(answered by MEXT Scholar Vishal Gor, 27 March 2020)

Q: I've never studied Japanese before. Do I still have to take a Japanese test?

A: Yes.

While you do need to take a Japanese test, for most programs you do not need to attain a specific score in order to continue with the application. Neither is this a pass/fail test. However, there are certain fields or programs where a Japanese language proficiency of a certain level is required, and for these you would need to score the respective level on the test.

Q: Do I need an academic advisor in Japan at the time of application?

A: No.

While having a confirmed academic advisor at the time of the application is not necessary, having contacted an advisor can be beneficial in making things run more smoothly upon acceptance through the first stage of MEXT applications. Additionally, it can also make writing a project proposal smoother as you can focus on the specific research that your potential supervisor works on and you can even ask for feedback on your proposal, though a reply would be dependent on each individual supervisor.

Q: Can you advise how I can prepare my application in order to be successful?

A: The best advice I can give regarding this question is to know your proposed field of study as well as possible. Take the time to search out potential research groups you would be interested in and read some of their publications and articles. Go through the basics of what they do and make sure you understand that as well as you can. During the MEXT interview, the committee is interested to know not only how you are as a person but also whether or not you will be taking full advantage of the opportunity they will be giving you with this scholarship. When they ask you about your proposed field of study if you haven’t done enough background reading, or if you’ve only got a superficial understanding of the project that you are proposing, it will be glaringly obvious.

You are not expected to know everything, of course not, but ensure that you have the basics covered so that you can hold an interesting discussion on the project without faltering. Read through your proposal and try to think of some questions that the committee may ask you. If you have a professor or lecturer from your current university or school who is in a similar field, try approaching them for help on preparing for your interview.

Another idea is to pitch your project proposal to your friends: the questions they have will likely represent questions that people who are not specialists in your field would have and so provide a good opportunity to practice answering them. Showing an interest in going to Japan is fine but try and link it back to your proposed work. Why is it important that you have to do this study in Japan rather than any other country in the world? Why should you get the chance to go to Japan to study this? Being familiar with the background of your work can help in answering these sorts of questions.

Q: The university I'm placed at does not require any Japanese language education but I would like to take a course. Can I do it?

A: Yes, most of the cases.

Many universities will offer Japanese language classes for foreign students. For some programs, these classes can also count towards the credit requirements. In most cases you need your supervisor’s consent to attend the classes, especially if Japanese language is not directly related to your field of study.

Q: How long should I write my study plans? How much in details should that be?

A: Any good project proposal should go into a relative degree of detail, but the MEXT proposal does not need to be as detailed as a postdoctoral grant application. Ideally, you want to clearly and concisely state the importance of your proposed study (e.g. what new, important data will it add to the field), why this study would be of benefit to Japan or society as a whole, what methodology you will undertake to carry out this study and why this must be carried out in Japan (or why it would be of greater benefit/ease to carry out this study in Japan. For example, you may want to use a specific piece of equipment that is only available in labs in Japan, or you may want to learn a specific craftsman/art technique that only Japanese artisans practice, or you want to work in a field that Japan is highly experienced in and so there are many specialists in Japan etc.).

Expected results and their impacts are also something that can, and should, be added. You basically want to write a proposal that not only captures the interest of the judging committee (which you do by clearly describing the importance of your proposed study as well as the relevance of any findings you expect to uncover) but also one that highlights the necessity of doing your study in Japan. Lots of students around the world are competing to get the MEXT scholarship. Why does your proposed project merit funding? Why should your project be funded by Japan and not your own country? Try to address these questions to make a well-rounded proposal.

In terms of length, you do not want to write too long a proposal. Committee members rarely have much time, and often aren’t specialists in your field. You should focus on background information of your research area to ensure that whoever reads your proposal can appreciate the importance of your work, but you also don’t want to drag it on as people will get bored and lose focus. Ideally try to keep the entire thing within 3-4 pages of A4 (rough guideline). And remember to avoid jargon unless absolutely necessary!

Q: Do I have to carry out a research student year before applying for the graduate school program I wish to attend?

A: Universities usually accept successful MEXT embassy applicants as research students rather than directly as graduate students. To directly enter the graduate school upon arrival in Japan, you must pass the entrance exams and interviews required by the host university for their graduate school admissions before your arrival. While this can in theory be done in parallel to your MEXT embassy applications while you are in the UK (though this really depends on which university you’d like to attend and whether they are willing or able to arrange for you to take the test in UK/Europe/Japan) there are a few advantages to first spending time as a research student.

The entry examinations for some universities’ graduate schools are reputably very difficult. Coming here as a research student allows you some breathing room to study more about your field before having to take the entrance examinations. It also gives you an interim period where you can see if the field you have chosen to work in is truly the best thing for you. Students will get a certificate officiating a completed research student period and so it is still a great improvement and addition to your CV should you choose to focus on something else after a research student stint.

MEXT can fund you for up to two years maximum as a research student and this time could be put to very good use forming a strong basis in your field of study so you can hit the ground running when you join the graduate school: potentially with already usable data.

Q: Will my visa status be extended automatically once I enter the graduate school?

A: Upon arrival in Japan, your visa status will last as long as your research student period. If you get accepted into the graduate school, you will need to extend your visa to cover that period of time. Your university will have specific guidance on how to do these procedures, but in general you will need to go yourself to the immigration office of your prefecture (NOT Tokyo, but the immigration office that is located in your prefectural capital) and submit the application for visa extension.

Upon a successful visa extension application you will be granted a visa that will cover you for your period of enrolment in the graduate school. This means that if you have entered a master’s degree, you will get a visa that covers you only for the duration of that degree. If you then wish to apply for a PhD extension to MEXT, and get accepted for the extension, you will need to return to the immigration office to apply for another visa extension.

Visa extensions are usually granted upon acceptance into graduate school with little issue, but what can sometimes cause problems is a poor grade sheet. So, make sure to not fail any courses you take, even if they aren’t courses that give credits (as a fail will still go on as a “D” on your grade sheet).

Q: Do I need to submit reports of my progress to MEXT?

A: While you are enrolled in your course you do not need to submit a report of your progress to MEXT per se. What you will need to do to ensure receipt of the scholarship money is to sign a scholarship book at your university once a month as “proof” of your attendance. If you miss a signing date then you will miss the scholarship money for the period of that month. There is a second signing period that allows you to sign if you miss the first one, but that results in you receiving the monthly scholarship at a much later date.

Additionally, when you get accepted to the graduate school from research student status (or to a PhD from a master’s) you will need to apply to MEXT for an extension of your scholarship. For this application, you will need to submit your grade sheet, an updated project proposal, and a letter of recommendation from your supervisor. Thus, it is important that you do not fail any courses, even non-credit courses, to ensure you have a “clean” grade sheet.