What’s It Like Studying at a Japanese University? My Experience

Why I entered a Japanese University

I had originally moved to Japan in early 2015 to study Japanese at a Japanese language school. While at language school, I saw the ferocity at which other students were studying to for the ‘Nihon Riyuugaku shiken” or(EJU). This environment really inspired me to go ‘absolutely ham’ studying Japanese, where I would remain in a tiny Japanese library studying with everyone else for 10-12 hours at a time. It was great! And crazy…

You can read more about my experience studying at a Japanese language school here…

I saw Japanese university as a chance to take courses in Japanese with other Japanese students, and ultimately test myself in what I had learned. It was the ultimate challenge after 15 months spent studying in a Japanese language school.

How to get into a Japanese University

Most Japanese students spend the majority of the second half of their high school careers cramming information into their heads. This is because entrance to a Japanese university is almost entirely predicated on your ability to perform well on each Japanese universities’ respective entrance exam.

Contrary to my experience in the United States, grades and extracurriculars have very little to do with it. It’s just not something that people really care that much about compared to the west, especially grades. You can be a D student, but as long as you perform well on the entrance exam you have a shot at getting into even the top universities. This is why there is an entire cram-school industry in Japan. In fact, I taught English in a Japanese cram school while I was in University, and every single student I tutored there looked like they were struggling to even stay awake! I felt pretty bad for the kids, because I knew none of them wanted to be there, and it was a little awkward as a 21 year-old forcing a 17 year-old Japanese student to study their English.

The red books are practice tests and guide to each specific university entrance exam. The bigger textbooks are usually the more difficult universities to enter, with Tokyo university the biggest on the top right, and middle left. Most Japanese book stores have a shelf that looks like this.

For me personally, I choose to enter Kwansei Gakuin University which had an entry process for international students that involved an essay written in English as well as an essay written in Japanese, as well as a round of interviews in Japanese.

I’m an exception to my own rule! Woo!!

So I didn’t take the most traditional route, because Kwansei Gakuin is kind of famous as an exception in Japan, where more people are admitted from letters of recommendation or personal connections that by official entrance examination. Of course, many people still do enter through the enter exam, but maybe half of the people of knew there personally were admitted through some other means. I think I was able to get in because I had received formal lessons on following proper Japanese interviewing etiquette, and I think my demonstrating this really improved my chances.

I think this is a pretty good option for any international students who are looking to study in Japan, although I am unaware of how the application process works if you are not currently residing in Japan.

How much is the tuition at a Japanese university?

This really depends on whether or attend a private or public university. In regard to public universities, Under Japanese law national universities are required to charge the same tuition regardless of international or domestic programs, which means that the tuition is set to 585,800 yen ( which is around $5348 ). Public universities also charge an admission fee to first year students which is set at 282,000 yen (around 2575 US dollars). In the case of private universities, things can get a lot more complicated. Many private universities in Japan charge different tuition depending on your major, and most also charge an admission fee as well. For the sake of simplicity I will compile the tuition fee’s of international students (so I will factor in international scholarships) who enter a humanities undergraduate program. I have compiled some of the reputable private universities in the Kansai region, which is where my university (Kwansei Gakuin University, or 関西学院大学 in Japanese) was located.

Name of InstitutionAnnual TuitionTuition Total For All 4 Years
Kwansei Gakuin University (my university)¥826,000 ($7,568.43)¥3,304,000 ($30,273.73)
Kinki Daigaku¥869,000 ( $ 7,963.99)¥ 3,476,000 ( $ 31,855.98)
Doshisha University¥ 1,219,000 ($11,187)¥ 4,414,000 ($40,508)
Ritsumeikan University¥ 732,000 ($ 6,717)¥ 2,928,000 ($26,871)
Kansai University¥851,000 ($7,809)¥3,404,000 ($31,239)

Should you study abroad for a year at a Japanese University?

Definitely! Studying for one year at a Japanese university as an exchange student is a much more casual experience, and will allow you to experience the culture while avoiding many of the stressful things about committing to life in Japan long-term.

Should you study for 4 years at a Japanese University?

