By Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow is a Fulbright scholar alumnus to Germany and Japan. She is Pax Mundi (“Distinguished”) professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
When Barack Obama visited Japan in April 2014 at the invitation of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he became the first American president in 20 years to visit Japan as a formal state guest.
Both leaders agreed to double student exchanges by 2020, following guidelines set by the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange.
Their joint statement emphasized a relationship “founded on mutual trust, a common vision for a rules-based international order, a shared commitment to upholding democratic values and promoting open markets, and deep cultural and people-to-people ties.”
With those words, internationalizing the university campus was placed on an equal plane with advancing trade agreements, growing the global economy and promoting values associated with free and open societies.
The Abe administration pushed for a goal of 300,000 international exchange students by 2020. By May 2019, the Japan Student Services Organization reported that Japan had exceeded that goal and was hosting 312,214 international students.
The international student in-country presence seemed destined to be a permanent fixture in Japan’s global rise.
In those happy days, the energy at my Japanese university was palpable. The foreign student presence was like having additional teachers to drive discussion and ask questions. Japanese and foreign students formed social ties and friendships that spilled over into our class time.
It was a joy to experience a campus infused with the energy of exchange students who could make any Model United Nations or sustainable development goal go live and in person.
When Japan sealed its borders in April 2020, it was six years after the joint statement by Obama and Abe on the power of people-to-people ties. We all went through a year of shock as the world was gripped by a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, followed by another year when vaccines gave us hope of life beyond lockdowns and toward recovery.
Part of that post-vaccine recovery for most of the world is to welcome back foreign exchange students and researchers whose absence was so deeply missed during year one of COVID-19. Last fall, Japan’s neighbor, South Korea, opened up its border again to foreign students.
The Korean government recognizes the power of these students to build bridges between South Korea and other societies. Mandatory vaccinations, combined with effective quarantine measures, now allow for a safer entry. Japan is world-renowned for its safety measures, so why should it remain so impenetrable?
Japan’s educational exchange agreements seem to be stuck in time, as if the clock stopped ticking in 2020.
Throughout this limbo period, Japan-bound students are now choosing other countries for their international exchange. Who can blame them? They are being treated more like superspreaders of the COVID virus instead of the superspreaders of global education that they are.
Japan’s border restrictions to foreign learners are like an episode of exchanges gone bad. The proverbial phrase, “it changed my life,” is often used in international exchange circles like the Fulbright Program, and by that, we mean change for the better.
For the students who cannot enter Japan, it too has changed their lives, but with an entirely different meaning — dejection and disappointment, followed by a change of plans that will alter their life’s trajectory.
A U.S.-based friend who works in educational exchange to Japan told me that he hears about a foreign student lost to Japan on a weekly basis. One was a college junior he met, who had been studying the Japanese language for seven years. “She has been so eager to get to Japan,” he said. “Since it is closed, she will go to Peru.”
Countless personal stories about the repercussions of Japan’s travel ban are being shared online, including by the association Education is not tourism, an organization that puts a face to the statistics.
One of my foreign students told me that he has been studying online for the last two years. He jokes among his friends that he may have to hold his graduation ceremony from his bedroom.
He will soon be a third-year student, but since he is outside Japan, he will not be able to participate in the traditional job-seeking pursuit and is now looking at the U.K. to extend his education if he does not hear any good news about the reopening of the border.
What he told me serves as a prescient warning: “Education has such a big influence on soft power and it is obvious that Japan is now pushing passionate, educated people away to other countries. They must bear in mind that it is not something easy to recover.”
The most important source of Japanese soft power is Japan itself, especially its people, the place. These students cannot fall in love with a country they know only in their imaginations. Had I never traveled to Japan on my first international exchange in the 1990s, I would have never fallen in love with the country.
This is not a call for lax border control or a full reopening. In 2019, Japan took in over 31.9 million international visitors. Those 150,000 international students, who represent just 0.0004% of that 31.9 million, have their lives on pause, prepared to enter for study.
Many of them could become the next generation of Japan’s global admirers, friends and allies. We should not deprive them of their inability to enter based on the color of their passport but on their eagerness to learn.