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Foreign students

grow in universities

outside Japan's big cities

Boon to schools in areas hit by population decline

by Yusuke Sakurai for the Nikkei Asian Review

TOKYO -- Study-abroad students made up more than 5% of those enrolled in Japanese higher-education institutions in rural areas for the first time last year, Nikkei has learned.

The 39 prefectures outside of the three major urban areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi hosted a total of 73,320 foreign students in 2018, or 5.4% of all students, up 0.5 percentage point from the prior year. Six prefectures boasted higher proportions of foreign students than Tokyo's 7%.

As Japan's population shrinks and remains concentrated in Tokyo, attracting students from overseas is becoming key to operations for universities and trade schools, especially in rural areas.

The proportion of students from abroad dipped after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdowns, but bottomed out in 2013 and has been rising sharply since.

Nikkei calculated the proportions by prefecture based on survey data from the Japan Student Services Organization and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Gunma, a landlocked prefecture northwest of Tokyo, has shown the sharpest growth of the prefectures in question, surging to 15% -- or 6,962 students -- from just 3% in 2013. According to a Gunma official, proportions of foreign students "aren't growing too much at schools that already had them in high numbers," such as Gunma University, Jobu University and Takasaki City University of Economics.

But, the official said, a major rise took place at Nippon Academy, a school set up in 2013 by an education arm of local hotelier group Gunma Royal Hotel. The academy offers practical studies in services for Japanese hotels, traditional ryokan inns and eateries to about 500 students from abroad, mainly Vietnam and Nepal.

Another growth contributor was Tokyo University of Social Welfare, whose headquarters are located in Gunma. The university hosts about 800 foreign students, or roughly 20% of the total student body. Most are Chinese, though recently students from Vietnam and Nepal have grown to notable numbers, according to a school representative.

The second-greatest growth came from Ibaraki Prefecture, located northeast of Tokyo on the Pacific Ocean coast, where students from abroad grew to 11% of the total at 5,299 in 2018 -- up 5 percentage points in half a decade. Ibaraki's University of Tsukuba boasts one of the highest counts of foreign students in the country, and schools including Tsukuba Gakuin University have shown marked increases as well.

Studies of business and information are popular with Tsukuba Gakuin's foreign students, the school said, noting that there were more Vietnamese students than those from any other country in 2018.

Though Tokyo boasts more than 67,000 students from overseas, that makes up just 7% of the capital's overall student body. The prefecture with the highest proportion of foreign students is Oita, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, whose count of 3,733 makes up 16% of its students overall. This is largely due to the presence of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, where about half the students come from abroad.

Foreign students made up 10% of the total for Yamaguchi Prefecture, located north of Oita on the southwest tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, at 2,715. Fukuoka and Nagasaki prefectures both beat out Tokyo with student bodies that were 8% foreign, with 13,669 and 1,954 respectively.

"In non-metropolitan areas, where the population has declined sharply, there is an increasing movement to turn to study-abroad students to secure needed human resources," said Miki Sugimura, a professor at Sophia University familiar with the internationalization of Japan's higher education.

Most European and American countries have larger proportions of foreign students in higher education than Japan does, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.