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Over the past two decades, student mobility has been considered a key element of the internationalization of higher education in developed countries. In Japan the number of college students participating in short-term study abroad (SA) programs of less than one month has increased from 16,873 in the 2009 academic year to 66,876 in the 2017 academic year, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The reasons why the largest number of Japanese college students chose short-term SA programs stem from their considerable advantages, such as cost-effectiveness and limited impact on a student’s school schedule and job-hunting activities. Although the purposes of student SA are diverse, there are many studies showing that one of the main motivations for Japanese students is to improve their future career prospects.

Government policies are oriented toward increasing the number of Japanese students who go abroad, regardless of the length of the SA program, and to foster global jinzai (globally competitive human resources). The Japanese government has implemented various projects to promote outbound mobility since the late 1900s. One of the biggest governmental projects is Tobitate! Ryugaku JAPAN Nihon Daihyo Purogramu (Jump Into the World! Let’s Study Abroad, JAPAN, Japanese Representative Program), which was launched in 2014 to send 120,000 students abroad by 2020. Under the project, the government created the slogan “jinzai” and offered Japanese students a considerable array of scholarships. The belief that SA is effective in developing jinzai has prevailed. For instance, the Japanese newspaper Nikkei reported the results of a 2016 survey that demonstrated that 84.2 percent of 1,653 adult respondents thought that young people should try to go abroad to be global jinzai.

"Career" as a Buzzword in Study Abroad

However, it is noteworthy that there has been a scarcity of critical understanding concerning how career is understood by Japanese students participating in short-term SA programs and whether their SA experiences are actually helpful toward their career objectives. Without the benefit of guidance for their future choices, many Japanese students participate in short-term SA programs encouraged by Japanese government policy, educational institutions and general public opinions.

Interestingly, statistical analysis reveals a gap between the views of career advantage between Japanese students and Japanese companies. According to the survey of global personnel development and long-term impact of study abroad summary report conducted by Yokota et al. in 2014, only 27.7 percent of 423 Japanese companies surveyed felt that SA experiences were valued during the recruitment process. Moreover, only 5.1 percent of companies valued SA experiences when the period abroad was less than one month. On the other hand, another Yokota survey completed by 2,284 women and 2,205 men who had SA experiences indicated that 69.7 percent of respondents felt that their SA experiences were helpful in planning their career, and 64.4 percent of them felt that their SA experiences were helpful in gaining their current jobs.

It is worth noting the gap evident in the two Yokota surveys. It is clear that what Japanese students regard as helpful for their career has not been validated by Japanese companies. Why does the gap occur? Is the benefit of SA to career opportunities a myth? It is possible that the results reflect the ambiguity of the word “career.” Although the definition is still ambiguous, one might consider two different dimensions of career: life career and vocational career. Life career includes various activities that are not necessarily linked to job acquisition. Both aspects of “career” have been used interchangeably and carelessly in Japanese government policies to promote SA. For instance, on the government website to introduce Tobitate! Ryugaku JAPAN, Japanese college students are encouraged to see “challenging spirits” and “positiveness” as part of the SA experience. These would be skills and abilities required for both life career and vocational career. However, the website jumps to the conclusion that SA experiences will be helpful for job hunting and career decisions.

Shift From Overoptimistic to Realistic Views

The use of the word “career” in ambiguous ways easily provides SA students with overly optimistic expectations of their SA experiences to guarantee both life and vocational advantages. It has often suggested that short-term SA experiences risk of ending up as mere traveling experiences abroad. However, some studies reveal that every SA student has different experiences during their SA, depending on their motivation and knowledge, even when participating in the same types of short-term programs. To dispel the myth that a student’s short-term SA experience benefits career opportunities, it is important for educators to provide better guidance and orientation to future career paths, both life and vocational, before sending students abroad.

Chika Kitano is a lecturer at Language Education Center, Ritsumeikan University (April 2020), and a Ph.D. candidate in internationalization of higher education at the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, Japan.

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