Despite its relatively small size as a nation, Japan has 780+ universities offering undergraduate and graduate courses. These universities are split into public (交), private (私), and national (国) institutions and, unlike most other countries, the vast majority of them are private universities. National universities are typically the most prestigious, teach the widest variety of courses and tend to be the leading institutions for business, STEM research and medicine. Japan’s overwhelming number of private universities typically focus on a select number of areas ranging from health sciences, nursing, teaching and engineering. Public institutions are run and funded by local governments and usually seek to provide education that will benefit the community at a local and regional level. For example, training engineers with a particular understanding of tectonic activity in their local region, enhancing structural integrity and counter-measures against natural disasters in the local area. (For a more in depth understanding of the history, objectives, policies, etc., on higher education in Japan, see the Ministry of Education’s website, http://www.mext.go.jp/en/policy/index.htm).
Undergraduate university courses (学部) in Japan are typically four years apart from medicine, dentistry and veterinary science which take six years to complete. Graduate courses take two years for a Master’s degree (修士号) and five years for a Doctoral degree (博士号). The Japanese government is particularly proactive when it comes to encouraging foreign students to study in Japan, and there are a number of academic programs available in both Japanese and English that foreign students can apply to. Whilst the majority of foreign students go to Japan for exchange years as part of their home country’s degree course, they are welcome to apply to full academic programs within Japan. Application procedures for this vary depending on the program a foreign student is applying for and their native country, but the general rule of thumb is that students must have completed 12 years of school education in their home country before applying to an undergraduate program in Japan. If necessary, foreign students may have to undergo a competency test in Japanese or English, although these can sometimes be waived for students possessing a high level in the JLPT exam, or over a benchmark score in the TOEIC exam (or native fluency). Typically, students apply directly to the university, although it is best to inquire through the universities international department (国際部) beforehand. They can also assist you with information regarding visas, housing, health insurance and other complex procedures that you must undertake before being permitted to enter the country on a long-term basis and any entrance exams there might be.
Japan is particularly generous when it comes to expenses regarding higher education. In an effort to achieve their “Global 30” goals, there are a number of scholarships that cover the relatively low fees for the cost of studying at a Japanese university (significantly lower than studying in the USA or UK) with approximately 70% of international students receiving some form of scholarship for their stay. These range from university-funded grants to government sponsored funding and extend up to the doctoral level of study, making it an attractive destination for study in terms of finance. Although there are a number of scholarships, it is still important to make yourself stand out, as the best of these scholarships are still very competitive among foreign students. Already having a good knowledge of Japanese, either through the JLPT or arduous self-study will make you stand out in particularly competitive scholarship interviews (some of which are conducted in Japanese). Or having a background in your chosen subject area with a proven interest in the topic might give you an edge over other applicants.
Information for International Students
There are a large variety of full degree programs available for foreign students in English. There is a particular focus on subjects within the humanities, especially international relations, particularly due to Japanese companies taking a deeper interest in foreign markets and foreign policy. Additionally, due to its location, Japan has flourishing history of East-Asian studies, so students looking to expand their knowledge beyond Japan into the wider East-Asian sphere will find resources for conducting research on this topic to be far more abundant than many Western universities.
Choosing a university to study at in Japan can be very difficult and there are a number of factors to consider before making the commitment. Japanese education is known for being particularly intense, so be prepared to give it your all when you decide to make the move. It is also important to consider factors outside the university itself such as the city you will be studying in. Whilst you may find an academic program to your liking, the bustling, technological world of central Tokyo might be too contrasting to your lifestyle, and the more easy-going and traditional aspects of a university in Kyoto could be more to your liking. If you want to meet people from all over the world that are also studying in your academic program, an international or foreign studies university would be appropriate. If you want to bring your Japanese up to a native level and embed yourself into Japanese society, then a university in a more rural area where you are surrounded by a predominantly Japanese population will progress your language learning far faster than being in an international environment. Putting it simply, make sure you consider every aspect of your potential life in Japan and get a broad understanding of Japanese society and culture to ease the impact of culture-shock and avoid offending someone by putting your chopsticks down in the wrong way.