TOKYO -- To encourage more Japanese youths to study abroad, a plan is in the works to offer scholarships to those taking short-term overseas courses, the Japanese education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, said during a visit to Washington.
The offer, which Mr. Shimomura said would be available as early as 2017, is tied to a series of education initiatives by Japan's conservative government headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to make the country more competitive internationally.
Speaking last Wednesday at a conference organized by the U.S.-Japan Research Institute in Washington, Mr. Shimomura said that the grants could give a badly needed lift to the number of Japanese students abroad, which has been declining steadily.
The number of Japanese students studying overseas peaked at 82,945 in 2004 and fell to 58,060 in 2010, according to the Ministry of Education. Fewer than 20,000 Japanese students studied in the United States in 2011, compared with 46,000 in 1999, according to the Institute of International Education.
According to the Japanese media, Mr. Shimomura also met last week with the U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan.
The grants are part of a larger policy shift, and will be given only to students enrolled at Japanese universities that decide to switch their academic calendars to starting in the autumn, which will match many other countries, instead of starting in the spring, as they traditionally do in Japan.
Some Japanese institutions, led by the University of Tokyo, back this transition. Some believe that Japan's spring admissions system hampers the flow of students both leaving and entering Japan from abroad. But the move is criticized by some partly because it will create a time gap of nearly six months between high school and university.
Hirofumi Horie, a professor who teaches Western history and English communications at Senshu University in Tokyo, said that the Education Ministry probably wanted to move the academic calendar and encourage Japanese students to go overseas at the same time. "The Education Ministry is supportive of University of Tokyo's moves and perhaps wants to lend a hand monetarily by financing a gap-term activity," he said.
But other than a handful of top universities, there is no serious discussion taking place to change the calendar. "Thus, when the scholarship becomes available, there might be only a small number of takers from the top schools that decide to transition to a fall admissions," he said.
Still, he said the idea was not a bad one. "Japanese students aren't very mature at that age mentally," he said. "Going abroad to study or to do things other than studying might be a plus for them."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.