About Japanese Universities
Observations 1:       Looking
Observations 2:      Visiting
Observations 3:       Applying
Observations 4:      Belonging
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How do you get into a graduate school in Japan? You'll probably find no clear account of the procedures anywhere. In a sense this is surprising, as Japan is a country of rules, and the admissions process for domestic students, although complex, is at least well documented.

One reason for the obscurity is that differences of opinion among the faculty are often left unresolved. Should application forms be intially screened by the department office? by the international programs office? by the desired advisor? If the committee never got around to deciding, the rules will be silent. So you have to ask someone, and if he thinks you are worth the effort, he will ask around and find out what the actual practice is, perhaps well established by precedent, but not written down since not Official.

Obscure procedures are also functional, since knowledge is power. Information can be hoarded (not just from foreign applicants), and granted as a boon only to those who seem worthy and likely to be appreciative --- behavior which is easy to relate to anthropologists' descriptions of traditional Japanese society.


The best way to start is by making contact with a researcher you might like to work with and who might like to work with you. Of course, this is tricky; you don't know who's available/busy/semi-retired/etc. but you have to try. In some countries admissions committees are comfortable selecting international students as faceless applicants from a large pool, bringing them in, and letting them run loose in the department in hopes that they'll eventually connect with a research advisor. Such chaos would be out of place in a Japanese university, and more generally in a society where everyone has a place, a role, and bonds of commitment. The Japanese system effectively requires you to forge a personal connection from the start.

How to make a connection? Personal introductions are the best, but a scholarship is a good second. The best kind of scholarship is that which vouches for the applicant in some way, especially Monbusho scholarships, which carry the added cachet of approval by the Authorities. (Indeed, applicants holding Monbusho scholarships are often sometimes seen as inevitable: decreed by Fate and thus a burden to be shouldered without question.) Unfortunately there is a circular dependency here, in that scholarship applications look far better if they include a letter of support from the proposed advisor.


In Japan, each person is the responsibility of someone else, and the teacher-student relationship is the classic example of mutual obligation. If a student gets sick, goes missing, or gets in trouble, the expectation of society is that the teacher will take the blame and the responsibility for getting him back on track. Even in the university, advisors were traditionally responsible for ensuing not only degree progress but also for keeping students safe, solvent ... and even for standing up for them at their weddings. Faced with these responsibilities, faculty are likely to want students only if they seem highly trustworthy and willing to accept the reciprocal obligations that come with such a relationship. While the teacher-student relationship is weaker today, it is still strong enough that few professors are happy taking chances here; few will just take it on faith that an unknown foreign student will work out somehow. Perhaps this is also an instance of the general aversion to risk found in Japan.


One way or another, many potential applicants get discouraged well before they apply. This is not entirely accidental. Having to formally reject someone is not something Japanese people enjoy, and the system works such that only the most suitable applicants are encouraged, or even allowed, to formally apply.

Entrance Exams

Although some departments admit foreign students using special criteria, in many cases entrance examinations are required. These may be the same as for domestic applicants, although perhaps given in English translation, or perhaps graded more leniently. Unlike, say, the GREs, which are mostly intended to measure likelihood of success, Japanese entrance examinations are in part a rite of passage; they have to be tough because society demands it. These test not only ability but also dedication. Because they usually focus on something that can be easily tested and objectively scored, such as names and dates or advanced but routine math, they can be prepared for by intensive cramming.

Next: Belonging