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K-pop and job pressures connect students in Japan and South Korea

Language schools in demand on both sides despite diplomatic row

Members of K-pop group TWICE pose at an event in Nagoya, Japan, on Dec. 4. Despite the countries' souring diplomatic relationship, young people are still interested in each others' culture and language.   © Reuters

OSAKA/TOKYO -- The powerful allure of K-pop is inspiring a growing number of young Japanese to learn Korean, while demand from South Korean students to study in Japan remains high despite the deep rift between the neighboring countries.

The number of Japanese taking the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK), a Korean language proficiency test managed by the South Korean government, has surged 160% in 10 years to reach 27,000 in 2019. Japanese universities and vocational schools offering Korean language courses are attracting increasing numbers of applicants.

Rei Mabashi, 16, a second-year student taking the Korean language course at Kanto International Senior High School in Tokyo, says he wants to get a job at an airline or another company that offers ample opportunities to communicate with South Koreans.

In August, Mabashi took part in a training program in Seoul and made a South Korean friend in the country's capital. He says they enjoyed talking about pop stars from both countries together.

"Even though we hear a lot of negative news concerning the relations between Japan and South Korea, I intend to continue studying Korean," he says.

The senior high school's Korean language course, which started in 2000 with just six students, now attracts twice as many applicants as its 40-per-year quota.

The growth in the population of Japanese learning Korean is being driven by the resurgent popularity of K-pop in Japan in the past few years. As a slew of K-pop groups including multinational girl group TWICE have captured the hearts of many young Japanese, the number of applicants for the school has "grown surprisingly and is showing no signs of taking a downturn," says Vice Principal Shinji Kurosawa. Every year, about 10 of the school's graduates go on to study at university in South Korea, according to Kurosawa.

Hiyori Asami, 17, a second-year student on the Korean language course, says she has been a fan of Korean TV dramas since she was about a second grader. She wants to pursue a career in the South Korean film industry, taking such jobs as promotion and translation. She took the TOPIK in October. "I worked really hard but found it a tough test. I need to learn more words," she says.

The TOPIK test is administrated by the South Korean government in over 70 countries. In Japan, the Korea Educational Foundation in Tokyo holds TOPIK exams three times a year at about 30 locations across the nation.

A Korean language class at a vocational school in Osaka: Many similar courses in Japan have seen applications surge. (Photo by Eugene Lang)

The number of people taking the test in Japan has been increasing steadily since its launch in 1997, when some 1,500 sat for it.

Diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea have taken a sharp turn for the worse since October 2018 when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel to pay compensation to former Korean wartime laborers who worked for the steelmaker's forerunner, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal.

Despite the strained bilateral ties, 27,000 people have applied for the test in Japan in 2019, up 10% from the previous year in a fifth consecutive year of growth.

Of the 11,000 applicants for the test in October, 90% were women. Most of those sitting the test were young people, with teens and 20-somethings accounting for nearly 80% of the total. The latter ratio has risen sharply from around 40% 10 years ago.

Asked about the reasons for taking the test in a TOPIK survey, about half the respondents cited "for measuring language skills," while about 10% each said "for job seeking" and "for studying in South Korea."

The number of Japanese students studying at university and college in South Korea has also increased, posting a 10% year-on-year rise to some 4,300 as of April 2019, according to the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Osaka.

Despite the political confrontation between the two countries, young Japanese seem to remain interested in South Korea, says Yang Hoseok, a consulate official.

Seigakusha's Japanese language school in Seoul offers learning in small classes. (Photo courtesy of Seigakusha)

Meanwhile, Seigakusha, a Japanese cram school operator, has launched a business to help South Korean students wishing to study at university in Japan.

A Japanese language school that opened in Seoul in November will start offering support services for South Korean students planning to study at university in Japan, including individual tutoring to provide guidance for taking exams and interviews to study in Japan.

A growing number of South Korean students are opting to study at university in Japan instead of trying to pass highly competitive entrance exams for top South Korean universities. One reason for them to study at university in Japan is a serious job shortage for South Korean university graduates.

The deterioration of the bilateral relationship seems to have had little impact on the business of offering support to South Korean students wishing to study in Japan.

In 2015, Seigakusha, also known as Kaisei Kyoiku Group, which operates cram schools mainly in the Kansai region around Osaka, opened Japanese language schools for foreign students in Japan in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. The schools offer courses for taking the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU). More than 90% of the students who have finished the courses go on to university, vocational school or graduate school in Japan.

More than half the foreign students studying at the Seigakusha schools are Chinese and Vietnamese, however, with South Koreans accounting for only a small proportion.

That is because many South Korean students come to Japan to study at university after learning at Japanese language schools in South Korea.

This situation has led Seigakusha to expand into the South Korean market. Capitalizing on the expertise for exam guidance it has built through many years of operation in Japan, the company offers classes not only in Japanese but also the subjects for the EJU exams, such as Japanese high school-level geography, history and mathematics.

More than a dozen students have enrolled in the Seigakusha school in Seoul during the first month of its operation. It has received some 30 inquiries.

Despite the broad campaign to boycott Japanese products and services in South Korea triggered by the diplomatic row between the two countries, many South Korean students remain interested in studying in Japan to pursue their long-term career goals, according to Seigakusha.

The company is expecting a spike in the number of students at the school in Seoul after early December, when local students receive their results of the entrance exams for South Korean universities. Seigakusha hopes to accept a total of 450 students at its school in Seoul.

South Korean society places heavy emphasis on academic background, and the future of young people there depends to a great extent on which university they attend.

To win a place at an elite university, students have to pass fiercely competitive entrance exams with daunting acceptance rates equivalent to one per several dozen applicants.

An increasing number of South Korean students are opting to avoid this intense competition and study in Japan instead.

Japan Student Services Organization, which administers EJU tests, says the number of students taking the test in Seoul has more than doubled in three years. While the growth has slowed a little in 2019, apparently due to heightened tensions in the bilateral ties, more than 4,000 people took the test in November, a rise from last year.

Japan is a popular foreign country in which to study for South Korean students because of a relatively well-developed scholarship system for foreign students and cultural similarities to South Korea, according to Seigakusha.

A harsh employment picture for new university graduates in South Korea is another key factor driving the trend toward studying in Japan.

The average ratio of South Korean university students who can find a job upon graduation has been in the 60% range for the past five years, compared with 97.6% for their Japanese counterparts as of April 2019.

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