About Japanese Universities
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Japanese university students are famous for not taking classes seriously. There are many reasons for this, but one is the predominance of formal lectures, often very dry ones. Sometimes this even feels like religious teaching, with the wise man imparting pearls of wisdom mixed with inscrutable pronouncements, and the students gratefully receiving enlightenment. In this model there is little role for questions, homework, or significant feedback from the teacher to the student. Nor is there much feedback the other way: course evaluation is still rare.

The curriculum is usually fragmented into courses that meet for 90 minutes, once a week, for 15 weeks, and students take 12 to 20 courses per semester.

Students thus are forced to take a passive role in their education. In some cases their participation consists only of showing up for class, signing the attendance sheet, and listening until they doze off.

Social Life

If you do get to Japan you will doubtless feel out of place, because you are: Japanese universities were not designed with foreign students in mind.

On the other hand, with a tight relationship with your advisor and therefore with the other members of his lab, you will belong. For many Japanese, work-related activities cover for social life, and this is true for students also. For example you can look forward to do-it-yourself in-lab parties, unencumbered by silly rules about alcohol on university property. Since everyone commutes by public transport, there is no worry about getting home safely, and if you do miss the last train, you can always sleep under your desk.

Thus you have an automatic social life. All the important events of the academic year are celebrated by the lab. Friendships among students are also easy; rather than requiring creative personal attention, they tend to fall into semi-institutionalized patterns.

Getting Ahead

Japanese universities are typically weak in cross-disciplinary fertilization; or even a rudimentary awareness of activities on the other side of campus. If you want to learn things outside your department, or even outside the lab, the initiative will probably have to come from you. But if you are active outside, word will probably get back, and you'll get a reputation for being active, even "visible", which is a very good thing. Japan being a small country, where everyone in a field knows everyone else, evaluation of people is as much by reputation as by objective poring over c.v.s or papers, so a strong reputation can carry you far.

Another good adjective to seek is "hard-working". To some extent hard work and long hours are seen as a virtue in themselves, regardless of the importance of what is actually accomplished.

A Final Note

Although I've dwelled on the distinctive aspects of Japanese universities, most things you experience will be quite familiar. But you will have the incomparable experience of living in Japan, enhanced by the fact that in Japan graduate students and university researchers have high social status. Enjoy!

                                            Nigel Ward, August 2003

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