In our last Japanese language market report, we found student numbers steadily recovering following the shock of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami (see STM, December 2011, pages 36-37). The subsequent 12 months have been a positive trading environment despite the challenge of the historically high rate of the yen with some exciting developments.
Nonetheless, the extent and speed of the recovery has not been consistent. Declan Murphy at Yamasa Institute in Aichi Prefecture reports a prompt stabilisation of numbers, aided by the diversity of their student body. Masaki Yoshioka at Sendagaya Japanese Institute (SJI), Tokyo, similarly advises that after the initial rebound three-to-six months after the disaster, “The campus is now as crowded as before the earthquake.” According to Yoshifumi Kobayashi of the Ehle Institute, Osaka, the sector in the Kansai region has also fully recovered. However, Miyuki Shiratori at Sendai Language School (SLS) in the Tohoku region, the area most affected by the disaster, explains that tourists have yet to return there, although the disaster has actually attracted some humanitarian-minded students. “For the summer course this year, we had some students from Europe and the USA, and their purpose of staying in Sendai was not only studying the language but also to be involved in volunteer activities, or doing some projects or research on the earthquake,” she says.
In terms of markets, Evan Kirby at Genki Japanese and Culture School, Fukuoka, relates, “The adult market has mostly recovered, but we do still see a decrease in [younger] student bookings, as parents may be worried still about after-effects from the disaster... I think this effect will be gone by summer next year.” Kirby also reports some unpredictability in numbers, leading to the busiest ever summer but a below average autumn. “It seems the market will take some time to return to its previous levels of stability,” he says.
Threatening recovery efforts has been the strength of the yen, still at historical highs against several currencies. Masaki Izumi at Yokohama International Education Academy (YIEA) says, “I believe that it is one of the main reasons why we are seeing a slow recovery in student numbers.” Indeed, Hiroko Arai at ISI Japanese Language School, Tokyo, believes that a return to the student levels of a few years ago is impossible at current exchange rates. Hiroko Yamamoto of Kai Language School, Tokyo, says the yen has been particularly damaging for the Korean and European markets. Kirby adds that it has also created pressure on agency margins, especially for those that offer prices in local currency. Murphy, meanwhile, relates that the strong yen is “forcing us to concentrate on the quality end of the market, as it is less price sensitive”.
On the other hand, the strong yen does create a potential incentive for long-term students, notes Shiratori. “For the students who have a student visa, it is permitted to do part-time jobs, and earning money in Japan gives students a good benefit under the strong yen.” Arai attests that students are now more interested in work and study courses, especially as students are permitted to work for a generous 28 hours per week. She adds that their job search assistant service has been one of their strongest features recently. Yoshioka attests that the perception of Japan as an expensive country can be misleading, “They [students] find that the actual cost here in Japan is different from that they imagined.”
The strong yen also appears to be driving shorter course lengths. “We believe this to be the cause of the decrease in average study periods,” says Kirby. “I would say the east Asian region is moving towards short-term study, usually for about three months, instead of one-to-two year study,” notes Izumi. Meanwhile, Yasuko Aizawa at Eurocentres Kanazawa picks up on a trend that also may be contracting study periods: a rise in younger students those in their teens and early 20s with a corresponding drop in learners aged 30 and over. “Typically with young students, the motivation of Japanese language study is because they grew up with [elements of] Japanese pop culture such as anime, manga and video games.”
In terms of growth potential, Yamamoto explains that the globalisation of the Japanese workforce is a blessing. “Japanese companies are hiring more and more foreign employees. They visit foreign universities, as well as Japanese universities, to recruit international students.” As such, Kai has launched a regular business Japanese programme, while the number of corporate clients has grown year-on-year. The school is also focussing on career assistance, “In order to provide a bridge for career opportunities, we have partnered with staffing agencies and prepared internship opportunities.” Murphy concurs with the potential, “Japanese firms are increasing offshore operations and training more foreign staff in Japanese language.” Yoshioka also notes the increasing demand for business Japanese courses, as well as the need for preparation courses for the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). However, contrary to some other contributors, SJI has experienced an increase in students from Asia, Europe and the USA interested in long-term study with a view to university study. Similarly, Kobayashi relates that Ehle Institute is giving priority to university entrance exam preparation as well as employment support for overseas students.
Another challenge, advises Yamamoto, is the shifting nature of relations with universities. Firstly, Japan is facing increasing rivalry as Asia’s prestigious tertiary study destination. Furthermore, once dependent on language schools for recruitment, “Japanese universities are also becoming more and more active in direct recruitment of international students,” says Yamamoto.
Schools have certainly been active in offerings and recruitment. YIEA, for instance, has expanded its portfolio, explains Izumi. “Optional courses that were only being offered sporadically are now being offered on a regular basis. Elective classes for advanced students have expanded to include business and cultural classes. We have been charging ahead full force.” Genki has been looking to forge partnerships with overseas universities, reports Kirby, while Kai is working to partner with universities and vocational schools in Japan, says Yamamoto. Several schools report increasing efforts to update websites and social media output in order to appeal to students.
Agents are, of course, essential to the ongoing recruitment drive. Aizawa at Eurocentres enthuses that sales efforts and high levels of student satisfaction have led to new agents offering their programmes for 2013. “As for student recruitment, we continue to improve our website as well as to develop new agencies and markets,” says Yamamoto. Shiratori advises that SLS is trying to initiate new relations with agents and schools abroad, while Izumi adds, “We are very much looking for agents from all regions.”
Figures and market trends
Statistics from a member survey of the Association for Promotion of Japanese Language Education (Nisshinkyo), which covers the vast majority of Japanese language schools, reveal the extent of the downturn suffered in 2011, with a 24 per cent drop in the number of students on courses of six months or longer down from 43,669 to 33,239 although interestingly, the number of institutions increased from 449 to 451 at the same time. Miyuki Shiratori at Sendai Language School (SLS) confirms the decline: the school ran at quarter capacity for new entrants in 2011, but more promisingly has already surpassed last year’s figure in the first two quarters of the current financial year.
Hiroko Yamamoto at Kai Language School believes enrolments are back to around 80 per cent of pre-disaster levels, but they have been affected by losses to the Korean market which almost halved in the 2011 Nisshinkyo data although this has been partly offset by recruitment from China’s three northeastern provinces and Fujian, which were previously difficult regions in terms of visas. China is clearly the dominant market for Japanese language schools, representing 67 per cent of students in the survey, despite a drop of almost 7,000.
Yokohama International Education Academy is seeing an increase in southeast Asian students this year, advises Masaki Izumi. Declan Murphy from Yamasa Institute similarly notes “good growth from southeast Asian markets”. Indeed, in the Nisshinkyo 2011 data, Vietnam bucked the trend of declines with 29 per cent growth becoming the third largest market.