If you’re applying for the Embassy-recommended MEXT scholarship, have passed the document screening and (maybe) the tests, your next step will be passing the embassy MEXT scholarship interview.
In this guide, I will cover the kinds of questions you should expect, what the interviewers are looking for, and other preparation recommendations.
MEXT Interview Process
Depending on how your country does it, you may have the written exams and the interview on separate days, or they may be different events altogether. Check with the embassy where you are applying for details.
MEXT Scholarship Tests
I have written a separate article about the language proficiency and subject area tests that you will have to take during the MEXT Scholarship Primary Screening. Please see that article for more advice and links to sample tests.
Preparing for the MEXT Scholarship Interview
First, you should understand the structure and conduct of the interview. Next, and most importantly, you need to know how you will approach it to maximize your chances.
I have never participated in one of these interviews directly, and there could be some variety in how the interview is set up, but if you were to face a typical, Japanese-style interview, it would be something like this:
Typically, there will be a panel of three interviewers seated behind desks facing you as you enter the room. There will also be a chair (but usually no desk) for you in the center of the room, around 2-3 m (6-10 feet) away from the interviewers.
The set-up and distance can be rather intimidating, but don’t let it get to you.
Stay confident and focused on your goals (more on that below). If you approach the interview with the confidence (but not cockiness) that you are the best candidate for the scholarship and answer the questions clearly and confidently, there is a very good chance that you will perform better.
As recently as 2022, some countries were still holding interviews online, but most have gone back to face-to-face interviews. The format may vary from country to country so please be sure to check the details for your specific country.
Interview Panel Members
Based on feedback from past applicants, embassy MEXT scholarship interview panels typically seem to consist of three interviewers. Two are embassy officials and one is often a professor from a local university. According to past reports, the professor is typically someone from your general field of research (e.g. social science, engineering, etc.) but may not be well-versed in your particular area.
In past examples, I have heard of a Buddhist studies professor being on a panel for an applicant in policy studies and a mechanical engineering professor being on the panel for a software engineering applicant. On the other hand, I have heard stories of applicants who found that their previous advisor was the expert professor on the panel!
This means that you should plan to avoid deep, technical discussions of your research. Instead, you want to be able to communicate the purpose, desired outcomes, and importance of your research to someone outside of your field. Keep that in mind as you practice your interview questions.
Wear a simple, professional suit to the interview, or the equivalent of a suit in your national dress.
Since your interview will be at the embassy or consulate, you’ll have to leave all of your electronics behind at the entrance, but if you do have anything, including a digital watch, make sure that it is on silent mode or off.
Expect about a 20-minute interview, although in some cases–when there were relatively few interviewees–I have heard of interview up to twice that length. If you look around at the other interviewees waiting on your day, you should be able to get an idea of how many interviews the panel needs to get through and how long or short they might be.
Conduct in the Interview Room
When you first enter the room, you should bow to the interview panel. If you are confident in your Japanese, you can also say よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu). They will direct you to sit.
Address your answers to the panel member who asked the question, but make eye contact with the others while you speak, too. If you get a multi-part question and forget the second part halfway through your answer, do not hesitate to ask the questioner to repeat the second half.
Answer in the language the question is asked in. If you have indicated some Japanese ability, or taken the Japanese language proficiency test, then you may get some questions in Japanese. These are more designed to evaluate your ability than for the quality of the answer, so don’t worry too much about them. (Unless you are applying for a degree taught in Japanese!)
Once the interview is over, you also want to stop at the door, bow again and thank them for the interview. (ありがとうございます arigato gozaimasu).
If you cannot give the greetings in Japanese, then it is fine to thank them for their time in English (both on entry and departure), instead.
Conduct in an Online Interview
If you are participating in an online interview, some of the above will still apply. You will already be sitting when you start the interview, of course, but you should still bow to the camera at the start.
Make sure, of course, that the background to your interview video is clean and free of distractions. A white wall, etc., is best, or a bookshelf. You could also use a virtual background showing your university, or the university that you want to study at in Japan.
You do not want a cluttered living space and also make sure that nobody else passes through the video area or makes noise around you during the video. Dress as you would for an in-person interview (at least from the waist, up!).
In an online interview, to make “eye contact” you want to look at the camera lens, not at the screen showing the speakers. It helps to keep your camera as close as possible to the screen. If it is in a different location, like far above or below, or off to the side, then every time you look at your screen, it’s going to look weird to the interview panel.
