Applying for Bachelor’s Degrees in Japan: How to Choose Your University


Nakajima library at Akita International University

Thinking about studying in Japan? Here’s what you need to consider before making your decision.


Since I post information on this site for international applicants to Japanese graduate degree programs, primarily through the MEXT Scholarship, I naturally get a lot of question about undergraduate degrees in Japan and the undergraduate MEXT Scholarship, too. In this article, I will share what I know about those topics.

Contents:

  • Why apply for a bachelor’s degree in Japan
  • How to choose your university
  • The Undergraduate MEXT Scholarship

Why should you apply for a Bachelor’s Degree at a Japanese University?

It is important for you to know why you want to earn your bachelor’s degree in Japan. Your reason will be very important when it comes to selecting your university. Of course, this applies to any university: You should always have a reason why you want to earn a bachelor’s degree and a goal that it will help you achieve. It might be to qualify for a specific job, or to learn a specific skill, or to network.

But whatever it is, make sure that you are clear about your goal and what you want to do after graduation before you start looking for universities in Japan!

Quality of undergraduate education in Japan?

I work for a Japanese university, so I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will anyway:

The quality of undergraduate education in Japan is not particularly good. It is still the case that many universities teach in one-way lecture format and the academic standards are lax. At most universities, almost all students graduate within 4 years (a sign of low academic rigor) and I have heard professors complain that they were not allowed to give failing grades, even when students deserved it.

If you are interested in the quality of education, I would recommend considering another country, such as the US, UK, Australia, etc., where classes are more demanding and require more proactive studies.

(For what it’s worth, I think my university offers the best undergraduate education in Japan. We have high standards and the lowest 4-year graduation rate in Japan. I’m proud of that. But I would not recommend it for most international students, since it teaches entirely in English and if you want to work in Japan or with Japan in the future, you will need to master Japanese during your time here.)

So, why study in Japan?

Despite my comments above, there are a couple of good reasons to earn your degree in Japan:

  1. You want to work in Japan after graduation.
  2. Japanese degrees are considered prestigious in your home country.
  3. (To a lesser degree) The cost of education in Japan is lower than your home country.

Note that “You like Japanese culture” is not on that list. That alone is not a good enough reason, in my opinion. If you like Japanese culture, choose a university in your home country that has an exchange program with a Japanese university. That way, you get the benefits of earning a degree from your home country, when it comes to future employment, but also get the Japanese culture experience.

Let me break down the reasons above, and how they might affect your university choice.

1. You want to work in Japan after graduation

In this case, it is essential that you choose a degree program that is taught in Japanese, not English. You should also choose a university that is located close to the employer or employers that you want to work for. If there is a relationship between the two, such as joint projects, contracted research (in your field), etc., that is even better!

Despite the Japanese government’s claims that it wants to attract more foreign talent, most Japanese companies do not want to employ foreigners who are not fluent in Japanese (N1 level). Without Japanese ability, you might be able to be hired as a subject matter expert (e.g. software engineer) or in an advisory role as a contract employee. But it would essentially be impossible to get a full-time, lifetime employment position with a possibility for career advancement. Humanities or social sciences? Forget about it.

If you are not already fluent enough in Japanese to get into a Japanese-taught program, it is up to you to get your language ability up to standards before you apply. (Unless you apply for the Undergraduate MEXT Scholarship, as we’ll discuss below.) The best way to do that, if you can, is to enroll in a Japanese language school in Japan, where you’ll be forced to use the language regularly.

Be careful! There are some bad actors out there among Japanese language schools. Some are not legitimate, and only fronts to foreigners into the country to work (illegally). Others are worse. Do your research carefully! You should also choose a Japanese language school that is located close to the university where you want to study and has a history of sending students to that university. The good schools will help you with university application prep!

(No, I don’t know which are good or bad, so I can’t offer advice here, but you should definitely find someone who knows – and not an agent. Never trust agents.)

2. A Japanese degree is prestigious in your home country

If you want to earn a degree in Japan just for the sake of having a Japanese degree, then it doesn’t matter so much if you study in Japanese or English. You should choose your university based on whether or not it is well-known in your home country and possibly look at the rankings, too. Choose a field of study that will prepare you for the specific career that you want.

3. Education is cheaper in Japan than in your home country

If you’re coming from a country with high education costs, it might be cheaper to study in Japan, but you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of that decision. Will education in Japan help you find a job in your home country, or hurt you? That is going to depend on your situation.

I will mention the MEXT Scholarship below in more detail, but if you can get that scholarship (covers tuition and a cost of living stipend), that’s a great deal! But it shouldn’t be your only reason to study in Japan. If nothing else, during the application process, you’ll have to give the reviewers a better, non-selfish reason.

If you are studying in Japan because of a difference of cost of education, consider looking for universities that offer a student exchange program with prestigious universities in your home country. On a student exchange program, you pay only the cost of tuition of your home university, so you might be able to spend a semester or year at a prestigious/expensive university for quite cheap. (For example, at my university, the annual tuition is less than 700,000 yen, but we have exchange programs with universities where the tuition is 10+ times more! That’s quite a good deal.)

How to choose a university in Japan for a bachelor’s degree

As I described above, your reason why you want to study in Japan is a major factor. You shouldn’t read any further or continue with your application until you have figured that out. Know why you want to study in Japan and what you want to do after your degree (what career and where you want to work.)

Here are some factors to consider when selecting your university:

Language of instruction

If you are considering university programs taught in English, I have another article about how to find English-taught degree programs in Japan, so you can start there to narrow down your options. If you are looking for degrees taught in Japanese, essential if you want to work in Japan after graduation, then your option are wide open.