I think so! I had a pretty good experience, although it may not be quite you’re expecting. Compared to the experience I had in the US, the experience of studying at a Japanese university is actually a much more flexible one. Japanese university students have a lot of freedom compared to other countries regarding their curriculum because there are very few gen-eds. I also found that people tended to fall into two categories; people that really want to goof off, and people who take studying very, very seriously. There isn’t much of a middle ground in this case. While I would like to write a very thorough article about this topic as well someday, the job hunting system for new graduates in Japan is one of the main things you should consider, as your major and grades play a much less important role in Japan when time comes for you to find a job. To be honest though, from what I hear from my friends in the US, a degree in America definitely does not guarantee a job nowadays either, so I think you should do what sounds the most interesting to you, and not what is the most logical of safe choice. I think you should take the plunge!

What are the classes at Japanese university like?

Classes in Japanese university are taught mainly using the ‘seminar style’, meaning you have a lot of old Japanese guys standing in front of the class talking to themselves for 90 minutes at a time. I personally like studying on my own so this didn’t bother me, but I know that it definitely would bother some who prefer the Socratic method. More in Japan than any other class I had every been in, the people who care sat at the front of the class, and the people at the back played puzzle dragons on their phone. This was a few years ago…

Everyone’s favorite study tool.

This is because a lot of courses at Japanese Universities split their grading scale to somewhere around 50% attendance, and 50% from the midterm and final exam. There are many cultural reasons for this, but put simple, in Japan the most important thing is to show up. The 2nd priority is to actually do a good job. So people would show up and play puzzle dragons! Well, maybe 1/4 of the class was like that, but I did notice that the teachers here had a pretty passive attitude about it. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT SKIPPING CLASS NEXT WEEK!!!”, they would half-jokingly say, and then would proceed to give people attendance points to manage their pokemon-go indexes in class. I found the passiveness of this to be a little strange, but it was nice being able to decide the level of effort I would like to put in each day. Of course, not every class was like this.

The time me and all other foreign students in class confronted our teacher

If you are taking classes in Japanese along with other Japanese students, there will be times when, despite doing your absolute best, no matter how much you study, you will fail a class not because you didn’t know the information, but because you couldn’t explain the information in the way your professor wanted. I had a bit of an eye-opening experience with this during my 1st year of university. I was taking a course on business coaching, and all was going well. I could participate in class, give presentations. I think that the teacher knew that I understood the content.

Then the test period came around…

The professor had just taken paragraphs out of our textbook (we were instructed to read something like 50 pages the week before), and he had redacted certain key words from the passages.

I needed to write the exact same word, choosen randomly from 50 pages, or I would get zero points.

So I panicked and panicked. Tried meditation. I called my inner voice, listened to my inner demons, tried to channel my energy into reading the teacher’s mind.

No, I did terrible on it in the end. And this is how all tests would be conducted. I bombed them all. It was a little like this. Try to fill in the blank.

Business coaching is not restricted to external experts or providers. Many ___________ expect their senior leaders and middle managers to coach their team members to reach higher levels of performance, increased job satisfaction, personal growth, and career development.

Did you choose “Companies”, perhaps? WRONG!!! You get…nothing! YOU LOSE! The answer was “organizations”…what are you stupid or something? You need to study more…

It went like that every time, And I wasn’t the only one having trouble

Venting aside, Every other person in our class who was…well, basically everyone who had learned Japanese as a second language were all getting zeroes across the board. So one day, we went to go talk to the teacher about this, and begged him to change up the test format. He pretty much told us that there was nothing he could do, that we had chosen to take his class in Japanese, and that we were free to drop it if we couldn’t handle it. He was pretty much a jerk about it.

In my other 4 years I never came up against something quite as ridiculous as this, but it may be something to keep in mind. The system may not be flexible, even if it is completely flawed and ridiculous.

Japanese students don’t participate in class.

Ever. The teacher will ask the class a question, and then their words will mysteriously get lost somewhere in the void. There were of course exceptions, but most people seemed to adhere to the old Japanese saying “Deru kugi wa utareru” or, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” (出る釘は打たれる)

So, I had a few teachers that were so fed up with this they would storm up and down the aisles, frustrated at everyone`s attitude.

Quick! Shut the pokedex!

