The Chinese government's one-child policy ended up triggering fierce educational competition nationwide. It led to each household concentrating their investments in the education of their only child, with many choosing to send their children overseas for a better education.
Now, China sends out the largest number of students in the world to study outside its borders, with Chinese students making up 20 percent, or some 460,000, of "foreign" students across the globe in 2014. Because there remains a deep-rooted belief that an education at a reputable institution guarantees high-paying employment, Chinese students go out into the world in large numbers in pursuit of "better" educational opportunities.
"What word means the same as this English word?" asks an English instructor to a class of about 30 students. Coach Academy Japanese Language School is located just a five-minute walk from JR Shin-Okubo Station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, an area filled with signs in Chinese and other non-Japanese languages. The students are all Chinese, and the class is conducted in English and Chinese. The reason Japanese is not used in instruction is to ensure that Chinese students who have just arrived in Japan are able to cram in as much knowledge as they need to pass university entrance exams. While the students' brains are being stuffed with information in Chinese, the school works on improving students' Japanese language abilities so that they can take the actual exams in Japanese.
"After receiving a year of Spartan instruction at our school, students are able to get into prestigious universities," says Coach Academy President Yang Ge, 29. In a University of Tokyo entrance exam for students without permanent residency in Japan applying to matriculate in spring 2015, eight of the 15 who passed had studied at Coach Academy. In addition, 16 students from Coach were accepted by Kyoto University, 41 by Waseda University and 27 by Keio University.
Yang founded Coach Academy in 2008, making it the first full-fledged "prep school" in Japan for Chinese students aspiring to study at Japanese universities. The school started with a student roster of just 20, but news of its students successfully being admitted to prestigious schools spread quickly, and by the end of 2015, Coach Academy counted around 1,500 students.
Twenty-one-year-old Wu Yuancheng from Shanghai got into Keio University after coming to Japan and studying for about a year. "It was hard, but I'm glad I did my best," he says. In June 2013, Wu did poorly in what is known as Gaokao, or China's National Higher Education Entrance Examination, the results of which dictate which colleges or universities students can attend. Shocked by his test results, he shut himself in his room. One day he told his parents, who had been encouraging throughout his ordeal, that it was useless for him to keep studying in China, and that he wanted to go to Japan to change his life around.
Now that Wu has been accepted to Keio University, his parents back in Shanghai hope that he will one day find employment in Japan, and subsequently be stationed in China as an employee of a Japanese company.
There has been a steady climb in the number of Chinese college graduates over the years. The figure, which was around 1 million in around 2000, hit 7.49 million in 2015. Competition for jobs is intense, and it is uncommon for graduates to get the jobs they want.
Some 30 percent of students who go on to graduate school from Qinguha University, said to be the most difficult school in China for science and engineering, choose to do so abroad, and the top 10 graduate schools those students attend are in the U.S.
"China's top-class students hardly ever come to Japan," laments Yuji Miyauchi, head of the University of Tokyo's Beijing office. "We're having a hard time even obtaining information about high-achieving students."
Yang of Coach Academy explains, "The majority of Chinese students who come to study in Japan have fared poorly in university entrance exams back home. Looking for a second chance, they come to Japan, and get into prestigious universities here. It's a type of 'laundering' of academic credentials."
Yuan Lie, 44, president of Rakusho Japan Co., an agency that sends around 2,000 Chinese students to Japan every year, says that it's easier to get into the University of Tokyo if it's for graduate school (rather than as an undergraduate). Competition among foreign students in Japan is not as cutthroat as it is in some other countries. Japanese higher education, in other words, is offering Chinese students a second chance to turn their lives around.