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Living and Studying in Japan

By Cy Elza Mathews

Completing an MA or a PhD is a difficult task. Is it wise, then, to complicate things even further by undertaking postgraduate study far away from home in an unfamiliar culture? While international study can be challenging, it can also be deeply rewarding. If you’re thinking of studying for a higher degree overseas, Japan provides a variety of opportunities on both personal and professional levels. While I did not study here myself — I studied in my native New Zealand and have been working in Japanese academia for the past two years — I’m going to give you an overview of Japan both in general and at the university level. I’m also able to pass on some comments from those who have first-hand experience of postgraduate study here.

There are many, many universities in Japan. Tokyo alone has over one hundred (though some of these focus only on specific fields of study). The Japanese government has recently set up the “Global 30 Project”: thirty universities committed to providing MA and PhD courses taught entirely in English. Many other universities also provide such courses for international students.

Your research interests don’t necessarily need to be related to Japan to be accepted into a program here, though naturally anything requiring a large amount of fieldwork or archival research will need to have access to such resources. As with any postgraduate study the key thing is finding a department or faculty who will support your project and a supervisor or supervisors who will commit to providing you with the mentorship such a significant enterprise requires.

In my experience, quality supervision is one of the most important factors in completing postgraduate study. Don’t just look for someone qualified in your field: look for someone who is willing and able to provide focused feedback and guidance on your work. If a supervisor is reluctant to commit to meet – or at least touch base – on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, there is a very real danger your project will lose momentum or go astray. Being able to study independently is, of course, a vital part of being a postgraduate student; having a mentor, however, is invaluable in making the transformation from student into scholar.

Once you have found a suitable program and been accepted into it, student visas for Japan are relatively easy to obtain. Limited work visas can be applied for once in Japan (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs site has more details on student visa and the application process).

Many scholarships aimed at both general and international applicants are available. The government provides “MEXT” scholarships for postgraduate studies (more details here), and individual universities and foundations provide a range of other scholarships: the Scholarships for Development and Find a PhD websites provide excellent information regarding these (the latter also has detailed information on the Japanese system in general).

As with all bureaucratic paperwork in Japan, the golden rule for university, visa, and scholarship applications is: take your time and follow all instructions carefully. Official forms here can be complex and exhaustive, but if you don’t fill them out fully and accurately, you’ll probably find yourself having to resubmit. Submit as early as you can so that, if the process does take longer than expected, you can still meet your deadlines.

Once the paperwork is out of the way, the biggest challenge facing the student will probably be culture shock. The university environment may be different from what you’re used to. Japanese society has relatively rigid levels of hierarchy and status and relationships between professor and student may be more formal than in the Western institutions. This is by no means always the case, however, and the dynamics of the relationship will differ considerably depending on the individuals involved.

I asked a friend who is currently in the final stages of a PhD here about both the positive and negative aspects of study in Japan. She replied: “the best advantage I could see in the system is that students are encouraged to publish very early in their research, which is very difficult at first, but is a very good training system.” However, she went on, the student may struggle with:

. . . the difference in academic writing styles, at least in the humanities. But this is a problem only if the student is required to publish in Japanese journals. [If they are, then] it is a good idea to take some time to analyse the structure and style of Japanese articles before starting to write.”

You can find a fascinating look at rhetorical style in Japanese writing in this article by Dilhara Darshana Premaratne.

Needless to say, early publications enable the nascent scholar to make a head-start in building up the kind of research profile essential for future employment. Also beneficial to such career development is the fact that there are hundreds of English language academic conferences in Japan every year (a current list can be found at Conference Alerts). Science and technology tends to outnumber the humanities, but themes are often broad enough to allow the researcher to tailor a presentation to fit. These conferences attract a diverse audience from both inside and outside Japan.

Outside university, one of the most intimidating aspects of life in Japan is the relative lack of English language signage. Train stations and bus stops do have multi-lingual signs (Korean and Chinese also being featured), but anyone venturing into stores and non-franchise restaurants may have to grapple with kanji (pictographs derived from Chinese). It is, however, quite possible to live and study in Japan with a limited Japanese language ability. Naturally, it is always a good idea to learn at least basic greetings and etiquette phrases.

As for cost of living, while Tokyo was once one of the most expensive cities on Earth, in recent years it has become surprisingly affordable. Accommodation is the biggest cost: even shared accommodation catering to students works out between $600 to $800 USD a month (utility fees inclusive). Food and clothing is, however, quite reasonable, and even the cheapest Japanese eating house serves meals of a very high standard. The modern Japanese culinary landscape is both cosmopolitan and of extremely high standards, making Japan a food-lover’s paradise. The public transport system, which is centred upon the vast rail network, is also very reasonably priced and extremely efficient.

Language and economics aside, you may be surprised by a more unexpected challenge: the four seasons. Winter can be frigid, especially in the north. Spring can bring severe hay fever, even for those not normally susceptible to it (the symptoms can range from those of a head cold to a mild case of influenza). In late spring (June and part of July), the rainy season produces a combination of heat and moisture that can rot any winter clothes stored away in closets. Autumn is generally painless, although some people also experience hay fever at this time (the government is actually undertaking a long-term project to reduce the number of hay fever-inducing trees around Tokyo, but the results are not yet noticeable). On the plus side, spring and autumn in Japan are extraordinarily beautiful, and the crisp winter mornings and warm summer nights have charms of their own.

Indeed, for every challenge facing the international postgraduate student in Japan, there will be rewards. Wherever you undertake postgraduate studies, you must develop two key skills: independence and the ability to understand and adapt to new environments and new modes of thought. Finding your place in a different culture is, in many ways, akin to finding a place for yourself in academia. In the end, the biggest challenge you may face in Japan is deciding, once your studies are done, whether you want to leave.


Dr. Cy Elza Mathews completed his Ph.D. from the Department of English and Linguistics, University of Otago. Currently, he is teaching as lecturer at Chuo University Faculty of Policy Studies, Tokyo, Japan. His e mail id is:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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