December 2011 issue

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Japanese language market

Japanese language schools suffered in the aftermath of the devastating disaster that struck the country in March, but students are returning, reports Matthew Knott.

Business as usual is the message that the Japanese language teaching sector, and indeed the Japanese tourism industry in general, is trying to get across as the country gets back on its feet. The schools surveyed for this article reported mixed responses as to how the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis affected them, and summer numbers were not helped by the yen being at a record high, but all are pleased to report that enrolments are on the rise again.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake 70km off the coast, which sent a huge tsunami towards the north east coast of Japan’s main Honshu Island and left 15,812 people dead, inevitably casts a shadow over any reflection on 2011. Its immediate impact on the education sector manifested itself in a raft of student departures and postponements in the post-disaster confusion. The Sendagaya Japanese School is based in Tokyo, 250km away from the disaster zone, but the “school was closed for one week right after the earthquake on March 11,” recalls Director, Tadakazu Niiyama. “The new term which was scheduled to start from April was postponed to May as we wanted to provide a more flexible schedule for existing students as well as new students, so they could start their course without worries.” It should be noted that the tsunami struck during a period that is a traditional school holiday, so many students, especially at colleges and universities, would have been away. “It was nearly the end of our winter term, so some students stopped their studies early with us and returned to their country for good,” reports Hiroko Yamamoto, Director of Kai Language School, Tokyo.

The Sendai Language School (SLS) is located in the Tohoku region where the tsunami struck, although thankfully far enough inland to be unaffected. Miyuki Shiratori relates, “The area where our school is located is the central area of Sendai city. Of course, the day of the earthquake and the weeks after that day, were very severe for us, but compared with the area that suffered the big tsunami, our damage was not that big.” Following the initial impact of the tsunami, the ensuing drama at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant then became the focus of attention, as Evan Kirby, Director of Marketing at Genki Japanese and Culture School (Genki Jacs), Fukuoka, reports, “We are more than 1,100 kilometres from the affected area. However, the subsequent nuclear catastrophe caused some countries to recommend their citizens to leave Japan entirely, so we did have a few students finish their study early, or take a short vacation.” Shiratori believes that the media reporting of the nuclear crisis created a misconception of Japan’s overall condition, “I think the information provided on TV or the Internet focused on the damaged area, and maybe people mixed up the locations, and thought Japan in general is not safe.”

Although returnee rates were mixed, most schools were pleased to report that the vast majority of students that left returned within weeks. ACC International College in Fujinomiya state that 98 per cent of their students that had left were confident enough to come back, consistent with official statistics on university returnees. However, not all were so lucky, “Approximately 59 per cent of students who left returned to their studies with us,” says Yamamoto.

While most existing students returned, in the period afterwards many students that had booked but had not yet arrived cancelled and new bookings plummeted. “We started our spring term with only about 60 per cent of the expected number of students. Even in July for our summer term, we only had about 70 per cent,” says Yamamoto.

Schools reported a divergence in the type of students that failed to materialise this year. “The recovery of the student numbers has been rather smooth for the long-term course in which most students study more than six months. What we didn’t foresee was that it has been exceptionally difficult for the three/four week short-term courses. There was a survey showing a 35 per cent decline of tourist numbers in Japan. Considering the fact that many of our short-term students come to Japan for sightseeing, we think that they are probably postponing their visit to Japan at this moment,” explains Yamamoto. In terms of markets, Kirby reports that for Genki Jacs, which focuses on the European and North American markets, Germany was most cautious, “We had the greatest number of cancellations among two groups: German students and minors. The issue of nuclear power was of course very strongly debated in Germany, and parents would understandably not be willing to send their children around the world for a non-necessary visit if they perceived any danger at all.”

Nonetheless, student numbers appeared to be back to anticipated levels by the autumn. Miki Ando at Japanese Language Institute (JLI), Sapporo, reports that student levels are now equivalent to last year, while Genki Jacs are boasting an increase over 2010. “Our student numbers for summer were about 25 per cent lower than last year, but from September onwards, we have had significantly more bookings than last year,” says Kirby. For schools in the Tohoku region, the year has been a bleak one. “The situation is the schools in Tohoku area have suffered from the lack of students,” laments Shiratori. The shoots of recovery are slower but are emerging. “The number of students this year at this moment is almost half of last year’s number. For the past six months we didn’t receive inquiries that much, but I think we started to get more positive inquiries recently”, explains Shiratori.

