Dying to Study Abroad in Japan? Find Out the Best Option For You

Studying abroad in Japan at a university or college is something I’ve noticed a lot are interested in. There is a misconception, however that it is a really complicated thing to achieve. In truth, studying abroad in Japan is quite easy. It all depends on the type of study abroad.

I myself have completed my undergraduate degree in Japan, and am currently in graduate school at a Japanese university. In this post, I will go through the different ways one can study abroad in Japan, and who they suit most. I will also go through some of the advantages and disadvantages based on both my experiences as an international student in Japan, and those of people who’ve also gone through Japanese higher education.

There are various ways to study abroad in Japan. These depend on various factors. Some make more sense than other depending on personal circumstances. In addition, Japanese ability plays a major role in the availability of options. Finally, committing to staying in Japan in the long term is not for everyone. Thankfully, there are options for those looking to stay in Japan for the short term.

1. JAPANESE LANGUAGE SCHOOL

Japanese language school

Japanese language schools are private institutions where you study Japanese. They generally have multiple course options. Those can be intensive courses, or be exam preparatory courses, for example. There are many of those around the country.

This is a good option for various people. To begin, simply for those who would like to learn Japanese for the sake of learning the language. While one can successfully learn Japanese from their home country, doing so in Japan has advantages. Being completely surrounded by the language makes you learn a lot easier. In addition, Japanese is a very contextual and changing language. People of different ages speak differently. New slangs are constantly added and English words borrowed. Words are modified or used in novel ways. Those are things one can only learn through being fully immersed in the language and being surrounded by those who’ve spoken it since birth.

For some language school is gateway to Japan. Some were interested in living in Japan for the short term and decided to use that time to learn Japanese. Others use it as a starting point to enter the country, and afterwards look for employment.

Language school is also a good way to perfect your Japanese if you plan on entering a Japanese university or college in a Japanese language-based program. Japanese university entrance exams, depending on the university can be extremely difficult. In addition, for those who are not native speakers, reading the Chinese characters can be an additional barrier.

Finally, language school can be a more effective way to study for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) than self-study. Various schools have special programs for those preparing for the test. This allows exam takers to prepare with teachers who are qualified and know effective study and test taking methods to achieve a high score.

There are hundreds of Japanese language schools throughout Japan. Some are better than others. Moving to Japan and paying for language school is a big investment. Make sure you do your research. Consider whether you’d like to live in Tokyo or one of the other major cities, or in a smaller city. There are more language schools around large cities, which means a better chance of finding a quality one there. Smaller cities, however are significantly cheaper to live in. Gaijinpot has a selection of trusted schools around Japan which provide visa sponsorship. Each comes with detailed information on the courses offered and prices. This is a good place to start your research.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

Studying Japanese at Japanese language school

Going to a language school in Japan allows you to focus on studying the language, whichever the purpose may be. In also allows you to gain the extra experience from living in Japan.

As far as disadvantages, studying in a Japanese language school means being surrounded day in day out with others also looking to learn Japanese. As a result, especially in the beginning, it might be hard to find Japanese friends. This is truer for those who are no outgoing. Many of us make most of our friends in school. Japanese language school limits the pool to non-native Japanese speakers. Thankfully this can be solved by doing extra-curricular activities. This can either be joining a sports group, nightlife, or one of the many activities you can find where you live.

COST AND TUITION

Tuition prices are generally dependent on the the school. This does not always hold true, but you usually get what you pay for. More expensive schools generally provide a better service and have better qualified teachers. Within Tokyo, on average, a year’s tuition at a language school will cost a little under 900,000 yen (8000 USD).

In addition to tuition, costs of living are dependent on your specific lifestyle and the city where you study. Costs of living in Tokyo are higher than anywhere else in Japan, expect to pay between 113,600 – 202,200 yen (1023 to 1821 USD) excluding tuition. This is especially important for language school students as scholarship opportunities are void.

