From the field

Accounts of life at Japanese universities by recent MEXT scholars

Below are samples of some of the experiences of MEXT scholars (please also see the 'Universities' section).  

The information is based on the opinions of MEXT scholars who have studied there and does not necessarily reflect either the opinions of the institutions themselves, or of BAMS.

If you would like to share your experiences of your MEXT scholarship to help prospective scholars, please contact us. 

Experiences of Studying in Japan

Read reports from recent MEXT scholars. 

Costas Kakouratos, MSc Civil Engineering
Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship
at Yokohama National University, April 2014 – April 2016

Nicholas Chapman, PhD candidate in International Relations
Japanese Government (MEXT) Super Global University scholarship
at the International University of Japan, Niigata, Sept. 2015 – June 2018

Dr Ross Burns, PhD Astrophysics
Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship
at Kagoshima University, April 2012 – March 2016

Thomas Dallyn MA, PhD candidate in Linguistic Sciences
Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship at Hokkaido University
April 2012 – March 2013 as Research Student, April 2013 – present as PhD candidate


Posted on 02/03/2017 by Lyle De Souza

Thomas Dallyn - Hokkaido University

Thomas Dally was selected as a MEXT Scholar for the year 2013. He completed the initial MEXT term and has now been accepted to extend his study and complete his PhD at Hokkaido University. 

My name is Thomas Dallyn and I'm currently a MEXT scholar and 2nd year PhD student in Linguistics at Hokkaido University's Graduate School of Letters.  I hope that this piece can shed a little light on postgraduate life here, both in Japan generally and Hokkaido in particular.

Why Hokkaido?

I studied Japanese as part of my bachelor's degree, and chose to spend my 3rd year as an exchange student at Hokkaido University of Education. What attracted me initially is that it seemed to be a really good environment to improve my language skills. With there being relatively few other native English speakers around, at least relative to Japan's other major cities, it was much easier to break out of my comfort zone and come to rely more on my Japanese. After finishing up my master's degree back in the UK and entering the MEXT programme, I chose to continue my studies at Hokkaido University (or Hokudai, as it's usually known).

Obviously the main concern when choosing your institution will be the department and your supervisor, but for me the prospect of returning to Hokkaido was also a huge draw. Every year, Hokkaido gets voted as the prefecture in which the Japanese themselves would most like to live, and its appeal isn't hard to understand. Even in the main cities, you're never much more than a half hour's bus ride away from the incredible natural environment, dotted with hot springs, wetlands, forests and lakes. Sapporo in particular, where Hokudai has its main campus, combines large open spaces with a very reasonable cost of living, making it a relaxed and comfortable place to study. The flat terrain and wide streets in the centre of town also make it a great city to cycle around, at least from spring to autumn.

The only major drawback is the notoriously long, harsh winter – snowfall starts in earnest from about mid-December, and won't clear up until early April. Most apartments and dormitories will be centrally heated, though, so you won't have to make do with a kotatsu and hot drinks as you might elsewhere. Invest in some good boots, keep active with some winter sports, and it's not unbearable. Personally I find the weather during the rest of the year makes up for it, with cool summers and no rainy season, but it may be worth bearing in mind if you're really not keen on the cold.

Hokkaido University – what are the best features of the university and its location?

The university itself is one of Japan's oldest and largest public universities, and covers almost all areas of the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities, so there's a good chance that you'll be able to find a supervisor in your field. Furthermore, as one of the seven former imperial universities, the entrance requirements for Japanese students in particular are extremely competitive, so you can be sure that your colleagues will be both highly motivated and capable.

The main campus is just ten minutes' walk from the main station and covers the area of – as counted in Japan's favourite unit of measurement– 38 Tokyo Domes. It features historic redbrick buildings, old growth forested areas, ponds and streams, as well as long, tree-lined avenues, which are particularly lovely in the autumn. A wide range of amenities to support your studies are also available on-campus, including dining, shopping, printing and banking facilities, as well as the Office for International Affairs, which provides assistance, activities and language classes for foreign students.

The only real disadvantage for me is just how far it is from the mainland – if you hear about an interesting seminar or workshop being held, it's unlikely that you'll be able to hop on a train and attend. However, there is plenty of financial support available for travel if you apply for it, so it just requires some planning in advance. It's also less of a problem in the summer, when many conferences make their way north to escape the Honshu heat.

After two years, how's your life in Japan?