In an effort to put myself out of my comfort zone and permanently cement myself in everyone`s eyes as a massive American stereotype (or at least a massive westerner stereotype), I would make an effort to participate as much as possible in certain classes like this. Partly because I tend be an obsessive workaholic, and partly because I found the notion of a foreigner leading the class to be both funny and a point of pride. Of course, there are a lot of people of different leagues studying at Japanese universities. There are people who are there to study, and the people who are there to goof off. I found that most people either fell into one of these categories, while it was rare for there to be much of a middle ground. Most people choose their zemi in their second year of university that will mostly decide how intense the rest of their university career will be. So…what is a zemi?

How busy are Japanese university students?

This really depends on the person. I really put myself in a tough spot because I decided to enter after less than two years of studying Japanese, but I found a way to push through it. At this point in life, Japanese students have just gotten through the ultra-strict environment of primary education and are more than ready to enjoy some time off and make friends for the first time in a long time. Many people dye their hair for the first time (A no-no in Japanese high schools), and everyone seems eager to make new friends and try as many things as possible. At the same time, everyone around me seemed to be on overdrive at all times, with plans filling up their techo pocket books to the brim. Contrary to my experience in the US, Japanese university is not for people who like to ‘go with the flow’, so to speak. Most people I knew were so busy with plans, part time work, and especially club activities, that I actually don’t know when they found time to sleep. I talk more about this phenomenon with how serious people take clubs at my YouTube channel, which you can watch below.

People practice long, and they practice hard. And…some people study hard! That really depends on what kind of ‘Zemi’ they choose to join. I go into the zemi culture below…

All about Bukatsus and Circles

In the video above we talk about the concept of Bukatsus and Circles, which are the primary way people in Japanese universities meet people outside of their classes. Most Japanese students are either still living with their parents or rent an apartment. It’s pretty rare for anyone to live in a dormitory or anything like that, so most people join clubs or some kind of group so they can meet like-minded people. The interesting thing about this is that you usually have the choice of two options for any given sport or interest, being that you can either join the circle, or you can join the bukatsu. These are both types of clubs. For example, there could be a tennis circle, or a tennis bukatsu.

What is a circle?

Circles are typically the more casual fun version of whatever you are doing. People join a circle so that they can make friends with people of the same interest, practice together, and then hang out after practice. The attendance at a circle is usually pretty casual, and is more come-and-go than a bukatsu would you. You can bascially drop in, hang out for a bit, and then move on with your day. I only ever joined circles during my time at university, because doing all of my classes in Japanese barely left me with time to scrape by in my classes.

What is a bukatsu?

A bukatsu is hardcore. They are not for the faint of heart. While it depends on what your are doing, most bukatsu’s involve long practice hours (as in, you start at 6pm and then go pick up breakfast together before class long), and are generally taken pretty seriously. Bukatsu’s reflect some of the more extreme aspects of Japanese social culture. People feel this pressure to be there, and to put on this insane perfectionist persona that is just way too much. For some reason, the dance bukatsu at my university was especially intense, and I witnessed a girl have a near-nervous breakdown in the lobby because of the stress.

How to make friends?

I made most of my friends through some connections I had made in the Jazz circle. I’m a guitarists, so by entering the jazz circle I was able to meet some people who knew some people. So on and so on…In the end the friends I made were because of the music I liked, and my ability to impress some people on the guitar. Then those friends introduced me to their friends…I think? It was a while ago, but my point is that it is a good idea to have a hobby that you can use to cut-through the initial barrier or approaching people as a foreigner. Having common interests definitely helps. It does become easier, as Japanese people usually feel a lot more comfortable talking to you when they see you talking to another Japanese person.

So does that mean you should avoid getting stuck in the ‘foreign bubble’, a.k.a only talking to other foreigners?

I think you should just talk to everybody. I tried to make it a point of only using Japanese for my first year in university, but I think it might have balanced out in the end. Whereas my goal was to improve my Japanese ability, and not get stuck in the foreign bubble I had seen so many people get trapped in before, me over-doing it made it so I ended up making foreign friends anyways, because my brain would just give up every few weeks and I would revert back to English. I think the thing most people struggle with is balance. Talking to everyone and enjoying the process will get you further in the long-run than trying to cram Japanese into your brain.