APPLICATION PROCEDURE

This also varies by school, and depends how long your intend to study, for visa purposes. It’s fairly simple though. First, you should get in contact with the school. Most will have an inquiry form on their website. This Gaijinpot link has it all in one place, you can contact the school through the form directly on the site. Provide them with your Japanese level, reason for learning Japanese, means to support yourself, etc. They will take care of the bureaucracy and walk you through the procedure.

2. STUDENT EXCHANGE PROGRAMS IN JAPAN

Going to Japanese university

Most, if not all Japanese universities and colleges have agreements with institutions overseas. If you’re already a student in your home country, it is very likely your place of study has at least one partner in Japan. Those agreements can be university-wide or department-specific agreements.

Studying abroad in Japan as an exchange student can especially be useful for those majoring in Japanese and/or Japanese studies, and is sometimes required by universities. For the same reasons explained above, living in Japan can substantially help you improve both your level of Japanese, and your understanding of the culture and the people bound to it. For those aiming to become translators, this understanding can be crucial.

Studying abroad can also be a life changing experience for other majors. Although Japan is not the foreign planet many believe it to be, it is significantly distinct from every other place in the world. Living abroad alone can help one grow in various ways. It helps broaden your perspectives, meet people you would’ve never had the chance to meet otherwise. It also teaches you to survive away from the security of parents and all that is familiar to us.

In my experience, it can be very useful for science majors. Japanese curricula include a minimum of 1 year of independent research. During this year, student undergo a research project akin to that a PhD student will do. This is in my experience not very common in the rest of the world. Science majors could benefit greatly from studying abroad during their last year of university and joining a lab. This will provide them with valuable, real research experience. Not some watered-down thing a lot of universities make undergrads to do.

Exchange programs, again, are the result of university or department agreements. As such, you should check with your university what your options are. There are very good chances there are options for those who want to study abroad in Japan for a semester or a year.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

school trip
Mona at an International Students Office organized trip

Doing a student exchange can massively impact your life. Being away from home, and especially in a country such as Japan can help you broaden your horizons. In the case of those who are students of Japanese, it is a necessity to fully understand the language and culture.

However, university exchange programs are not without problems. The main one is that students do not really have a say what university they’d like to go to. They are limited to whichever university has an agreement with their university or department. In addition, in certain cases, though there is an exchange agreement, the specific major does not exist in the Japanese university. This results in students potentially taking classes unrelated to their major or whose credits might not count towards their degree. This can be an issue for those who would like to graduate on time. My advice would be to check the Japanese university’s curriculum, and make sure you can take classes whose credits will count.

COST, TUITION AND SCHOLARSHIPS

As a general rule, exchange students only pay tuition to their home university and are exempt from paying fees at the university of their exchange. In addition, most universities that accept international students have international student dormitories where they can stay at a price generally below that of getting an apartment.

In terms of scholarships, the Japanese Student Service Organization (JASSO) provides scholarships of 80,000 yen (705 USD) per month for exchange students in Japan who fulfill certain requirements. However, the application is done by the recipient Japanese University, and not the student themselves and is valid of a period of six months to one year. Do not take my word for it, but throughout my 4 years as an undergraduate student in Japan, I had never met a single exchange student who had not received the Jasso scholarship.

There may also be foundations and organizations in your home country and university which support students going on exchange. Make sure to check all your options.

APPLICATION PROCEDURE

I cannot give you precise information here, as each exchange program is different. However, what I can do is give you advice. Start planning your exchange early. Seek out the office and/or professor in charge of the program and tell them of your plans, and ask for the requirements. You usually have to apply for the exchange program well in advance, and will have to sit through orientations and preparatory courses in your home university.

Furthermore, there are often limits on how many students are picked for the program. More popular destinations are harder to get to, and some may have priority based on their major and academic standing.

Students in European universities will have the ability to study abroad in Japan or partake in joint degree programs between their universities and partner universities under the Erasmus+ program.

HIGH SCHOOL EXCHANGE PROGRAMS TO JAPAN

ASF

For those who simply cannot wait until university to study abroad in Japan and would like to do an exchange program as high schoolers, there are organizations which can arrange that. ASF is one such organization with partner schools all over the world, including Japan. ASF will place students in a Japanese high school, for a semester, or a year, and will arrange their stay with a host family. The price for those coming from the US is 14,700 USD for a semester (fall), or 15,900 USD for a year (starting from spring).

