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Japan: Trends and opportunities


Education to Japan

(Last updated: 15 Oct 2010)

Trends and opportunities

The market

Japan is one of most stable and valued partners in the Asia-Pacific region. It remains a major export destination of natural resources and agricultural products, and a significant source of tourists. The relationship has substantial room to expand and deepen as schools, colleges and universities increase efforts to provide industry with the human capital it requires to compete globally and help rejuvenate a lacklustre Japanese domestic economy.

The Japanese Government and Japanese firms have become more active in emphasising to Japanese youth the need to gain study abroad and overseas experience, and are taking concrete moves to achieve these aims.

After several years of decline in student enrolments from Japan, this presents an opportunity for providers in each sector  to re-evaluate their marketing and promotional strategies to take advantage of Japan’s changing education and training needs.

Japanese firms from a diverse range of industries are turning their focus more and more to the globalisation of their human capital – developing staff who have high-level competencies in English and cross cultural understanding. As Japanese firms seek to raise the standard of their international competitiveness, such globalised human capital is becoming a requisite factor for overseas deployment, negotiating business matters in English, and developing products and services that can meet the needs of domestic markets around the world.

In this regard, the employability of Japanese higher education graduates is a growing concern for universities and colleges as the cohort of jobless graduates increases each year. Stop-gap measures have been adopted to allow students to matriculate for an additional year in order to continue their job-hunting activities; however, there is a heightening uncertainty as to whether higher education institutions in Japan are adequately able to prepare students for the workforce.

As a result, undergraduate students are looking to incorporate a year of study abroad and gain additional qualifications while postgraduate students are choosing to explore overseas programs to gain a competitive advantage over their peers.

For their part, Japanese universities are internationalising by introducing English language curricula, programs and degrees in order to raise their competitiveness in international education, and to appeal to domestic students as a ‘study abroad’ option within Japan. While this presents a challenge to providers, it also creates opportunities for joint/double degree programs, combined short-term study-internship programs, and other such collaborative work.

At the school level, compulsory English classes will begin for fifth and sixth grade primary school students as of April 2011. This will further change the dynamic of Japan’s education and training needs as English becomes an integral component of school curricula.

MEXT and independent surveys reveal that the majority of primary school teachers do not possess either the English language ability or confidence to conduct English language classes. This comes at a time when the government had decided to scale back the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program, which had brought in graduates from different countries to teach English at Japanese schools.

Elsewhere, the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) – the peak business association in Japan – has identified the mismatch of skills in the hospitality and tourism industry as being a significant factor holding back Japan’s economic growth.

Concern has been raised that Japan will not meet its target of hosting 30 million overseas tourists by 2020, if it does not improve the English language and hospitality skills of its human capital.

To this end, VET and higher education providers, the English plus a skill combination – especially programs that incorporate internships – promises opportunity as Japan makes dedicated efforts to realising growth in international tourism.

Domestic higher education overview

Tertiary education is highly regarded in Japan and in 2009 a record 50.2 % of high school graduates enrolled in a university.

As of 2007, the total number of people wishing to enrol in universities has equalled the total number of students effectively resulting in universal access to universities. This has created a highly competitive environment and some 30 %  of private universities are now facing serious financial difficulties.

Numbers of students and institutions in the tertiary sector:

  • 7773 universities and 2,527,319 students (608,731 students entered in 2009)
  • 406 junior colleges and 160,976 students (73,163 students entered in 2009)
  • 3,348 VET schools and 624,875 students (297,730 students entered in 2009)

(Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2010)

Close ties between Australia and Japan

Australia continues to be the most popular destination for excursions and study tours for Japanese secondary schools:

  • In 2008, Australia was the top destination for school study tours:
    In all, 215 schools and 34,802 students travelled to Australia on school excursions.
  • In 2008, Australia had the largest number of sister-school agreements with Japan: In all, out of 890 high schools that Japanese schools have sister-school agreements with overseas countries, 436 were with Australian schools.

(Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2010)

Japanese people perceive Australia as being a safe and friendly country that has an abundance of pristine nature. Its close proximity to Japan, minimal time difference, and the popularity of the Japanese language continue to make Australia a top destination for schools.

Japanese study abroad trends

Total enrolments for 2005-2009

2005  2006 2007 2008 2009
18,933  17,648 16,013 13,439 12,575

Sector by sector enrolments YTD August 2010

Higher education  VET Schools ELICOS Other
2,159 3,122 771 3,903 393

(Source: AEI, August 2010)

Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, Japanese student enrolments in Australia and our major competitors such as the USA, UK, Canada, and New Zealand have been in steady decline.