The emphasis on different types of courses is an important one. As Yamamoto explains, the mainstay of Japanese language school business has traditionally been university preparation courses, but schools may need to diversify their short-term offerings. “The number of students from China and Korea started to decline even before the earthquake. This means the Japanese language schools will need to shift their focus from university preparatory courses to a wider variety of courses such as short-term courses, general courses, Business Japanese courses, and so on. I think that the recent increase of the number of foreign employees in Japanese companies and the development of tourism promotion suggest high potential for Business Japanese programmes or short-term tourist package programmes such as Japanese and Sightseeing.” Asuka Kobayashi confirms that such courses at ACC are on the up, “Short programmes which last for 10 days or 14 days have been very popular. These programmes are designed so that students can enjoy Japan through learning Japanese and experiencing Japanese culture, such as kimono-wearing, tea ceremony and climbing Mount Fuji.”

Niiyama confirms a differing student profile on their varying courses. “For the long-term programmes, students are mainly from Asian countries such as China, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand, while there are also a number of government-sponsored students from Saudi Arabia. And for the short-term programmes, students are mainly from European countries, especially from France. We would like to recruit students from different areas and provide students with a more international environment.” Statistics from the Japan Student Services Organization (Jasso) support Niiyama’s assertion. In 2010, Europe and North America provided 3.1 and 1.9 per cent of international university students respectively, but 17.5 and 16.1 per cent of short-term international students.

In terms of markets, China remains undeniably the most important, with 89,778 students across all sectors in 2010, up nine per cent from 2009. ACC and SLS both attest that China is their top source of students. Increases from Vietnam and Thailand were recorded, while in terms of European students, “The number of Swedish students has been steady even under these difficult circumstances,” confirms Yamamoto. Meanwhile, Kirby says, “We’ve noticed increasing demand from France, Germany and the UK.”

However, as if the problems in Miyagi and Fukushima were not great enough, another black cloud hanging over the Japanese international education sector is the yen being at an all-time high, despite government efforts to balance exchange rates. At the time of writing US$1 stood at 76.83 yen – an all-time high, a fact that has been particularly damaging to the Korean market, which is the second largest provider of students for Japan. “The other big issue affecting the Japanese market is the high yen. It’s been high since 2008, after the market collapse, but recently the yen has only strengthened further against most major currencies,” explains Kirby. “It’s always hard to judge the effect this has on enrolments, but it can’t be helping! We keep hoping that the government’s efforts to improve the exchange rate will show some fruit, but we don’t see any evidence of this happening in the near future.”

However, language schools were optimistic of a return to normality and growth into 2012. “For people who really want to learn Japanese, there is no alternative to coming to Japan. So we expect that most of the people who cancelled their study this year will rebook with us in the next year or so, when they feel confident to come to Japan again. So we look forward to a great 2012!” says Kirby.

Most of all, the Japanese language teaching sector is hoping that students realise that Japan is a safe destination for study and travel. As Shiratori says, “We just hope that students find out the fact that living in Sendai is not that dangerous. As a matter of fact, some students choose to come to the Sendai area to see the fact that this area is recovering with many people’s good will and efforts.”

Government efforts

In the aftermath of the tsunami, the Japanese government was quick to respond with some measures to assist international students, including waiving Japan’s re-entry regulations – usually a visa will be invalidated when leaving Japan, unless the student has a re-entry permit, which can only be acquired in person from an immigration centre. The government also offered to reimburse the costs of air travel back to Japan. Subsequently, additional state-funded scholarships have been made available to overseas students, while rules have been relaxed to allow graduates of vocational colleges to apply for Japanese work visas.

However, not all language schools were entirely satisfied. “For better or for worse, the short-term language study market, our speciality, has been mostly ignored by the Japanese government, which only regulates long-term study,” says Evan Kirby from Genki Jacs, Fukuoka. Hiroko Yamamoto at Kai Japanese Language School, Tokyo, says, “The government’s response regarding entry permits right after the earthquake was indeed very fast and flexible. Besides that, however, we didn’t see much special effort made. What we would like to see is more information for students to make the right decisions. We would also appreciate if they could provide support for marketing, such as free participation in student fairs and so on, like they had in New Zealand.”

For Miyuki Shiratori at Sendai Language School, the government faced a thankless task. “My impression is that the government’s effort cannot reach all the countries abroad, even with their best effort. For example, even if the government exempted all the expenses for the next 12 months or so, not all the students would be willing to come back,” she outlines.

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