Japan and South Korea hold top 10 spots for the number of students they have studying in the United States. However, when it comes to the number of U.S. students studying in Japan and South Korea, they take 14th and 23rd place respectively.  As the United States increasingly turns its focus toward East Asia, how does international exchange affect the developing relationships?

The International Student Council (ISC) brought the Korea-American Student Conference (KASC) and the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC) earlier this month in Washington, DC, for a thoughtful conversation on “Fostering U.S. – Korea – Japan Partnership for the Future.” KASC and JASC are student-led academic and cultural exchange programs that provide a foundation for cultural sensitivity and global awareness.

More than 100 attendees, largely university students and government representatives, attended the symposium for an open discussion of bilateral and global concerns of the world’s young leaders. Among those present were Thomas Hubbard and Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassadors to the Republic of Korea, and U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy Susan Stevenson.

The first panel, comprised of Ambassador Hubbard, Ambassador Stephens, and JASC representative Kunihiro Shimoji, examined regional security and the shared interest in a peaceful East Asian region with a focus on current and future cooperation. A main point of conversation was the role of youth and influence of history on current decisions.

The second panel focused on the economy and job creation, with an emphasis on the role of youth in pursuing prosperity and the shared epidemic of youth unemployment. Panelists included  Glen S. Fukushima, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Tami Overby, vice president-Asia in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and  Jose Pulido, researcher at Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and an alumni of both JASC and KASC.

Study abroad was a common theme throughout the discussion. While South Korea ranks in the top three countries with students studying in the United States, the number of Japanese students on U.S. campuses has decreased by more than 50 percent in the last 10 years, from 45,960 in 2002 to just under 20,000 in 2012.

In addressing the questions: “What do you think it is that makes study abroad an effective tool for human capital development, why are Japan’s numbers down, and how is that downward trend addressed?,” the panelists identified three main reasons for the decrease in Japanese students studying in the United States:

  1. Japanese students are complacent and are comfortable living in Japan. Japan’s economy did not face the crippling financial turmoil of the late 20th century that necessitated Korea’s sweeping economic reforms. Japan has trains that run on time, one panelist joked, readily available services, and everyone speaks your language.
  2. Acceptance rates for Japanese students at U.S. universities have gone down. In the wake of increased applicants and growing competition for other international students, Japanese students are having a tougher time getting in to universities of their choice. Many Japanese students do not have as good a grasp of the English language as students from other countries, which is also affecting their acceptance rates.
  3. Businesses are penalizing Japanese students who study abroad. One panelist shared his story of giving up a Fulbright opportunity because his boss had advised against leaving the country and losing his network. His colleague, who seized the opportunity, he said, was “shipped off to a different office upon return, never to be heard of again.”

A New York Times article last May titled “Young and Global Need Not Apply in Japan” voiced the same concerns raised by the panel.  The article quotes a survey conducted by Tokyo-based recruitment company Disco, which said that among top companies with more than a thousand employees,  fewer than 40 percent said they were looking to hire Japanese with overseas education.

A symposium organized by the U.S. Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (Culcon) and Waseda University just last month concluded that “incentives are needed to reverse the decline in Japanese enrollment at U.S. universities.” Recent initiatives from the Japanese government, such as doubling the number of study abroad scholarships for the 2014 academic year, have attempted to resolve this problem and reverse the trend.