Fields offered

Obviously, you need a university that offers degrees in the field that you want to study. Most of the top universities in Japan are comprehensive and offer all fields, but some are more specialized. There are medical universities, science and engineering universities, liberal arts/social sciences universities. If you know the degree field you want to study for your future career, you can narrow down your list.

The government-run Study in Japan website has a search tool (as well as a lot of other great advice that you should read about choosing universities and studying in Japan!)

Location

There are several reasons to think about location.

Employment Opportunities

If you want to work in Japan after graduation and have an idea of what company or industry you want to work in, then it could be beneficial to choose a university near that company or concentration of companies in that industry. That will make it easier to visit for future hiring information days, internships, job interviews, etc.

This is not necessary. It’s pretty easy to travel within Japan, but it can also be expensive. But if you have a particular company in mind and plan to visit multiple times, then studying some place with easy access is a good idea. A nearby university is also more likely to have direct connections with the company for hiring or even for contracted research in industry-academia collaboration, which could help you.

English Access in Day-to-day Life

If using Japanese language in day-to-day life is a concern, then you might want to focus on universities in large, metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka. This could be a factor for students studying in English or for students who want to bring a spouse and/or child with them to Japan during their studies. Large cities are more likely to have more support available in English. For example, English-speaking medical professionals (especially mental health), support in elementary schools for non-Japanese-speaking kids, etc. Of course, you’ll still have to do some things in Japanese, since not every business will have English speakers, but you’re more likely to find that support in urban areas.

If you have a medical situation that requires regular treatment, then I definitely recommend researching where you can get that treatment in English (probably a large city) and looking for universities that are conveniently located.

Cost of Living and Community Interaction

If language is not an issue, then as a personal preference, I recommend smaller cities or rural areas. The cost of living is cheaper, the people are generally more open and engaging with international students, and you get to see more true Japanese culture than in cosmopolitan cities.

Rankings

In almost all situations, choosing a university based on name value and rankings is stupid for an undergraduate degree.

Most of the factors that go into international rankings systems like Times Higher Education and QS have nothing to do with the quality of undergraduate education. They factor in research output, grants, and reputation (also based on research). At best, that’s not related to undergrad education. At worst, it could hurt the quality of undergraduate education, since if the professors are focusing on research, that’s time and energy that they are not spending teaching. I have been to famous research universities where the undergraduate required chemistry class was held in an amphitheater with 1,000 seats. That’s a pretty lousy quality of education, if you ask me. There’s no way you’ll get personal interaction with the professor in that situation.

However, if your reason for studying in Japan is because of the prestige of the degree, then rankings might matter to you more than the quality of education.

There are also a few rankings that are worth considering:

  • Times Higher Education ranking of Japanese universities: Don’t confuse this with the worldwide rankings. The rankings for Japanese universities focus on elements that are relevant to undergraduate education, like the educational outcomes for undergrads and the campus’ international environment. Definitely give this list a look.
     
  • Subject-specific rankings: Consider these only if you are aiming to go on to a graduate degree later. While the overall rankings get the most attention, subject-specific rankings are much more important. Think about it, if a university is highly ranked, but the ranking is mostly because of its engineering school, but you’re studying history, then the ranking means nothing. (As I mentioned above with rankings in general, it could even be bad news, since the engineering school probably gets all of the resources.) Like I mentioned above, rankings aren’t that relevant to undergraduate education quality, but if you want to get a graduate degree in the future, then being at a university that is highly ranked in your field could give you a chance to get involved in research during your undergrad, which will help later.

The Undergraduate MEXT Scholarship

If you’re reading this article, the chances are good that you already know about the MEXT Scholarship for undergraduates. I get a lot of question about it in the comments of articles all around the site. But here’s a simply overview.

The MEXT Undergraduate Scholarship is a highly competitive program offered by the Japanese government. If selected, you will spend 5 years studying in Japan with all tuition waived and a monthly living stipend of 117,000 JPY (as of the time of writing in 2024). During the first year, you will be in an intensive Japanese language program to get up to the level necessary to study for your degree in Japanese. After that, MEXT will place you in a university for your undergraduate degree.

You do not get to choose your university for the undergraduate MEXT Scholarship.

Competition

Sounds great, right? It is, but the catch is that it is highly competitive! As of 2023, there were about 1,550 Undergraduate MEXT Scholars in Japan. That sounds like a lot, until you break it down. That number includes students in all 5 years of the scholarship, so it means that there are an average of 310 scholarship places per year. Now, consider that there are 200 countries that are eligible for the scholarship! That’s an average of 1.5 scholarship places per country.

Of course, it’s not a perfect average distribution. MEXT has priority countries and distributes the slots according to political interest. Some countries, particularly in Asia, have 25-40 slots per year. But there were 88 countries that did not have a single MEXT Scholarship winner over the past 5 years.

Application Process

You apply to the MEXT Scholarship via the Japanese embassy in your home country. The call for application usually goes out in April of each year (for scholarships starting in the following April) and the applications are due in May or June. There is some variation depending on the country and embassy, so check the website of the Japanese embassy in your country for details.

You can find more information about the application process, including the documents that you have to submit and the application process, in the official application guidelines on the Study in Japan website.

One of the most important parts of the application process is the tests that you will take at the Embassy during the Primary Screening. The link is to my article about those tests with links to past exams that you can use for studying.

Conclusion

That is a summary of what I know about Japanese undergraduate education.

The most important thing to understand is why you want to earn your degree in Japan. Every other decision should be based on that reason!

Questions?

If there is anything else you want to know, please let me know in the comments below.

4 Comments

  1. Laja 2024-02-09
    • TranSenz 2024-02-10
  2. Laja 2024-02-09
    • TranSenz 2024-02-10

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