Of course, your academic life will vary massively depending on your institution, department, supervisor, and especially on your level of Japanese, but I hope this outline will help explain one possible angle on the Japanese university experience.

After the first year as a research student, cramming language classes for the entrance exam and trying to get up to speed with all the rhythms and expectations of a new department, the transition to a full doctoral student has been a welcome one. The workload is heavier, but the programme at the Graduate School of Letters encourages a high degree of independent research, which means a good deal of freedom as to how I structure my study. This includes planning my own fieldwork, helping organise workshops, and auditing classes that look to be interesting or helpful. This is by no means universal, however, and some supervisors will place heavy expectations on attendance hours in the lab.

The one constant of university life here is the research group. Each research group, in my case consisting of around 10 research students, master's students and doctoral students, usually meets once a week, with students required to present their research to the group. One staff member may supervise students working on a wide range of subjects, so while my own work focuses on the intonation of Japanese dialects, there are others studying passive constructions in Korean, or the phonology of loanwords in Teochew. This allows you to keep up with developments outside your usual research area, as well as letting you receive feedback from perspectives you might not have considered. The downside to this focus on your own research group, however, is that your contact and opportunities for cooperation with other labs can be pretty limited, even within the same department, so you'll probably need to make a specific effort to seek them out.

As regards life outside work, although the university offers all sorts of clubs, circles and societies, these often require more time commitment than your average PhD student is able to spare, and so tend to be largely made up of undergraduates. Rather, a lot of the time social life will follow on from work -  many research groups will head out for karaoke together, and it's rare that you'll attend a workshop that doesn't move onto an izakaya afterwards. There may also be opportunities to make friends in dormitories or societies outside the university, but obviously this may depend both on your Japanese abilities and how long you're required to be in the lab for.

What are your future prospects?

After finishing up my doctorate I'm looking to go into teaching and research, either here in Japan or abroad. Most entry-level lecturer posts in Japan require some sort of teaching experience, preferably at university level, so it's worth keeping an eye out for any part-time teaching assistant work that comes your way. A lot of these posts will be filled via introductions and word of mouth, so it is important to let people know that you exist and that you're available. Another possible move is into translation or proofreading – as a native English speaker with expertise in a particular subject area, you'll be given plenty of opportunities to gain experience there, as well as it being a useful source of income during your studies.

Is there anything people should be aware of if they want to continue their study after the initial MEXT term?

Again, this is something that will depend on your university and department, but I think the best advice is to discuss your plans as early as you can, both with your supervisor and with the relevant department office, each of which will not necessarily be aware of what the other requires of you. Additionally, try and get all the information that you can confirmed in writing, including if and when you're taking an entrance exam, and what language you'll be taking it in. While the MEXT programme itself has no specific Japanese language requirements, and research students can be accepted at your supervisor's discretion, the department may stipulate a certain level of language ability for entry onto the master's and doctoral courses. Some universities and departments, particularly in the sciences, will allow you to take the exam in English, but this wasn't the case for me, so it's well worth checking in advance.

It's also important to have good idea of what you want to achieve by continuing your research. Although this sounds obvious, and you'll have submitted a research outline as part of the MEXT application, your plans may not survive contact with your supervisor, or you may decide to change your approach after taking some relevant classes.

Would you recommend The MEXT Scholardhip? If so, in what aspect it is good?

Doing my postgraduate studies at Hokudai has been an incredible experience, and one that would only have been possible through the MEXT scholarship. Negotiating your own entry into a Japanese university can be extremely difficult, to say nothing of supporting yourself financially through a graduate programme. However, the MEXT programme provides an excellent way to do both of these. Moreover, if your field is related directly to Japan or Japanese culture, then conducting your research within Japan itself allows access to a huge wealth of written materials, native informants and local expertise that would be almost impossible to obtain from outside the country.

 

Beautiful Hokudai main gate in winter


Thomas in front of his research work

 


Again, the University main gate in Autumn. 

tly studying at the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tokyo. Here he gives us some insight into his life at a Japanese university and some advice for those of you thinking to apply.

“Greetings from Tokyo! My name is Alex Parsons and I am currently a research student and MEXT scholar at the University of Tokyo. What follows is a quick introduction to my own experiences of applying and later settling into a university in Japan.

My area of interest is public health, which being a bit more niche than, say, engineering or Japanese Literature, meant that I was limited in the universities I could apply to. Nonetheless, whether there is one or there are one hundred universities offering your course of study, make sure you research them all thoroughly before electing to apply to them. You are only allowed to apply to three and once submitted, your application cannot be changed. For instance, many universities will accept you as a research student only to inform you later that the Master's programme requires fluent Japanese, which many of you will not have, so be careful!

