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Japan’s strategy

to attract African students

By Akane Sakuma and Akiyoshi Yonezawa for University World News.

At the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7) in August 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched the African Business Education Initiative for Youth (ABE Initiative) 3.0, which will see Japan invite 3,000 African students to study in Japanese universities and to undertake internships in Japanese companies by the year 2026.

While Asian countries have sent many students to the Western world, some of these Asian countries are now becoming popular host countries for international students within and across the West, including from the African continent. Malaysia has accepted a large number of African students and was ranked fifth in the world in 2016 in respect of its African student numbers.
In 2019, China indicated that it would provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships over the following three years as part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan.
Japan, a country that has a long history of accepting international students from Asia, is now strengthening its policies to recruit African students for both diplomatic and economic purposes, in competition with its Asian neighbours.
African students' recruitment
Japan has worked strategically to increase the number of international students studying in the country over the last four decades, with a primary focus on students from Asia. In 1983, Japan announced its policy to accept 100,000 international students, a number that was achieved in 2003, mostly based on the high demand from self-paying students from Asia who sought job opportunities in Japan and Japanese industry.
Notwithstanding, Japan had already started to seek higher education linkages with Africa, for example, by supporting the launch of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya in 1980, and has continued to invite students with scholarships from various African countries.
In 2008, Japan launched a new plan to admit 300,000 international students by 2020, and by May 2017, 267,042 international students were studying in the country. Among them, however, only 2,230 students (0.8%) were from Africa.
In 2008, there was another event, the fourth TICAD, where Japan stated that it would increase the number of national scholarships for Africans over the next five years. However, according to the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), although the total number of international students increased by 13,927 from 2008 to 2012, African students comprised only 90 of these.
Africa as a priority
In the beginning, the 300,000 International Students Plan progressed slowly. In 2013, the project was revised and Africa was finally given precedence and set as a priority area. The government emphasised that African student recruitment was significantly in Japan’s national interests based on economic, resource and business imperatives.
During the fifth TICAD, which was also held in 2013, Abe declared the introduction of the ABE Initiative, which originally involved a five-year programme to provide full scholarships and internship opportunities in Japanese companies to 1,000 African youth.
Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the aim of the programme was to develop highly advanced industrial human resources to act as ‘pilots’ for Japanese enterprises operating in Africa. Given rising expectations, it was announced at the sixth TICAD in 2016 that the ABE Initiative would be extended for a further three years. In 2019, at the seventh TICAD, the scale of the programme was expanded to become the ABE Initiative 3.0.
Selecting an institution
Jun Kawaguchi, Akane Sakuma and others conducted research, commissioned by JASSO, focusing on African students in Japanese universities. They found that academic information (professors’ specialties, professors’ academic abilities and reputations, and the number of research papers published by researchers in academic institutions) were not always considered by African students in the process of selecting Japanese universities. Instead, they evaluated international indicators, university rankings and social media in their selection process.
Although the number of English programmes is increasing at each university, some information is not conveyed in English. Unlike many Asian students who have studied Japanese, most African students have no option but to select universities despite not having Japanese language skills and therefore face difficulties when looking for universities, courses and supervisors. It is therefore no wonder that students use rankings and social media as their principal methods of university selection.
However, when selecting a destination to study abroad, relying solely on rankings means that students often lack essential information regarding the actual study environment at universities in Japan. This may lead to mismatches with supervisors because students may believe that the universities they have chosen are globally recognised and thus must provide high-quality education.
The same applies to many international students who consider social media as their primary means of collecting information. This superficial information does not necessarily reflect the actual study environment in Japan.
Difficulties in career paths
Japan’s strategy requires that African students play a pivotal role in connecting Japan and Africa and therefore places emphasis on their training in advanced human resources for future economic development.
The Kawaguchi et al research shows that some students cultivate positive attitudes and hope to contribute to their home countries in Africa, while others want to work in Japanese enterprises. However, although about 60% of international students seek employment in Japan, only 30% secure jobs, according to Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The primary difficulties they face when job hunting are the language barrier and Japanese-specific customs during the recruitment process. Many African students also indicated that there is insufficient information about jobs for international students and feel that career support at Japanese universities is lacking.
Microcosm of the superficial relationships present during the recruitment of African students (Author created)
At present, the African student recruitment strategy in Japan is based on the idea of contributing to mutual development between Japan and Africa, but it lacks a deep understanding of each social context and network.
Although some African students decide to study in Japan based on vague perceptions of the country, most African students are satisfied with their academic lives in Japan and are motivated to contribute to Japan’s future development. However, universities do not show much interest in African students’ careers after graduation and mainly support students who can seek work in the same way that Japanese students do.
For Japanese society itself and even many enterprises, what is more important when employing international students than the students’ academic and professional skills and knowledge is whether or not they conform to Japanese customs. To enhance student mobility between Japan and Africa, greater mutual understanding and respect should therefore be developed through these small but critical African student flows and networks.
Akane Sakuma is based at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, while Akiyoshi Yonezawa is professor and director in the Office of Institutional Research, Tohoku University in Japan.