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Considering studying in Japan? Read our guide to find out everything you need to know about Japanese universities and culture, and what steps to take next.
Known for making things smaller, faster, and above all first, Japan was until recently the second-largest economy in the world (it’s now third, behind the US and China).
Its economic strength is at least partly due to the strong research and development industry that underlies successful international brands such as Nissan, Toyota, Panasonic, Canon and Sony – as well as producing robots for every need imaginable.
Unsurprisingly, an excellent higher education system lies behind all this innovation. In the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings, three of the top 50 places go to Japanese universities: the University of Tokyo at 30, Kyoto University at 35 and Osaka University at 50.
If you fancy studying in Japan, the homeland of the bullet train, Nintendo Wii, instant noodles in a pot and of course karaoke, you’ll be pleased to know Japan wants you too.
The government is keen to attract more international students, and has set a target of having 300,000 foreign students in the country by 2020 (it reached the 100,000 mark in 2003). As a result, universities are doing all they can to make life easier for foreign students, from the application process all the way through to finding a job after graduation.
One thing that will certainly make life easier for many international students is the introduction of more courses taught partly or entirely in English. Other schemes to attract more overseas students include:
Aware that living and studying in Japan is expensive compared to many countries, the government has also introduced additional financial support for foreign students. Various university scholarships and grants are available through the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO).
Japan has approximately 780 universities, of which about 80% are private. There are also specialized schools and colleges that provide more vocational types of degree.
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Discover Japan's top cities for students...
Mention Tokyo and most people probably picture neon signs, congested traffic and, well, more neon signs. But there’s more to Japan’s capital than bright lights – though it certainly has lots of those. Away from the main highways and the non-stop turnover of new gadgets in Akihabara (‘electric town’), there are more tranquil pleasures to be enjoyed: shrines and temples, traditional gardens and teahouses, noodle bars and fresh sushi.
There are also hundreds of colleges and universities in Tokyo, including Japan’s top-ranked institution, the University of Tokyo, currently 25th in the QS World University Rankings. Despite being ranked the second most expensive city in the world in Mercer’s 2011 Cost of Living Survey, Tokyo does not have to be ridiculously bank-breaking. That is, as long as you avoid using taxis, eating out at Aragawa (one of the world’s priciest restaurants) or spending too much time in the famous game arcades.
See where Tokyo ranks in this year's QS Best Student Cities >
Now known as Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto was in fact the political capital for more than 1,000 years, up to 1868. Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, Kyoto is top of the list for those students looking to explore Japan’s rich history – but that’s not to stay it stopped developing back in 1868. Today, historical sites are surrounded by thriving industry and business, as well as a year-round program of festivals and cultural events.
Kyoto University is Japan’s second oldest and second highest ranked university, at 32 in the QS World University Rankings. Kyoto Institute of Technology is also highly esteemed, and there are more than 30 colleges and universities in Kyoto to choose from in all. But even if you don’t pick a university in Kyoto, it’s still definitely a place to visit during your time in Japan.
As far back as historical records go, Osaka has been a place of meetings and exchanges – an international gateway for trade, politics and knowledge. Today, Osaka remains a key economic and cultural hub, with a large and diverse population and an economy bigger than some entire countries can boast. ‘Cultural capital’ Kyoto is only about 40km away, but Osaka itself is not short on art exhibitions, live music or drama, as well as being known for its excellent and varied cuisine. Universities in Osaka also hold their own, with Osaka University ranked 45th in the QS World University Rankings.
Anyone who has completed at least 12 years of primary and secondary education can apply for admission to university in Japan. Those from countries where the education system lasts less than 12 years must complete a special preparatory course.
At universities in Japan, undergraduate degrees last four years, with the exception of subjects such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, which take six years. The academic year runs from April to March, with a summer break (July-August), winter break (December-January) and spring break (February-April). There have been discussions lately to move the start to the academic year to fall.
Some (not all) universities in Japan require international applicants to take the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU). This includes four subject tests: Japanese as a Foreign Language, Science (chemistry, biology and physics), Mathematics, and ‘Japan and the World’. The EJU can be taken at locations in 14 countries worldwide.
Applicants may also be asked to submit scores from an English proficiency test such as TOEFL, or to travel to Japan to sit university entrance examinations.
Once you've met all the university requirements, you need to consider the visa requirements for Japan. After you’ve received an offer of a place, the university should apply to the nearest Regional Immigration Bureau for a Certificate of Eligibility for Residence Status on your behalf. You can then take this to your country’s Japanese embassy or consulate to support your visa application.
On arrival, you have 90 days in which to apply for an Alien Registration Card (not the little green man kind, obviously). If you’re planning on looking for a part-time job, you’ll need to get permission from the nearest Regional Immigration Bureau. Foreign students can only work for up to 28 hours per week (or eight hours per day outside of term time).
Need more advice about studying in Japan? Join our international student forum >
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