As one of the top destinations for international students globally, Japan hosted almost 300k students in 2018 and continues to attract students from all over the world drawn by interest in its language, culture and professional opportunities. The PIE spoke with Daniel Guise, international marketing officer at Yamanashi Gakuin University, about international students’ experiences in the country and how Covid-19 has changed approaches to marketing.

The PIE: Tell us about yourself and your work at Yamanashi Gakuin University.
Daniel Guise: I’m an Australian that’s lived in Japan for over 10 years now. For the last year and a half, I’ve been the international marketing officer for Yamanashi Gakuin University. I was about six months into the job when Covid-19 hit, so it has been quite a rollercoaster introduction to the industry. My main role is recruiting students for our International College of Liberal Arts. YGU has around 4,000 students in total, with 220+ enrolled in ICLA’S degree program. Our students come from over 40 different countries, so it’s a very multicultural environment. We’re a fairly unique offering in Japan, as we’re an American-style liberal arts college within a Japanese university. We offer a degree taught in English while teaching Japanese and Japanese culture as part of the program. For example, we have credit bearing workshops where students get hands-on experience of ikebana (flower arranging), tea ceremonies, calligraphy, graphic design, how to draw anime, playing traditional Japanese musical instruments, learning about samurai culture, or even picking up a Japanese martial art like Aikido, Karate and Judo.

The PIE: Is Japan a popular destination for international students?
DG: Japan is growing as an education destination. In April 2020, the number [of international students] was 312,000. That’s up 13,000 from the year before. About two thirds are in universities and one third are at language schools. The majority of those students are coming from China and Vietnam, and YGU has Chinese students that are studying Japanese-taught degrees as well. In the past Japanese language ability was a major barrier to studying a degree here but more and more universities are offering English medium degree programs.

The PIE: What’s the appeal of studying in Japan?
DG: People have a variety of reasons for coming here, but no matter what country you go to there will be people who are interested in Japan because they’ve grown up watching Japanese anime or movies, or they’ve been interested in martial arts, for example. They feel a connection to this place and they really do want to come here and explore it first hand. It has an enduring allure for people all over the world. “There’s a genuine ability to stay back here after graduation, to work here and actually make a life here, if that’s what you want to do” It’s affordable and there’s a genuine ability to stay back here after graduation, to work here and actually make a life here, if that’s what you want to do.

The PIE: Has Covid-19 decreased interest in studying at YGU?
DG: Our results have actually been quite good. We’ve nearly matched the previous year’s results, so we haven’t really seen a drop in the number of applicants or enrolments.

The PIE: Japan has a reputation for not being particularly open to immigration. Is this a fair characterisation?
DG: Japan, for a variety of reasons, is internationalising at a rapid pace. Some of that was in preparation for the Olympics. That had some large policy impacts in English education, for example. But of course, a lot of this is really driven by demographics. The population is shrinking, it’s aging, there are starting to be skill shortages in different fields. There is a lot of competition among companies now for workers that are bilingual or trilingual, and companies are much more willing to hire foreign workers than they might have been in the past. The Japanese government has a pretty good policy of welcoming skilled migration to Japan. For example, there’s no limit to the amount of time somebody can renew a work visa. They also introduced a points-based path to permanent residency. People’s criticism of Japan has previously been that it’s not open to migration. But I think the government has put some policies in place that are encouraging.

The PIE: How important is Japanese proficiency for international graduates?
DG: If they want to work here long-term after graduation, I would say it is very important to study Japanese as it increases your employment opportunities. But importantly, businesses want the student to understand Japanese cultural norms and business practices. “Businesses want the student to understand Japanese cultural norms and business practices” This is why some of our career design courses have a Japanese focus; so we can prepare our students for life in a Japanese company.

The PIE: Can a student go from zero Japanese at the start of their studies to fluent by graduation?
DG: It depends on the student and their level of motivation, but I firmly believe they can. We’ve tried to design our course in a way that a student can come with no Japanese and, over the four years, if they took those classes as electives, they could graduate fluent in Japanese. But there are other things that tie into it, like if they have a more client-facing role in their part-time job, if they go out of their way to make friends with Japanese people, and if they engage in extracurricular activities.

The PIE: How has your approach to marketing changed due to Covid-19?
DG: We had a multi-year plan that we were going to follow. We wanted to first expand our brand awareness in Southeast Asia and South Asia, then branch more into Europe, maybe start to look at Eastern Europe and Latin America in particular. 2020 has allowed us to accelerate that marketing plan. We are a small team of two dealing with the world minus China – we have another team member covering that. Obviously, it’s very expensive to travel from Japan, both in terms of time and money to physically travel to many locations. The move to digital recruitment has been good for us in that we’ve been able to engage with markets that we might not have in 2020 unless things went as digital as they did so quickly. That said we’ve had to wake up at some bizarre hours. “The move to digital recruitment has been good for us in that we’ve been able to engage with markets that we might not have” Given how much we were travelling before all this in our own backyard, we didn’t really have the time to do those events in Latin America in particular. But now that we are grounded here [in Japan], we’re able and happy to do so.

The PIE: Do you think study in Japan will become a more popular option?
DG: What we’re finding is that no matter where we go in the world there are students that are really interested in studying in Japan. I think it is just going to increase in popularity as an education destination as people become more aware that it is somewhere that they can come and get an affordable, high quality and internationally recognised degree in English.