. Mainland Chinese represented 21.4% of all foreigners living in Japan in 2001. Stroll around any large restaurant or coffee shop in Tokyo and you are certain to encounter one or two Chinese voices busily chatting away. While big Japanese cities have always been the home to sizable Chinese communities, nowadays a Chinese presence can be found in almost every imaginable corner of Japan. This very recent phenomenon is having a deep impact on rural Japan, which unlike its urban counterpart has not previously experienced such a large influx of foreigners.

The genesis for this recent development can largely be traced to the massive expansion in the number of Chinese students studying in Japan. Declining Japanese birthrates and the easing of previous quota limits on the number of foreign students per university have allowed Japanese higher education institutes to actively seek out foreign students in greater numbers than ever before.

The Education Minister announced in November 2002 that there were a record 95,550 overseas students currently studying in Japan. Amongst this group, an amazing 61.3% were from mainland China. This translated into a total of 58,533 Chinese students currently engaging in studies at Japanese higher education establishments. This figure represented an impressive increase of 14,519 students from 2001 and corresponded to a 33% rise in just one year. To put this increase in perspective, it almost equalled the total number of South Koreans studying in Japan. Second place South Korea trailed far behind China with just 15,846 students, or 16.6% of the total. Taiwan was ranked third with 4,266 students accounting for 4.47%. Thus, China overwhelmingly dominates the overseas student market in Japan.

While the Education Ministry figures provide data about the overall national picture, they cannot reveal the important impact Chinese students are having on rural Japan. From the vast wilderness of Hokkaido in northern Japan to the sandy beaches of Okinawa in the tropical south, new and vibrant communities of Chinese students are springing up. Today, even the smallest of regional universities in the remotest parts of Japan are not immune to this trend.

The new arrivals are having the greatest impact on small cities in rural prefectures where they are establishing good ties with local communities. This development is generally having a positive effect on the countryside, but there have been inevitable problems stemming from rural Japan's general unfamiliarity with foreign cultures and a traditional suspicion of outsiders.

The city of Kitami in the sparsely populated northeastern corner of Hokkaido is a microcosm of the new social currents created by the influx of overseas students. While the city's largest university, Kitami Institute of Technology, has a long history of hosting Chinese students and scholars, the city's smallest university, Hokkai Gakuen University of Kitami, has seen an incredible expansion in the number of Chinese students. In 1999, there were just two at the university. This rose to 15 in 2000, then 40 in 2001 and currently there are 55 registered for 2002. This kind of growth curve has been replicated in many regional universities and gives one a sense of the meteoric rise in the number of Chinese students. Kitami has a total population of just over 112,000 people of which about 4% are students in higher education. Universities represent an important component in city's local economy. Establishing new links with China may prove to be a good long-term investment for the universities, which are struggling to maintain current student intake levels. It seems likely that a high level of overseas students will become a permanent fixture.

Both staff and students at Hokkai Gakuen University have welcomed the Chinese influx. Professors openly admit that the Chinese students are more enthusiastic about their studies than their Japanese counterparts. Japanese students have generally reacted positively to the newcomers who have injected an exciting dynamic into campus life. The Chinese students themselves have generally found their reception warm and are encouraging friends in China to come to the college.

However, there have been a number of problems in finding accommodation for them. The Japanese housing market is very conservative and landlords are often suspicious of foreigners. The Japanese rental market requires prospective tenants to pay several months rent in advance and have a Japanese guarantor. These are hurdles that foreigners find difficult to negotiate. Chinese students are often short of cash and hardly know any Japanese who will act as a guarantor.

In Kitami, some landlords have also been reluctant to rent to Chinese students as they believe that when preparing food the students will use too much cooking oil, which could stain and damage walls. Letting agents admit to being disappointed by the negative stereotypes some elderly landlords have of Chinese people. These kinds of prejudice are not uncommon in the older generation, but rare amongst younger Japanese who are much more receptive to foreigners. Nowadays, most Japanese university students have the opportunity to interact with foreign students while at college.

University and municipal administrators have done their best to resolve the housing problems by acting as guarantors and utilizing landlord contacts. Those landlords who have taken in Chinese students have been very satisfied with the generally well-mannered Chinese tenants. Prejudice and stereotyping are best defeated by establishing personal contacts between different peoples. As in big Japanese cities, the Chinese community has overcome bias by setting good examples.

The ups and downs of Chinese student life in Kitami are typical of trends found across the country in other small cities. Despite the prejudice of a few Japanese, Chinese students are generally very positive about studying in Japan and keen to encourage friends in China to come to join them. This development bodes well for the future. Further increases in Chinese student numbers will expand the nascent communities, increasing Sino-Japanese human networks. This will hopefully offer a counterbalance to the often tense political relationship between the two countries. Good people-to-people relations are an essential element for creating a better understanding between the two neighbouring nations. The new influx of Chinese students is laying excellent foundations for improved, long-term ties.

(A shorter version of this article originally appeared in The South China Morning Post, 5 December 2002, p. 19 and was entitled Chinese Students in Japan: Cautious Welcome from a Campus Town).

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