As I write this, the Japanese women’s soccer team “Nadeshiko” Japan won the World Cup for the first time ever. This was a tremendous accomplishment by a team composed of Japanese women who have studied or played outside of Japan for many years. It was interesting to listen to the sports commentator mention how Japan could comeback (after getting behind on goals) because several of the players had played in the United States and “know” how their opponents think and play. To understand how the world “plays,” I feel, is very important to the future of Japan.

Unfortunately, the number of Japanese students going overseas to study has been plummeting in recent years, and this is a serious matter for anyone concerned about the future of Japan. To reverse this trend, a new scholarship fund is needed to encourage students at Japanese universities to spend time overseas. The program would be funded from both private and public sources – generously enough to be noticed and taken seriously, and comprehensive enough that it would be available to a diverse array of students who want to take part, from any field of study. Soliciting funding primarily from private companies would ensure that these firms have a stake in the success of both the program and the students taking part.

The problem
Japan has been in a serious malaise for the last 20 years. In the 1980s, Japan was the envy of the world, an industrial powerhouse set to take over the world No. 1 spot from the U.S. Today things are somewhat different. From “Japan bashing” to “Japan passing” and now “Japan missing,” this country’s prominence on the world stage is sadly diminished. While the reasons for the deep sense of gloom gripping the nation are many and complex, one this is inarguable – Japan’s global competitiveness has suffered.

More specifically, most Japanese products are currently designed and marketed only in Japan and have little global presence or relevance. This is due both to Japanese companies not going overseas for various reasons – among them lack of English-speaking staff and fear of conditions outside Japan. This in turn is directly attributable to employees of these companies lacking overseas experience. In addition, companies are designing products that are not globally relevant – such as $800 cell phones with functions that only Japanese can understand or use. This is due to people not experiencing the real world and understanding what people in Africa, for example, really need, and other “bottom of pyramid” issues. This is also serious from a national security standpoint – Japan’s position on the world stage is fading fast.

These two decades of malaise have been accompanied by a growing insularity, in business, academia and other segments of society. And this insularity is spreading to Japanese young people, as evidenced by the decline in numbers studying overseas.

At the core of Japan’s problems – sagging academic performance among Japanese students, the declining competitiveness of Japanese industry, and a glaring absence of leadership in every segment of Japan’s society – lies this disturbing tendency toward insularity.

Japan can do a lot to fix itself, but if it wants to lay the foundation for a better, more vigorous Japan, it must shuck off this insularity and engage with the world. And the best way to start – the investment in the future with the greatest potential return – is to promote study abroad. Let’s learn from the women of Nadeshiko Japan! Your comments are always welcome.