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Yokohama National Univ.'s efforts to support international students amid pandemic

Chinese and Japanese students chat in the activity space of YNU105, a student group that supports international students at Yokohama National University, in Yokohama, on Dec. 13, 2021. The name of the group derives from the initials of the university's name and the room number of the classroom where the group began its activities. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

YOKOHAMA -- Many foreigners wishing to study in Japan have been unable to come to the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although restrictions on entry into the country were eased as the number of infected people decreased, tougher measures were reinstated after the emergence of the omicron variant.

    But what about the students who are continuing their studies in the country? One university in Yokohama is doing its part to help such students study and find jobs, while giving them the chance to converse with Japanese students online. The Mainichi Shimbun took a close look at these efforts.

    In mid-December, a total of eight Japanese and Chinese students were chatting and laughing through acrylic panels, set up to prevent infections, at a table on the second floor of the International Student Center of Yokohama National University. This is the space for activities by YNU105, a group of about 30 students who support international students. In addition to helping students with class assignments and job-hunting documents, it is also a place for cross-cultural exchange.

    Zhu Jianyang, 26, who is studying education at the university's graduate school, said, "Because there are more online classes, there's less communication. I'm glad to have the opportunity to speak Japanese here."

    Quan Ming, 31, who is majoring in economics at the graduate school, commented, "It's interesting to experience the cultural differences between Japan and China firsthand during our exchanges. I would like to make use of this experience in my research, too."

    Before the pandemic, the YNU105 space was open every day on weekdays, but it is now open just three days a week. While the group's activities have been restricted to prevent infections, it has also started online social events. One of them is a one-on-one exchange project for students who share the same interests and languages they want to learn.

    The group's head, Yosei Goda, 20, a sophomore in the College of Engineering Science, has been conversing with a Chinese student who aims to go on to graduate school but has remained in their home country due to the pandemic.

    They teach each other about their countries' cultures and languages, and discuss their hobbies, but the most common thing Goda hears from the Chinese student is that they are worried about not being able to enter Japan.

    Goda said, "The student seemed frustrated that they could not come to Japan. I hope we can meet face to face soon."

    International students enrolled at Yokohama National University generally account for about 10% of all students. In recent years, many students from China, South Korea, and other Asian countries have come to the university to pursue graduate studies.

    The university offers a "tutor system" for foreign students in which Japanese students help newly enrolled international students with necessary local and national government paperwork, and with study. In cooperation with the Kanagawa Prefectural Government and the Yokohama Municipal Government, they have encouraged foreign students to find employment at companies in the prefecture through internships, Japanese language education, and career education programs.

    These efforts have won the university a good reputation, and for five consecutive years, the institution was given the grand prize in the national university category of the "Nihon Ryugaku Awards" (the east Japan national university category in 2017, 2018, and 2019). The prize is given to schools that faculty members of Japanese language schools would recommend to international students.

    However, the restrictions on entry that have been in place since last year have had a significant impact. As of May 2021, there were 836 international students in the university, compared to about 1,000 in previous years. Of these, 167 have not been able to enter Japan, and some of the graduate students in the master's program who enrolled in April 2020 might graduate without ever having studied on campus.

    Some schools at the university have introduced online classes and online entrance exams, but in some countries and regions, internet connections are unstable. Yokohama National University vice president Hiromi Kabashima said, "There are things that can be learned by being at the campus and talking with students and faculty members. Learning the way international students approach issues and listening to their real-life experiences is also beneficial for Japanese students. When it comes to guaranteeing learning opportunities, nationality doesn't matter."

    Regarding restrictions on foreign students entering Japan, Kabashima said, "It would be good if they could enter Japan on condition that they are vaccinated or have tested negative for the coronavirus through a PCR test."

    (Japanese original by Richi Tanaka, Tokyo City News Department)

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