Making people comfortable with your existence; a fulltime job for expats in Japan

It also helps to have courage and the ability to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. I recently spoke about this on one of my patreon podcasts that you can listen to here if you become my patron. One of the great ironies I realized while living in Japan, is that everyone else’s shyness forced me to become a much more outgoing and assertive person over the years. People generally lack the courage to talk to you, and you kind of become a walking potential incident waiting to happen, because most Japanese people seem to have this fear that you’ll talk to them in English, they won’t be able to respond, and then they’ll feel really stupid. They carry that fear around with them, and as a foreigner it really becomes your job to dispel that fear. This gets to a lot of people who interpret this as racism, and I can understand that. I have definitely felt that way before, but I choose not to have that attitude. If that kind of thing sounds like it will bother you, Japan may not be the country for you. Because…

Every conversation, every potential interaction, every time you buy yourself a strong zero at the local conbini, every single interaction…it becomes your job to prove to other people that they can interact with you, and this can get exhausting to say the least.

Conbini is short for convenience store. It is not a type of bikini

That being said, These are all opportunities for you to grow and come out of your shell. Just like most things in life, it really is all a matter of perspective. You can accept that it’s difficult to meet people, or you can grab those reigns and go and try and make people want to interact with you. By putting all expats in difficult positions like this, Japan really does expose the strengths and weaknesses of all of us who choose to call this country home. It demands the best of you, and reveals things about yourself that you may have been able to hide in the comfort of fitting into your ‘proper place’ in your home country. This is an opportunity for you to take responsibility for your life, and become very real with yourself. It can be an amazing opportunity, but I have also seen it virtually destroy the mental sanity of other expats over the years. I’ve certainly had my ups-and-downs myself.

The lesson is this: life in Japan really will become what you make of it. YOU have to make it happen, because nobody else will feel comfortable enough to help you. For better or worse, everything is within your control.

Your ‘Zemi’ decides most of the experience you will have at Japanese University during your 2nd-4th year

Your ‘Zemi’ (short for zeminaru, which is the Japanese-English loan word of ‘seminar’, not sure why they went with a Z), is something that every University student in Japan enters. It’s basically a group of people that you join in your 2nd or 3rd year that come together to do public research, give presentations, have discussions, go on countless field trips and drinking parties with, etc. The list goes on and on. Your ‘zemi’ is really the only class that matters in your 3rd and especially 4th year of university, when most Japanese students begin the tedious and dare I say insane process of doing job hunting while they are still students.

While I can only comment on the experience I had at my university, choosing your zemi was essentially choosing your fate, and the difficulty of your university experience for the last 2 years. I’m a self-proclaimed masochist so I joined the most ‘serious’ and ‘traditionally Japanese’ zemi which was run by the head of my degree program, and a professor that graduated from Tokyo university, which is a university that rivals Harvard as being nearly impossible to get into. He was eccentric as it get’s.

Both a genius and a bit of a goofball. Actually, he always reminded me a bit of… professor frankly from Paper Mario. That’s a bit random, I know…

Professor Frankly - Super Mario Wiki, the Mario encyclopedia
A portrait of my zemi teacher, photo taken 2018

The Zemi

The interesting and somewhat unique thing about these zemi classes in Japan, is that they are all-encompassing. It’s a little bit less about being in a class with a group of people, and is more about just being a unit in a group of people that is striving for a certain cause, with a certain lifestyle. You will study together, give presentations, and have discussions, but you will also have Karaoke all-nighters, go out drinking more than you will with your friends, and travel domestically more than a few times a year. The zemi you choose will influence a huge amount of your time during your 3rd and 4th year, so I think doing some research on what kind of environment is best for you would be worth your time.

Conclusion

If you are thinking about studying in a Japanese university, probably the best way you can prepare is by learning Japanese. If you would like some help on choosing Japanese learning resources, I recommend you check out my article Which Japanese Alphabet Should You Learn First? A Beginner’s Guide

If you are searching for textbooks that fit your level, I recommend checking out my resource here:

Which Japanese Textbook Should You Use?

If you are interested in preparing yourself more by learning a mix of Japanese language and culture, I recommend checking out the articles below.

Why Japanese Books are Written From Right-to-Left

Kirikaeru, The Switch, And Identity Within The Context Of Japan

I hope you can find whatever you need. Thanks for reading!

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