3. DEGREE PROGRAM AT A JAPANESE UNIVERSITY

Japanese university

The last option, and the most long-term one is to undertake an entire degree program at a Japanese university or college. This is probably the least easy one to decide on. Depending on the degree it could mean spending a minimum of four years studying in Japan.

The Japanese degree system is setup in a similar way to the U.S one. A bachelor takes four years, a masters two, and a doctorate 3 years. In general, doctorate degrees require a masters as a prerequisite. There are in addition vocational and technical schools, including art schools.

As far as Universities go, there are both public, and private universities in Japan. The public ones are generally the more prestigious ones, although there are some very good private schools as well.

For a number of years now, the Japanese government has been trying to bring in more international students, this resulted in a number of universities establishing English medium programs in various subjects. Each university, however seems to be going at its own pace, and not all English programs are equal. Some have a serious lack of classes other than the bare minimum.

These universities with English programs are spread throughout Japan. This means you should take into consideration the quality of the program, as well as the location.  When deciding on an English program, here’s how I recommend you decide. First, don’t use it as just a means to come to Japan. If you end up applying and studying in a program you detest simply as a way to come to Japan, you will hate the years spent here as a student. There are various options. Look through all of them and make sure the curriculum and course catalogue are in line with what you’re interested in. Second, look into the location. Some Japanese cities are more expensive to live in than others, and some of the universities in medium sized cities are excellent. Third, if you have any question, contact the professor or office in charge of the program. They are always welcome to helping prospective students with their questions.

The universities with the highest population of foreign students as of 2016 are as follow:

  1. Waseda University (private) – 5,072
  2. Tokyo University of Social Welfare (private) – 3,733
  3. University of Tokyo (public) – 3,618
  4. Japan University of Economics (private) – 2,983
  5. University of Tsukuba (public) – 2,426
  6. Osaka University (public) – 2,273
  7. Kyushu University (public) – 2,201
  8. Ritsumeikan University (private) – 2,141
  9. Kyoto University (public) – 2,134
  10. Tohoku University (public) –  2,025

As far as Japanese medical universities or schools, I would not recommend looking into them unless you are prepared to study exclusively in Japanese.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

Otashift’s Mona supporting the university football team

Japan is home to some of the most renown institutions in the world that are constantly at the forefront of science and technology. Those in STEM fields can especially benefit from learning from the faculty members of Japanese universities.

In addition, Japanese universities encourage their student to take part in club activities. There are hundreds for all interests, from sports, to arts, to dancing and anime clubs. These are a great wait to spend time outside of classes, while socializing, meeting Japanese people, and developing human skills.

As I mentioned earlier, though, not all programs are equal. And although a lot of Japanese universities have English programs, it sometimes feels as if they’re doing so only out of obligation. There can be a serious lack of course selection and diversity. In addition, some Japanese professors simply do not seem to care. They will show up because they have to, give a boring lecture, and pass you for simply being there. There can be a lack of challenge. That is not all bad though. If you’re able to accept this and use the opportunities provided by the university, such as research opportunities, facilities, the well-stocked libraries and go through your degree in an autodidactic manner, it can be a good learning experience in Japan.

COST, TUITION AND SCHOLARSHIPS

Finances are important. The tuition at national universities is the same throughout Japan, whether it’s the University of Tokyo, or the University of Kobe (roughly 5000 USD). In addition, there is an admission fee which costs approximately a semester’s worth of tuition. This can be waved under certain circumstances, for MEXT scholars, for instance. The popular private universities are more expensive. Some universities have deals in place to attract foreign students. The University of Tsukuba, for instance, offer the first semester tuition-free for students of their undergraduate English programs. That said, tuition in Japan is not cheap, especially when compared to some European countries. It is however much cheaper than tuition in the US.

Rest assured, there are many scholarships in place to assist students, both at the University level, as well as from the Japanese government, and private institutions. Many of those, however are by university recommendation. That means the university recommends you to the scholarship granting organization and you do not apply yourself. This can lead a bit of uncertainty.

