Thinking about studying in Japan?

Disclaimer: This post is mainly directed toward students from Canada/United States. I recognize that for many people an education in Japan unlocks life-changing opportunities that may otherwise be inaccessible.

I was woken up by the jolt of the plane hitting the tarmac. It had been nearly 40 hours since I left my home in Canada for Miyazaki, Japan.

My first memory is of the heat. It was mid-August and stepping out from the plane was like stepping into a sauna.

I’ll spare you the details, but 11 months later I was scouring the internet for university programs in Japan, having just experienced what had been the best year of my life.

Deciding where to go for post-secondary is a daunting and exciting process. Even more so when that process takes you to another country.

So, what’s it really like?

Going to university in a foreign country is not easy. Often times studying abroad means keeping up with a full course load while navigating a new culture and language. This is especially true in Japan, where most undergraduate programs are offered only in Japanese.

In 2017, I was accepted into the MEXT Undergraduate Program, a 5-year course sponsored by the Japanese government. The first year was spent taking intensive Japanese courses alongside 50 students from around the world to prepare for university. 

The next year, we were thrown to the wolves and left to fend for ourselves at national universities around the country (not as bad as it sounds). 

While studying in Japan is an exciting opportunity, there are a few things you should know before packing your bags and moving to the other side of the world. 

Ask yourself, why Japan?

This question may seem obvious, but it is much more complicated than you might think. 

Japan is often portrayed as an oasis where everything is perfect! The streets are clean and safe, the people are courteous, and just about everything is presented beautifully (and often animated). In fact, the Japanese government spends a lot of time and money on promoting its image abroad.

After spending a year in Japan in high school, I was fixated on all things good. After all, my host families were the perfect cultural ambassadors and showed me the most amazing side of their beloved country. 

When it comes to education, there tends to be a stereotype that Japan is light-years ahead of the west. Looking purely at outcomes, it is fair to say that Japanese universities have continuously produced meaningful research. 

That being said, education is not an outcome, but rather a never-ending process of building flexibility of mind (shout-out to Tara Westover). And when it comes to the process of learning in Japan, there are a few issues.

Undergraduate education focuses on outcomes, rather than the process of learning. In my experience, memorization and mechanical learning is valued more than critical thinking and ingenuity. The reality is that many students graduate university without transferable skills and tend to get hired in fields that don’t relate to their degree whatsoever.

That’s why it is so important to ask yourself, why Japan?

If you already have a grasp on the language and want to become a Japanese translator, fantastic! If you are interested in studying seismology or nuclear engineering, perfect! If you truly see yourself building a career in Japan in the future, power to you!

On the other hand, if you think Japan seems ‘cool’ or you’ve been swayed by pop culture, take a step back for a moment. Ask yourself how studying in Japan would change your life. Would your degree be recognized in your home country? What kind of opportunities would you be giving up to pursue a degree in Japan?

I would also suggest reading up on Japanese politics, human rights, and social issues to get a more balanced understanding of the country. 

Explore your options

I cannot stress this enough. If you are reading this article, chances are you are proficient enough in English to attend university programs all around the world. 

Take advantage of the internet and reach out to people at different universities. Try to figure out which school would offer you the most opportunities, not only for your academic career, but your professional one as well.

One viable option is to consider Japan for a masters. The Japanese government offers generous scholarships and it is fairly common to get funding for graduate research.

Make a plan

Once you’ve explored all the options, write out a five or ten year plan and try to visualize how coming to Japan would change your future career prospects.

Many countries, Canada included, tend not to recognize foreign degrees. In that case, you would probably have to go to graduate school or accept working in Japan after graduation.

Your plan is bound to change – that’s the whole point! But it forces you to think about the future

Pack your bags (or don’t)

If you’ve made it this far, then perhaps Japan really is the place for you! In that case, welcome! You’re in for a unique challenge.

You may not be exposed to much diversity of thought, but if you look hard enough, there will always be amazing opportunities ready for you to seize!

Be sure to check out the page on the MEXT Scholarship for an overview of the program and the long process of getting into university.

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