Another thing to note is that you will have to directly contact professors for provisional acceptance into their research labs. The only way to do this is to contact them directly, avoid the notoriously bureaucratic offices, and don't be afraid to be forward: most professors will have international experience and are aware of the requirements of the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship. If one professor declines, ask if they can recommend you to another academic in the same overall department (but different research lab).

In terms of admissions, a final important thing to bear in mind is the date of the entry exam for whichever course you are interested in taking.(NB: not all universities require entrance exams for research students however, should you wish to continue your study towards further taught courses, this will apply.) It can vary a lot by department and may be scheduled at a time before your official departure date, in which case you may either have to wait an extra year or make earlier private arrangements to go to Japan for a test. Moreover, most admission systems are old fashioned and require separate forms to be returned by a separate date. By being accepted as a research student you are not automatically accepted as a Master's student, nor are you automatically enrolled into the exam. All of these warnings aside, the process is actually not quite as traumatic as it might seem: it just takes a long time.

I arrived in Tokyo in October 2013, just as the weather was getting cooler. The University of Tokyo itself proved to be quite pretty, with abundant greenery and refreshingly old fashioned brick buildings which seem quite rare these days. I had done my undergraduate degree at the LSE and was surprised that Tokyo felt quite different London. In truth I can't recommend it enough: it's safe, efficient, clean, and filled to the brim with delicious restaurants and hidden parks.

University life here, unlike the UK, is very much centred around your research lab. There tends to be no more than twenty people including a few professors, so it's very intimate. For the most part I've found the environment to be very research-focussed, which is great if you like self-study and working on projects directly with professors and classmates. For me it's been a nice change from the way things are done back home, especially when it comes to going out for meals together. You will never be prepared for your otherwise severe professor bursting out with a goosebump-inducing rendition of "Shima-uta" at karaoke.

It should be said that if learning Japanese is one of your priorities during your time in Japan (it isn't for a surprising number of people) then you might be wise to make friends outside of school, especially if you are studying in Tokyo. In my case I joined an ikebana (flower arranging) class which has been a great way to meet people who don't speak much English whilst also learning a new skill. Also go to local bars and drink plenty of sake: if you drink the good quality stuff you shouldn't have a hangover in the morning.

I'm only at the beginning of my time here in Tokyo and am currently busy revising for my own entry exam. Despite this, I've already contributed to department work in Fukushima and begun planning my own research to do with Health Technology Assessment (HTA), climbed a handful of mountains, and inadvertently started adopting Japanese mannerisms and hand gestures. It has been a thrilling time for me and I hope you all get a chance to have such experiences too. Good luck with your applications!”

 

Alexander on his way to Fukushima with his research group, standing  in front of modern high tech Bullet train E6 Super Komachi

Attending conference at Tokyo University

Paul Iliffe - Tokyo Institute of Technology

Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship

at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) from April 2008 to September 2011

The fundamental reason why I chose to study in Japan was because I wanted to learn about something new. At the time I was eager to undertake a PhD in the field of astronautics, which is the study of how things fly in space. The United States, Germany, France, and Italy, amongst several other countries boast strong heritage in space programmes and research. However, I felt that my knowledge of space-activities in Japan should be improved. Japan is one of the leading nations in space-activities, boasts a module on the International Space Station, an internationally competitive space- industry, and plentiful research in the field. Furthermore, I was eager to see a new place, to learn a new language, and to experience a new culture.

My method of finding a suitable place to study in Japan was to go through a list of universities and search for laboratories that focussed on astronautical research. I wrote to several professors, discussed the possibility of studying under their supervision, and finally agreed with Prof. Matsunaga at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Once in Japan I discovered a website which lists many of the laboratories in Japan that study space-related fields. This could be useful for people who are searching for similar opportunities:http://www.unisec.jp/member/university- e.html

When I first arrived in Japan, I spoke no Japanese. The community of international students at my dormitory and at the university were very helpful in helping me to adjust to life there, to learn about Japan and to learn Japanese. The Japanese students were also very supportive and encouraging when people made an effort to speak Japanese. I joined the university gymnastics club which was a nice way to socialise with Japanese students and to improve my language ability. Learning Japanese was an enjoyable process, of course difficult at times, but a rewarding one.