There are various factors that have been attributed to the decline in overseas study such as the stagnant economy, the drop in household savings, and the growing disparity in wealth between metropolitan and regional Japan. An increasingly inward-looking youth is also part of the reason, as is increased efforts by Japanese universities to provide degrees in English and thus capture part of the study abroad market..


Although there has been a decline in the number of students from Japan undertaking full-time study overseas, there are opportunities that can fulfil the changing needs of the Japanese people.

The following are some segments that Austrade sees as having growth potential:

International experience is highly regarded in corporate Japan

Australian education and training providers have the opportunity to pioneer a new engagement with Japan by leveraging the dual push from the Japanese government and industry to cultivate globally-competitive human capital.

Across a broad range of industries from firms as diverse as Uniqlo (one of the biggest clothing retailers in the world), Rakuten (Japan’s largest Internet shopping operator) and Panasonic, Japanese firms are following Nissan and Toyota by aiming to bring their human capital up to a globally-competitive standard. Other examples include firms such as Bridgestone and Hitachi that are looking to send staff identified as having leadership potential to study at overseas business schools.

These are just a few examples of the groundswell of change that Japanese firms are attempting to introduce to make their workforces globally competitive. A 2010 joint report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and private industry groups identified the lack of English ability and global outlook amongst youth in their 20s as a major source of Japan’s declining industrial competitiveness on the world stage. According to the report, universities and the private sector in Japan have failed to produce global human capital capable of doing business internationally.

Business and industry are finding that Japanese VET and university graduates do not possess these critical-analytical skills nor do they have the bilingual skills necessary for companies to compete in a globalised world. They are more open to hiring international students who have graduated from Japanese institutions and bring language skills, cross cultural understanding and international connections.

Universities are becoming more internationalised

For Japanese universities, the strengths of Australian university management and administration skills are becoming increasingly apparent – especially in regards to the ability of Australian institutions to recruit international students from across the globe. Regarding these areas, Australia is seen as a leader of international education and collaboration.

Japanese universities and vocational education and training providers are laying down concrete plans to meet the Japanese government’s target of hosting 300,000 international students from the present 132,720 by 2020. This presents a significant opportunity for Australian providers to develop professional training modules in international education management, administration, recruitment, marketing, curriculum design and foundation courses for Japanese providers.

Universities providing tourism-hospitality courses

The Japanese government has set a goal of more than doubling the number of overseas visitors to Japan to 30 million by 2020. In response, more universities in Japan are offering hospitality and tourism degrees than ever. However, as mentioned above, there is a real concern in industry that Japan’s hospitality industry is not equipped with the necessary skills to capitalise on the nation’s tourism potential.

The Japanese government has set a goal of more than doubling the number of overseas visitors to Japan to 30 million by 2020. In response, more universities in Japan are offering hospitality and tourism degrees than ever. However, as mentioned above, there is a real concern in industry that Japan’s hospitality industry is not equipped with the necessary skills to capitalise on the nation’s tourism potential.

Furthermore, the Japan Business Federation has also criticised the hospitality and tourism courses offered in Japan’s universities and colleges has not cultivating students with the skills that industry demands.

Pre-school and primary children

As mentioned above, in April 2011, English will be introduced as a compulsory subject at the fifth and sixth grade levels in primary schools.

As English teaching in the mainstream school sector grows, many parents are encouraging their children to study English from an early age at private English conversation schools. According to surveys on children’s after school activities, approximately 81 per cent of children aged 3 between 9 took part in after-school educated-related activities and English conversation classes were the third-most popular pursuit.

The number of international preschools that teach English to toddlers has been growing since over the last several years particularly so in metropolitan area such as Tokyo and Osaka area.

Competitive environment

Challenges for Australian education institutions in re-gaining their footing in the Japanese market will need to centre on demonstrating employment career paths and outcomes.

Competitor activities in Japan

USA: USA Embassy holds annual study in America college and university fairs; Active promotion of Fulbright Scholarship; holds job fair EXPOS; conducts Japan-US Teacher Exchange Program; and outreach programs and public lectures by the Japan-US Educational Commission, academics and entrepreneurs where study in USA is promoted.  In 2009 a delegation from the USA met with the Minister for Education, and in 2010 the President of Harvard came to Japan to encourage Japanese youth to study abroad.

UK: British Council holds annual study in UK education fair (all sectors); holds the International English Language Testing System (IELTS); conducts public lecture series by prominent British and Japanese academics; uses SNS and e-marketing to promote study in the UK; offers free online English lessons.

Canada: Canadian Embassy holds well-attended bi-annual two-day study in Canada education fair (all sectors).