The holy grail of scholarships you can apply for on your own is the Monbukagakusho Scholarship. It is offered by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology. There are various subdivisions, for undergraduates, graduate applicants, research students, etc. The applications for this scholarship are accepted yearly, and MUST be done through the Japanese embassy in charge of the applicant’s country of citizenship. If you’re German living in the U.S.A, you have to apply through the Japanese Embassy in Germany. This scholarship covers the entirety of your tuition and travel fees to Japan. In addition, you receive a monthly stipend, based on where you live and what your degree program is. If you’re selected, depending on your Japanese level, it may include a year of intensive Japanese courses. This is especially useful if you’d like to apply for a program offered in Japanese. Lookup your local Japanese embassy for more information.

I can’t stress this enough, but the location of the university plays a drastic role in the cost of living. If you want to study in Tokyo, you should be prepared to spend on average 58,500 yen (530 USD) in accommodation likely smaller than you are accustomed to. In addition, international students generally spend about 40,000 yen (360 USD) in food because of the difference in food availability in Japan. Housing costs decrease significantly outside of Tokyo.

A good way to reduce the costs of living in to live in the student dorms. Most big universities have various dorms ranging in price and size, as well as in function (some have family apartments).

APPLICATION PROCEDURE

Each school has its own requirements and admission procedure. However, there are certain things you should watch out for. Most schools require that you have completed 12 years of formal education to qualify as an applicant. In addition, some universities, the University of Tokyo, for example, require everyone, including native English speakers to take the TOEFL as proof of English proficiency. Others only require non-native speakers.

In my case, my undergraduate admission only required sending my transcripts, teachers recommendations, and SAT scores. The admission was split into two parts: A pre-selection based on documents said and academic transcripts; and an interview where they tested my English, my reasons for applying to the program, asked me about myself, and asked a few questions to test my ability to think logically. Some university administers a written exam as part of the second portion of the admission.

JAPANESE UNIVERSITY RANKINGS

At Japanese university
Me chemistry lab class

University rankings are to be taken with a grain of salt. Different ranking systems use different systems to rank universities. You should not base your selection entirely on ranking. Take it into consideration, along with other factors. Furthermore, the total ranking for a university is different from the ranking by subject. Make sure to check if the university is strong in your specific subject of interest.

In Japan, people pay special attention to the name and prestige of the university you graduated from, regardless of your academic achievements. This is especially important if you would like to find a good job after studying in Japan. If you’ve graduated from certain prestigious universities, you are considered a cut above. This also applies to how people generally perceive you. Most times a Japanese friend introduces me to another one of their friends, they make sure mention where I study, almost as a way to validate me as a person.

That said, Japanese universities have been struggling when it comes to worldwide rankings. The Japanese government has started initiatives to help more universities into the top 100, including bringing in more international students and faculty, and encouraging more mobility between Japanese university students and students from abroad in exchange programs. At the moment, only The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are in the top 100 of most university rankings. Other top ranking Japanese universities, Osaka University for example sits in the top 200. This is not to say the rest are bad. In fact, especially when it comes to the sciences and engineering, some of the other universities are very strong, the aforementioned Osaka University for example. But this is still something to think about. See the top 10 Japanese universities by Times Higher Education with their worldwide ranking below.

Japanese university rankings
timeshighereducation.com

4. APPLYING TO A TRADITIONAL UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM IN JAPANESE

Studying and sleeping at Japanese university
Otashift’s own Mona overworked

Applying to traditional Japanese programs is by far the hardest one of the bunch. I seriously do not recommend you go through it. I’ll explain in detail why.

There are 3 different types of admission procedures:

A: General admission

B: Recommendation-based admission

C: Admission Office (A.O.)

Chronologically, recommendation-based admission starts first, around November. The general admission procedures start around February. Finally, admission office-based admissions depend on the universities. It sometimes starts from summer and can end until after all the other pathways.

A. GENERAL ADMISSION

In short, this is a competition. It is the most common admission type for both public and private and public universities.

