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Education

Foreign students prepare for careers with study in Tokyo

For many, Japan is increasingly becoming the destination of choice to learn trades and skills

"What I have made so far I probably couldn't have done had I stayed in Sweden," says this student who just wrapped up three years at a fashion school in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- Tokyo is increasingly becoming the destination of choice for students from around the world.

In 2012, just over 160,000 foreign students came to study in Japan. By 2017, this number had soared to more than 260,000, a record high, according to the Japan Student Services Organization. At least 100,000 of these were in Tokyo.

In addition to studying fields in which Japan is considered strong, such as manufacturing, information technology and engineering, many are also taking courses related to service and design. But why do these students choose Tokyo? 

In Nakano Ward, young people in black suits and bow ties present wine lists to customers and ask which wine they would like. The setting feels like a high-end restaurant, but it is actually a class at the Japan Hotel School. Five of the students in this class of 20 are from other parts of Asia. 

This wine order is part of the final exam. Each student takes a wine order, and serves it -- making sure to remove the cork properly and pour equal amounts into two glasses. The words used, placement of tableware and the pouring the wine may appear simple enough, but it is not easy even for the Japanese students to perform all this smoothly, and while maintaining smiles. The foreign students take the exact same test, using honorific language that has been painstakingly memorized.

According to Tadamichi Kawakami, deputy director of the Japan Hotel School, there has been a 30-40% rise in the number of people interested in enrolling in recent years.

"Because a high level of Japanese language is required, this does not translate into a huge increase in the number of foreign students actually attending, but many still want to," he said. "Before, the bulk of foreign students were from countries like South Korea and China that can use Chinese characters, but starting four or five years ago, students from non-Chinese-character-using countries like Vietnam and Myanmar became more noticeable."

The increased job opportunities in Japan is partly a result of the rise in tourists visiting Japan.

Su Myat Zaw from Myanmar studied for two years at a Japanese language school before enrolling at the Japan Hotel School. When selecting a school, she researched the different conditions in various countries.

"In Myanmar, the best hotel jobs are thought to be in Dubai, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong," she said. "Japanese companies are numerous in Myanmar and have deep ties. There are also many young people in Tokyo, so there seems to be many chances to get a good job. On top of that, transportation is extremely convenient. So I chose Tokyo."

For customer service jobs such as at hotels, work visas in Japan require specialized skills. This means that foreign students at the Japan Hotel School take the same courses as Japanese students.

"In Japan's case, the hospitality part is very meticulous," Kawakami said. "Service is polite not just at hotels but also at convenience stores and supermarkets. We make foreign students learn the same level of detailed customer service. It can be hard for them, but by studying at this school, their strengths grow so that in the future they can be active in hotels and other settings."

Tokyo Mode Gakuen trains specialists in fashion, design and beauty. Here, too, the number of foreign students has been steadily increasing. The school currently has students from more than 20 countries. A variety of languages can be heard spoken by students walking down the halls.

Class is in session at Tokyo Mode Gakuen in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

"There are many people who think fashion when they think of Tokyo," said a student from Sweden who just finished three years in the fashion design program. She originally decided to study Japanese out of a fondness for Japanese manga, anime and street fashion. This led to a desire to study fashion and the decision to attend a trade school in Tokyo.

"Japan makes its own fabric and there are also factories that process fabrics, so it is a good place to study fashion. That's probably true in Italy and France, but in Sweden, such an environment has not been put in place, so what I have made so far I probably couldn't have done had I stayed in Sweden."

She has won a number of design contests while at the school. She graduated in March, and has decided to work for a major apparel company in Tokyo.

"I'm overjoyed that I can work in this city where I studied so hard to learn how to make clothing," she said. "My dream is to create my own brand and have my clothes worn by people in many countries."

Most of the foreign students interviewed said they decided to study in Tokyo with an eye on future careers here. Even among foreign students, there are many young people who come to Tokyo to find work, and they set aside their studies to work and send money back home. But the foreign students we interviewed for this article pay more than 1 million yen ($9,387) a year to attend these trade schools, and are devoted to their studies.

Many also receive money from their parents while also working part-time jobs to cover tuition and living costs. All this work is done in hopes of achieving their dreams in Tokyo, and to use their new skills to carve out careers here and around the world. 

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