SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

Viktor Virág “Professor, do I have to go back to my country?”

Japanese universities must fundamentally rid themselves of the premise that international students go back to their countries. Already thirteen years have passed since I first came to Japan. I have spent most of this period at institutions of higher education. Yet, I still feel uneasy about the kind of education that takes it for granted that international students go home after graduation. After majoring in sociology, a discipline that is supposed to be open-minded and sensitive about various biases, I have chosen the field of social work and social policy where a tolerant attitude is a must. In spite of this, I have been directly asked numerous times the questions ‘What will you do when you go home?’ or ‘How will you make use of what you have learnt in Japan in your home country?’. In addition, I cannot even count the occasions when I have heard the same questions targeted at international students around me. Going home after graduation and contributing to one’s country of origin are sometimes even included in the requirements for scholarships in Japan. If for long years on a daily basis you face insensitive manners that not even assume any choice other than going home, naturally you cannot help but think of the psyche behind it.


First, I feel that a sort of exclusionism or for lack of a better term, xenophobia is deeply rooted, that is why people tend to think negatively about the diversification of Japanese society by the settlement of international students after graduation. Let us compare this with the 2020 Olympics and recent buzzwords. While people are ready to do their best to ‘pamper’ only temporary ‘guests’, principally they tend to treat them as the ‘other’. There are many people who cannot step beyond this frame of othering. So the person always remains ‘the one outside the wa (輪, circle)’. ‘The one outside the wa (輪, circle)’ is not Japanese and he or she disturbs the harmony, hence of course seen as ‘the one outside the wa (和, harmony or Japaneseness)’. Literally, the person becomes a gaijin (外人, outsider). In other words, he or she does not get the chance to stand in an equal position on a level ground. What is more, amidst the narrative that necessarily associates cultural diversity with higher crime rates, there is an extreme tendency to speak of such gaijins (外人, oursiders) as if they were gaijins (害人, harmful individuals).


However, I believe unconscious influences on the trend to prefer international students going home are more serious. In short, a considerable proportion of people have a sense of superiority without any purposeful ill feeling. Namely, one can find the implication in the background suggesting that ‘Lucky enough, you were given the chance to study in advanced Japan, so make use of it and work for your backward home country!’. It seems that such thinking about international students considering them coming to Japan as a form of overseas aid or international contribution in the form of knowledge and technology transfer is especially strong towards students originating from non-western countries. Still, it is not only the theory of Japanese uniqueness turning into racism or nationalism combined with supremacist features, not even something as simple as ethnocentrism resulting in a one-dimensional view of the world. Rather, it reminds us to the arrogance and paternalism that developed nations show towards developing ones while drawing on some colonialist lineage too. Students from countries of the Asia-Pacific may just recall the ideology of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.


Obviously, there are many who consider ‘international study ending in going home’ without thinking about it deeply. But we must not forget that such lack of imagination or rather ignorance is also unconsciously influenced by the above mentioned ideologies. Deep-rooted ways of thinking appear to lurk behind attitudes that make the premise for international students to go back to their countries after graduation.


Further on, it is also true that insensitive approaches and attitudes easily shift into actions such as prejudiced treatment. For instance, the aforementioned clause in scholarship applications is a manifestation of the most outspoken institutionalized discrimination. Also, we might as well look at examples in academic advice. In the author’s experience, academic advisors who encourage studying one’s country of origin even though they are in Japan are unfortunately not rare in the field of social sciences. The environment for such studies is of course not ideal in Japan and the meaning of international study itself becomes ambiguous. Moreover, in case of students from East Asia, research on the Japanese colonial or occupation period tends to be preferable. Let us assume that Chinese or Korean students go home just as many in their surroundings want them to. It may depend on the arrangement of arguments or the final emphasis, but it is certain that there will be serious difficulties that have to be faced with the evaluation of a final thesis about the Japanese rule era in one’s country of origin. The possibility and the risk remain that one cannot even feel safe to explicitly write on a resume about the research undertaken while studying in Japan.


I may read too much into and think too much about a simple exchange of words. Yet an environment where international students in Japan have to day-by-day stand a storm of questions based on the premise of going home cannot be worthy of university education in a globalizing age. In any case, the message that ‘international students are OK, but they are not really welcome as people who work or settle here’ is clearly being sent out even if it is unintentional.


In addition to the ethical perspective, what we have to think of here is the loss for Japan. Due to the common problem of low birthrates and aging faced by developed countries, the struggle for a global workforce has already started on the international labor market. In the future, competition between countries will only get more and more tense. In Japan, a country that unwillingly leads the global tendency of low birthrates combined with population aging, the issue of securing human resources is an urgent imperative in many different areas. Establishing an atmosphere on campuses that recognizes domestic employment and settlement in Japan in a more positive way is necessary for becoming a country that can attract workforce and ‘people’ ultimately. Furthermore, building a country where anyone can reside safely and a society where anyone can live in comfort is one of the absolute conditions for Japan to become more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Henceforth, the internationalization of universities while keeping in mind a more open position about careers after graduation is a very meaningful initiative with considerable expectations and responsibilities.


(Part-time Lecturer at Sophia University & School of Social Welfare, Hosei University, Showa Women’s University, and Tokyo Metropolitan University. Research Fellow, Social Work Research Insitute, Japan College of Social Work. Secretary for International Affairs, Japanese Association of Schools of Social Work. Assistant to the Regional President, International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Asia-Pacific.)


SGRA Kawaraban 486 in Japanese (original)