Should I go study in Japan?

Usually, people decide to pursue graduate studies in another university or even another country rather than the one that they obtained their bachelor degree from. For many, Japan seems like an ideal choice; an opportunity to live in the orient without the pressure of work. Especially now that European institutions are highly competitive and with the student visa system in the USA in a limbo, Japan with its many prestigious universities rises as a formidable alternative. The question is, is it worth it?

University campus in spring

My Perspective

Speaking from personal experience, my criteria for choosing a university from my Master studies were three: a) monetary support, b) university reputation and c) reduced competition. Additionally, seeing the highly polarised climate developing in the US around 2016 solidified in my mind the thought that I did not want to live in America for the time being. On the other hand, as an EU citizen, moving to any other European country was too close, too obvious, like playing a video-game in the easy mode. Eventually, what was left as a choice was Asia.

Girls in summer Yukata attire going to the firework festival

In Asia, my options where narrowed towards China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. All of them have universities ranked highly in the engineering fields, a lot of which are targeting actively foreign students. Japan felt a little bit closer, as I happened to be learning the Japanese language during my undergrad studies. The decisive factor was accessibility of scholarships. Both the embassies of Japan and Korea offer scholarships to attract foreign students and replenish their workforce. The scholarship offered by the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) seemed to be a bit higher than that of the Korean Government (GKS). Moreover, I had heard that in the recent years the work ethic in Korean universities was even more hardcore compared to Japan, with students spending the night in their laboratories (that is what I heard, don’t come for me). Finally, the scales tipped towards Japan, where I obtained a Master of Engineering and now I am midway in pursuing a PhD.

The Pros

Japan has a couple of universities ranked high in relevant lists. University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto are usually in the top 20 of such lists. Others are high in their respective strong fields, such as Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tohoku University and University of Osaka in engineering. All the big universities have English programs, English websites, foreign instructors and a large number of international students. They are well established, with large facilities, availability of equipment and enough funding to support any kind of research project. Since the Japanese students usually continue university studies until only the Master degree, most PhD candidates are foreign students. That means that there is currently a lot of empty space in research positions that need to be filled and that competition is rather manageable.

The main street in Harajuku

As I mentioned, studies or exchange in Japan are usually supported by scholarships. That could be MEXT, JAICA, Volcanus among others. In my case, MEXT provides the enrollment fees, a return airplane ticket (to enroll and to return after graduation) and a monthly allowance of approx. JPY148000 (depending of the level of studies and year of entrance). The universities that enroll recipients of such scholarships are specifically required to have English-speaking programs. They also have student support divisions that help the students with information for anything, from scholarship matters to inquiries about Visa extension and job opportunities. They even help with daily life matters such as taxes and health insurance.

Hanging out with my first two friends in Japan

In terms of student life, there are a lot of things to experience in and out of campus. Japan is one of the strangest countries one can find and a lot of times it is like stepping in outer space due to the absurdity of things. Universities offer events where they introduce Japanese culture such as tea ceremony, kimono experience, visiting elementary schools or homestays with Japanese families. Since the absolute number of foreigners in any university at a given time is quite small, all of them tend to meet with each other and hang out together. Apart from Asian students, there is only one or two people per country, so usually the social environment is highly diverse. For example, during my Japanese classes in the uni I studied together with people from Germany, Finland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Ecuador, Brazil, Panama, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iran and Kazakhstan. That is a lot of different backgrounds brought together in a confined space and the discussions one can make are amazing.

The Cons

Japan is deemed as strange by the rest of Asia and as weird as hell by westerners. The culture is mainly depending on following the rules and behaving as expected from you by the society. The concept describing this phenomenon is the contrast between the honne (本音) and tatemae (建前), the real-self and a social facade. The fact that you as an individual are a representative of you country and your university, therefore you must always show your best behaviour is hammered into your head. You are expected to be hardworking, spend the whole day in the laboratory, participate in all the events, fulfill all obligations. It doesn’t matter if you sleep on your keyboard or are unproductive, you should show that you are present. It doesn’t matter that you attend meaningless meetings that are in Japanese and you understand nothing, you have to show up.

View from my office in the lab during spring

That brings me to the second obstacle; language. You might be able to grasp cultural nuances faster if you can understand their descriptions, but the complexity of Japanese language hinders the task. Being at the top of difficulty in learning as a second language, Japanese is the main language spoken in Japan, with the majority of people hardly being able to utter “hello”. Anything you need, from going to the supermarket to making friends needs Japanese. Consequently, the bar of making relationships is raised higher. The situation is even worse when looking for an apartment, complete bureaucratic procedures or try to do anything non-university related. There are almost no documents available in English and machine learning translation of Japanese still sucks. As a result, in many cases people people lacking Japanese ability come to Japan for 6 months or 2 years and get a degree, with the university handling all their needs, while having minimal exposure to real Japan and almost no understanding of the dynamic of Japanese society. Because Japan is as weird as it is, these people return home thinking that they have experienced true Japan, never realizing the glorified bubble they where living in.

Posters of university clubs

You have to consider the possibility that your lab-mates or supervising professor will frequently have miscommunication issues due to their inability to speak English. There are instances where even the international student division in prestigious universities (cough University of Tokyo cough) has not even a single staff member able to speak English. Good English score is a requirement for enrollment for international students but it is not for Japanese graduate students. Most of them are able to read and write scientific publications but are incapable of making casual conversation. This is due to both cultural based shyness against language mistakes and the written test-driven approach of teaching English in Japan. To give you an example, beginners don’t learn how to say “thank you” but learn the katakana version “サンキュー” (sankyu) instead. Trying to confirm the details of a research project with such a communication level is ten times harder compared to China or Korea.

My Japanese language classmates

And there comes money. The amount of the monthly allowance from the scholarship is comparable to the minimum wage, which is rather sufficient if you are living anywhere apart from Tokyo. With dormitory rental in the capital at JPY60000 per month, most people choose to take up a part time job in order to support themselves. The student visa allows for 28 hours of work per week, if you obtain the necessary permission and there are a lot of easy jobs available for foreign students, mostly English lessons or cashier jobs. Still, this amount of money is usually only for covering survival expenses, so if you want to live a good life you need to work more hours, with weighs down on the quality of your studies and causes stress.

The Conclusion

Studying in Japan is an experience that will either make you or break you. You will be ecstatic observing nature and traditional customs. You will be left confused and angry many times. You will learn how to communicate in a multi-culture environment like no other. You will learn perseverance and re-evaluate your ethical value system. You might spiral in depression and loneliness (although doctoral studies might be the culprit here and the Japanese environment only an accomplice). In any case, you will leave here much stronger that you were. And if you decide that Japan is what you always dreamed of, you will have a comfortable albeit restless life here.

Summer fireworks next to the river in Adachi

Disclaimer: This analysis was done off the top of my head, after a day of unbearable headache. This was only an introductory piece with some basic thoughts. I will probably describe the situation more in depth at some point.

Update: Sometimes, a well ignored situation in japan is the inherent xenophobia and racism, that is even systematically injected into regulations. The hoops that foreign residents and graduate students had to pass through during the recent re-entry ban due to the covid pandemic made the double standards appear clear as day. Japan is trying to invite highly-skilled as well as trained foreigners to make up for its dwindling workforce, while refusing to make their life easier and actually make the country inviting to anyone non-Japanese. But this is a topic to explain in depth in a later post.

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