International students in Japan are fulfilling ‘tokenistic roles’ – study
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International students in Japan are fulfilling ‘tokenistic roles’ – study

International students in Japan are fulfilling ‘tokenistic roles’ – study

In the not too distant past, Japanese universities pledged to improve their internationalisation.

Facing an influx of international students, the country has gained notoriety for its famed cherry blossoms, picturesque castles and quirky cultures.

But with recent reports of experiencing ‘tokenism’, international students in Japan and potential future students may be looking elsewhere in Asia for their study abroad experience.

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A maze of entertainment awaits for international students in Japan. Source: Joel Stylis/Unsplash

Towards an actor-centered typology of internationalization: a study of junior international faculty in Japanese universities, is a recent study by researchers Thomas Brotherhood, Christopher D. Hammond and Yangson Kim.

Supplying fresh qualitative insights into ongoing internationalisation processes in Japanese higher education, the study widens the discussion about the prospects of Japan as a study abroad experience and the current situations faced by international students.

“Drawing on ideas from migration studies and informed by analysis of junior international faculty members’ (JIFs) experiences in Japanese universities, we posit a novel, actor-centered typology of internationalization that delineates between integration, assimilation, and marginalisation of mobile actors, and considers their implications in practice.”

Throughout their study, 23 interviews were conducted with JIFs from a range of disciplines and institutions across Japan and the findings are eye-opening.

The talk of ‘tokenism’

One of the key themes of the study is the threat of tokenism.

Many international students in Japan felt as though they were becoming a token/symbolic gesture, simply there to support the university’s claim of internationalising.

“Well, internationalisation’s been the buzzword…For university publicity, they need some blue-eyed faces on photos, so I do feel that my colleagues and I are a little bit tokenish,” one respondent claimed.

Feeling as though their international study experience in Japan is simply a symbolic internationalisation process for the university, respondents felt disheartened and discouraged.

“I feel like I’m…not only me…we feel like we are not really respected. We’re just told, like the students!…I feel like I’m used for their purpose – used to heighten their rank,” another respondent said.

An unexpected atmosphere for international students in Japan

Upon arriving in Japan for your study abroad experience, the last thing you’d hope to feel is unwanted or to believe you’re filling up the ‘token international student’ space.

You’ve invested your time, money, and most importantly, your future into this journey.

Any threat of tokenism or marginalisation is totally uncalled for.

“To reflect and theorise based on these findings, scholarship from the field of migration studies has provided us with the concepts of integration, assimilation, and marginalisation. When applying these concepts to the case of JIFs in Japan, it was apparent that there were no examples of integration.

“Despite interviewing across 13 universities, participants did not give any examples of Japanese actors engaging in a “two-way process of mutual accommodation” with international faculty (EESC 2004). This is a critical finding that may go some way to explaining the limited reformative power internationalisation has demonstrated in the Japanese context,” the study concludes.

Reiterating signs of disconnect, it’s clear to see that some universities in Japan may not be doing all they can to improve international student integration or to promote an equal study platform, where local and international students are treated the same.

Of course, it would be unfair to generalise all Japanese universities.

But as it stands, this study will trigger change throughout Japan’s academic institutions and increase faculty awareness of these happenings, counteracting tokenism and any future threats of marginalisation.

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