First, for public universities, Japanese students have to take a central examination. This is the dreadful exam you’ve likely heard about or seen in anime. This exam takes place in January and is a compulsory first exam for those aiming for public universities. Based on how they score, student can then decide what public university to apply to. Each university has its own score requirements. This system allows you to apply to a single public university, so you have to choose wisely. After the exam, the results are posted on a board at the examination center.

After passing the first exam, you have to sit for a second one if you’re applying to a public university. There are two rounds of those. The first is held around February. Those who did not get a passing grade can then go on to the second round in March to try and do better. Although you may think it’s great they get a second chance, a lot give up because it is painful of the effort and stress required, as well as the fact very few places remain. Many apply in tandem to private universities in tandem and may decide to pursue them instead at that point. By the time the second round of examinations come about, most already know where they will end up and will already be looking for apartments.

As far as private universities, although some may ask for students to take a second institution-specific entrance examination, most use the central exam for their admission process. However, about 40% are admitted through the recommendation base system, so only about 60% of private school applicants sit for the general examination.

B. RECOMMENDATION-BASED ADMISSION

This method does not concern foreign applicants, so I will keep it brief. Recommendation-based admissions are not based solely on a paper exam, but also on the overall character and qualifications of the applicant. There are two types of recommendation-based admission.

First, public-based admission. All students with high enough scores (4.0 or more) qualify for this method. However, because many would rather go through this less stressful method, there is high competition. Those who fail to get admitted through this method can try again with the general admission method. However, because they are so different in nature, they will be behind in terms of studying for the central examination. This means failing puts them at a disadvantage. However, passing it means they know from November of the previous year where they will be studying, and will lead an easy last few months of high school while their classmates have to go through the dreadful general admission process.

The second type is admission by school recommendation. This method almost guarantees admission. The hard part is being chosen. Student chosen are usually the archetypical model student with excellent grades and behavior, the class rep type, for you slice of life fans out there. High schools are linked to specific universities, and often when applying to high school, this is taken into consideration.

For both recommendation-based admission types, they are most often accepted by private universities only.

C. ADMISSION OFFICE (A.O.)

This is much more similar to what Americans are used to. No exam is required and students are judge by their overall character and ability, as well as aspirations and interests. Most private universities use this method and about 40% of public universities do. Public universities however do so with students who’ve score really high on the central examination. This system is advantageous for those who’re good at selling themselves.

Finally, now that I’ve gone through this terribly complex system which is known worldwide for putting too much pressure on students, I’d recommend you not apply this way unless you have no other option, or have gone through the Japanese schooling system.

WHY STUDY ABROAD IN JAPAN

University life in Japan

Higher education is a very personal choice. It plays a major role in defining who you become, as well as your socio-economic conditions. It’s not uncommon for many around the world to go to the U.S to study. It’s not uncommon either for Europeans to study in other European countries. Japan is often forgotten as a destination, except for those in the nearby region. This is for good reasons, until fairly recently, Japanese universities were not as welcoming to foreigners as they are now, except for a few, and especially for exchange students only.

Nowadays as Japan feels the need to open up more to the rest of the world, especially because of its population issues, Universities are continuously looking for ways to attract international students. Japan has some of the finest institutions in the world, with state-of-the-art facilities and very respectable funding. Furthermore, although tuition is not the cheapest, it is competitive.

Achieve true internationalization
tgu.mext.go.jp/

For those not looking to commit to staying in the long term, or who are uncertain. Or for those who would like to move to Japan but do not know how, language school is a great option. It allows you to stay in the country, and learn the language at the same time. It also does not require the commitment. If after your year’s intensive course ends and you found you did not like it that much, or it’s not for you, you can go home, having learned a new language which can be helpful.

Finally, I’ve been in Japan for the entirety of my undergraduate degree, and despite all my daily complaints about the university system, here I am, still. I haven’t left and have started another degree in this painfully annoying, yet addictive archipelago.

Marcel
Marcel
I've always had an interest in Japanese otaku culture and am an avid consumer of manga, anime, and video games. I've now lived in Japan for four years and am currently a graduate student in biomedical science.

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