China: The Chinese Embassy holds an annual study in China education fair; has established a large selection of China Government scholarship programs for international students to study and conduct research in China; (unrelated to proactive marketing and promotion efforts by the Chinese, in recent months Japanese media have reported that Japanese students who graduate from Chinese education institutions and/or can speak Mandarin are able to gain employment in Chinese companies).

Other non-traditional English speaking countries including, Ireland, Malta, Fiji, Singapore and Philippines are starting to obtain a share of the market. They are often promoted as less expensive and as less of a Japanese populated destination.

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Tariffs, regulations and customs

The majority of Japanese students and teachers are familiar with English exams such as STEP (‘Eiken’), TOEIC and TOEFL, as these exams can be taken in most of the cities in Japan regularly (monthly, quarterly). The IELTS exam is not widely known in Japan.  However, with STEP (‘Eiken’) becoming responsible for IELTS in Japan in 2010, expectations are that it will expand opportunities for students to take the exam.

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Marketing your products and services

Market entry

Be a solution to needs of students/institutions/industry in Japan

The analysis and statistics above shows that the Japanese market is large, although highly competitive. Planning marketing strategies and preparing Japanese language materials are a factor for operating in Japan.

Other ideas to consider: 

Marketing mix with web promotion and event participation

The Internet age has changed Japanese consumer habits, how they learn about, and gain interest in products and services. Japanese people tend to be cautious in their purchasing habits therefore making comparisons sharing their experiences with others on the Internet has become a wide-spread trend.
Websites require a significant level of professionalism with easy-to-navigate content. This provides credibility and can be the first contact with Australian institutions. Testimonials from current and past Japanese students that reinforce your marketing messages are essential. Also if there is an email contact (with a specific name) that prospective students can email, this will encourage more direct inquiries.  

Agent relationship management

Agents based in Japan and Australia are key players in the education and training industries. Agent support typically revolves around the ease in which they can earn fees; and how easy it is to sell any specific institution. Attributes to consider include: 

  • Do you offer Japanese brochures?
  • Do you have an official website in Japanese?
  • Is your agent manual easy to use?
  • Are you contactable by email and can reply within 24 hours?
  • Is your commission rate attractive enough for agents to start and maintain business with you?
  • Do you offer courses the Japanese want to study?
  • Do you have personal relationship with agent counsellors in each branch office?
  • Do you visit your agents in person at least once or twice a year?

Agencies based in Australia operated by Japanese can also be important business partners. As the Deparmtment of Immigration and Citizenship classifies Japanese nationals as Assessment Level 1, which  permits them to convert a tourist or working holiday visa to a student visa while in Australia, many seek services from these local agents to choose and enrol in institutions.

These agents are gaining a stronger presence on the web, which is drawing the attention of web-savvy prospective students in Japan.   

Alumni network

Alumni in Japan are a very valuable source of marketing as they generate word-of-mouth promotion for your institution. These alumni have a direct influence on the decision making process of potential students, particularly as the latter may be apprehensive about studying abroad. Especially, as this may affect their future job prospects after returning to Japan.


It is strongly advisable to feature faces and feedback of Japanese alumni in your institution’s marketing materials and have them sell your institutions in their own words. With the growing popularity of Japanese SNS sites (social networking sites), major Japanese SNS sites such as mixi ( have become home to many virtual alumni communities.

Australia’s unique regulatory frameworks

The Japanese Government and industry peak bodies are becoming increasingly aware of Australia’s National Code, Education Services for Overseas Student (ESOS) Act and the accompanying legislative framework protecting international students in Australia. The strengths of these frameworks should be emphasised by Australian CRICOS-registered institutions when undertaking promotional activity in Japan.

This is particularly relevant in view of the collapse of NOVA (formerly Japan’s largest English language school) in 2007, and the insolvency of Gateway 21 (a major study abroad agent) in 2008, GEOS and SUCCEO (a major study abroad agent) in 2010.

The collapse of both companies saw students lose large sums of money paid in advance for tuition fees that were not recovered. The resultant climate is one marked by Japanese students showing more discernment towards providers, a cautious attitude about studying abroad, and a decrease in the number of language student numbers at domestic language schools (including English schools).

Australian providers are also recommended to utilise Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) as a marketing and promotional tool to attract Japanese students aiming to do short-term study. There is a growing interest amongst Japanese university students willing to take a year off their studies to gain overseas experience to place them in a stronger position when looking for employment.

Australia’s unique mechanisms of protecting international students from risk, and providing nationally-recognised qualifications is a source of comfort for both prospective students and their parents.

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