Whilst I lived in Japan I stayed in three places over the three and a half years that I was there. Firstly, I lived in a dormitory for international students, thereafter I shared a flat with three friends (an Indonesian, a Bulgarian, and a Columbian), and finally I rented my own apartment close to the university.

Above all my experience in Japan helped me to broaden my mind. My reason for going was to do this, but I learnt more than I expected. I came to understand more about space activities, research methods and research strategy. I also learnt about Japanese society, its language, country and culture. The experience has built a strong connection between Japan and me which I hope to keep and develop through time.

Before leaving for Japan, I recommend students who are going to study in Japan to do some background reading in their field of study and also into Japan. Learning some Japanese will help in life there and can help international students to feel better integrated into their daily lives in Japan.


William Hall - Kyoto City University of Arts

Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship

at Kyoto City University of Arts from April 2008 to March 2015

My introduction to the MEXT scholarship came from a chance meeting with an American student in Kyushu. At the time, I was in my second year of a fantastic JET Programme experience, and I knew that I wanted to stay in Japan longer so it was with wide-eyed enthusiasm that I listened to this American student telling me about the benefits of the scholarship. Being able to pursue my art studies further in Japan seemed like an amazing opportunity, and being able to do it without the crippling financial burden of fees and living costs sounded almost too good to be true. I began my application to enter the Masters course at Kyoto City University of Arts immediately.

For me, one of the best aspects of the MEXT scholarship is the top level Japanese language education that you will receive when you first arrive. Generally, you will be offered a 6-month intensive language course before you enter your university of choice as a full time student. I found the course to be well structured, with beginners, intermediate, and advanced classes all on offer. The classes not only help you get your essential Japanese skills in order, they also focus on cultural aspects of life in Japan with presentations and activities all done in Japanese. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes; not only were the students from diverse backgrounds in terms of nationalities, but also academic disciplines, and it really was a very rich environment for intercultural exchange. I am still in touch with many friends I made in those short 6 months.

At some Japanese universities, there are international offices staffed by English speakers who are there to assist you. Furthermore, due to the high numbers of international students coming through the university, they may well have accommodation on offer or, at the least, be able to give assistance in finding private apartments. My best advice for finding somewhere to live is to seek out whatever help you can from the office at your university, hopefully they can point you in the right direction in terms of finding English speaking estate agents. Finding an apartment and moving in Japan can actually be quite a painless procedure once you get used to the system, but if it is your first time doing so you may be frustrated by the various charges incurred. It can seem like you are being taken advantage of when you are pressed to pay two months’ rent in advance, a hefty deposit, “key money” (essentially a gift to the owner in the form of at least one month’s rent), and various additional insurance fees and commissions. However, it is good to remember that moving apartment can be a pain in any country and ultimately renting in Japan will probably work out slightly cheaper than in the UK.

Depending on how well your studies go, and your relationship with your supervisor, you may be encouraged to extend your time at the university. This will require another formal application for an extension of the MEXT scholarship, and a departmental exam and interview for the course itself. While this certainly depends on how the university and your own department are run, if your supervisor is keen for you to apply for the extension and if you have proven to the department that you are a suitable candidate to continue researching there. There was a big

change between academic life as a Masters student and a doctoral student. The weekly group seminars, critiques, and elective classes that I had enjoyed in the previous two years suddenly vanished, and I was very much left to my own devices to carry out my research. At the same time, the studio and research room that I was offered were much bigger and better equipped than what I was used to and I was even able to teach a weekly class for the Masters students. All the effort was definitely worth it and I now look back on my time as a student in Japan not only with a sense of achievement, but also remembering the great times I had and the fantastic people I met along the way.




Katherine Hampson - Obirin University

Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO) Scholarship at Obirin University from Sep. 2012 to Sep. 2013

Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship at Tokyo University from April 2016 -


One of the main reasons why many students chose to do an undergraduate course in Japanese Studies is because of the opportunity it gives them to study abroad in Japan. I was no different, and looked forward to the experience of not only studying a language and culture that I had a deep interest in, but doing so whilst experiencing the country in ways that no book can teach. As part of my undergraduate course at Oxford Brookes University, I partook in a compulsory exchange year in Japan during my third year. During this time I was lucky enough to receive the JASSO Scholarship, which helped a lot with the expense of doing a year abroad.

