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.
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