As for my Japanese University, I had many choices, but chose to study at Obirin University for a few reasons. The first was due to its proximity to Tokyo. Being on the edge of the border with Kanagawa Prefecture, this was perfect for me, as 30 minutes on the train east would take you to the heart of Tokyo, and 30 minutes West, into the countryside and mountains. This balance was great, as it was close enough to meet with friends in the hustle and bustle of the city when you wanted to, but far enough away to escape for some more peaceful days admiring the beautiful scenery.

I also chose the university due to the large amount of classes it offers to foreign students, ranging from academic- based classes, such pre-modern Japanese history, to more activity based classes, allowing you to partake in some traditional Japanese arts. Obirin University offers exchange programmes for students from foreign countries, not only those majoring in Japanese Studies programmes in their home university, so this meant there were students around from all walks of life. Having this diversity was a great opportunity to mix with people from all different backgrounds.

Whilst at Obirin University, I lived in the International Dormitory. This was only a few minutes’ walk from the nearest station, and a free 10 minute bus ride from the University, making it very convenient. It was also a community based living, and although each student had their own private en-suite room, with a small kitchen, there were larger group kitchens and communal rooms on each floor, to allow for meet-ups and other group activities. The staff also regularly held celebratory events which all were encouraged to join.

One of the most difficult aspects of living in Japan can be the bureaucratic system and the official procedures that need to be undertaken, such as sorting out health insurance and pension, especially if your language is not so good. The offices can be rather daunting, but fortunately the university organised trips for all the foreign students to go and get these things done together, under the guidance of someone who knew the procedures and facilitate them properly.

I spent much of my free time exploring the sights of Tokyo, the museums, and historical sites, as this is where my main interests lie. The whole country is steeped in history, and wherever you go, you can always find something of interest. Having access to the university library and the National Diet library provide me with the resources in Japanese that I would later utilise for my undergraduate dissertation, which has inspired me to continue my studies and pursue a post-graduatecourse at Tokyo University. I will be starting as a research student there for April 2016, with the support of the MEXTPost-Graduate Scholarship, and am very excited for what the future holds.

Rebecca Patterson - Osaka University

Japanese Government (MEXT) Undergraduate Scholarship for Japanese studies at Osaka University from September 2014 to September 2015


I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the country - its food, history, fashion, martial arts, technological advances and of course, language. I didn’t have the opportunity nor the financial resources to visit Japan before entering university and the thought of being able to spend a year there, sandwiched between focused study of the country in the UK, encouraged me to take my self-taught Japanese cultural and linguistic knowledge to the next level. I was introduced to this scholarship by my peers and professors, and it was a truly unique and unforgettable experience.


My main focus has always been the Japanese language. My university course in the UK started strictly from the beginner stage so I felt that my Japanese wasn't being pushed enough. The high quality and high level personal teaching, as well and its reputation, of the Osaka University programme was what attracted me. By the end of the course I had pushed my Japanese abilities beyond what I thought possible and had not only passed JLPT N1, but more importantly became able to talk about a varied range of topics, write a detailed report and picked up the local dialect, thanks to brilliant teachers and engaging classes.


I lived on campus for the duration of the programme which is located in a very remote area in the north of Osaka. All my classes were held at the Centre of Japanese Language and Culture with the other foreign students, who were all on the scholarship, and we lived together in the international dorms. Luckily residency was for the year and the rent was very cheap. I spent most of my time with foreign students on campus but used the scholarship to travel to many different places in Japan - travelling became my main pastime. I had a positive time in Japan, if not a bit lonely at times, but I found being outside exploring was much better than staying in my room all day. The Japanese people are extremely helpful and have a strong sense of community that makes day to day living very easy. Having a strong command of the language not only allows you to get by, but also gives you the confidence to go to faraway prefectures by yourself and talk to local residents. There are times when you do feel isolated however it’s important to be open-minded and understanding to Japan and its people, as well as to the other foreign students.


Before departing, I highly recommend reading about the course and the area you’ll be staying in so you feel more comfortable with your environment when you arrive. I found that articles about “what to bring to Japan” and advice from people who have lived there to be extremely helpful when packing. It’s also less stressful to know what types of phone plans are available so you don’t end up choosing the first one you see - this can be very expensive!


Thanks to this opportunity to study in Japan, I have a much clearer idea of what I want to do in the future. I have matured more during that year than the three I’ve spent at university in the UK, having lived in a place where I had to be independent and cope in a foreign environment. My positive experiences certainly outweighed the negative and these have drawn me closer to a country I’ve been captivated by for more than ten years.



Ċ
Lyle De Souza,
1 Mar 2017, 16:31
Comments