MEXT Interview Strategy
The most important thing you can do to prepare is to have a clear focus on the academic and practical goals of your research.
I covered this in the article on writing your Field of Study and Research Program Plan, so check out that article if you haven’t already. One way to think of the MEXT embassy interview is as a chance to expand on that research plan, though there will be some other elements, as well.
When I have sat as a member of an entrance exam interview panel, we could immediately tell when an applicant was prepared, confident, and competent. The difference in impression that it makes is enormous!
Your Basic Selling Points
Come up with your three top selling points that you want to communicate during the interview. One approach would be to have one sales point for each of the following categories:
- Your academic/research goal (what you want to contribute to the field)
- The practical outcomes of your research (how it can be used, and/or your own post-scholarship career)
- Why you will make a good ambassador to Japan (your intercultural experience and adaptability
You want to use every question you receive strategically.
That means you want to answer each question to the interview panel’s satisfaction and tie it to one of your sales points.
MEXT Scholarship Interview Questions
Here are some questions past applicants have faced, along with my interpretation of what the interviewers are looking for. At the very least, you should practice and be prepared to address these!
- What do you want to study?
The purpose of this line of questioning is to make sure you have a clear research focus and know your field. The interview panel has read (or at least scanned) your Field of Study and Research Program Plan, so expand on the contents there and particularly on connecting your studies to your academic and practical outcomes.
- What are the limitations of your research?
This question will usually follow your explanation of your research and is designed to see if you have really thought through your research topic and know your methodology. The tricky think about this question is that an interviewer can ask it even if they don’t really understand your research topic.
Be prepared to explain one or two limitations and how you will overcome them or why your research is still valuable despite the limitations. (I recommend that you prepare this as part of your Field of Study and Research Program Plan.)
- Why do you want to study that topic?
This line of questioning is also focused on your intended outcomes. It is OK to mention personal inspiration that started you on this path, but your focus should be on what you want to accomplish in the future.
Remember the panel is looking at you as an investment in positive relations between your country and Japan, so discussing outcomes that benefit both countries or bring them closer together is going to be helpful here. Also, remember here that your panel is not experts in your field, so you need to explain yourself clearly.
- Is your research appropriate for the program you picked? (From an MBA applicant)
I heard about this question from one of my Patrons who was an MBA applicant, but it could apply to other fields that do not have a thesis as their culminating project. Even though the FSRPP asks you to write a 2-year plan (for a Master’s), many MBA programs do not have a thesis requirement and might only have a capstone class as one course in the second year, so the program doesn’t match the research plan requirements.
If this is the case for your application, you should know that in advance and describe how you will use other courses and time outside of class to prepare the research that you will submit during the final capstone. Describe how the topic and intended results are most important to you and that you will consult with your advisor at the university about different ways to approach it, but that your proposal is one way that you think you can achieve your academic goals within the degree and prepare for your future career.
- What university do you want to study at in Japan?
They may also ask about your contact status with the universities you selected.
The purpose of this question is to assess how prepared and proactive you are. If you have been in touch with any professors, and have their informal approval to supervise you, mention that. If you have tried to contact universities but received no response, explain that and tell them that you understand many universities do not write back until after applicants can prove that they’ve passed the Primary Screening, so you plan to follow up.
At the very least, you should be able to explain your reasoning for selecting the universities and professors on your list based on their relevance your research and practical goals. It’s a good idea to have one or two other universities that you have researched but rejected to mention in this conversation. (e.g. I examined the programs at University X and University Y, but the professor at University Y was more aligned with my research)
- Why do you want to study in Japan?
Note: Since 2020, this question has been added to the application form as an essay, but it still comes up in interviews. Another variation is “Why did you choose Japan instead of another country.”
The purpose of this line of questioning is to determine how serious you are as a scholar and how prepared you are for your studies.
Maybe you have always been interested in Japan since you saw your first anime as a child. It’s OK to use that as a brief introduction, but hopefully that is just an introduction and Sailor Moon is not the only reason you want to study microbiology or economics in Japan.
If your first encounter with, or passion for Japanese culture got you to look at the country in more detail and that helped you find a field of study or field of work where you could contribute to relations between Japan and your home country, that is an excellent thing to bring up.
If Japanese research or technical expertise in your field is more advanced than in your country and you want to leverage Japanese experience to benefit your home country, that’s a great thing to mention, too!
“Because of the scholarship opportunity” is not a good answer!
- What do you think you can contribute to the relationship between your home country and Japan?
Note: This is also an essay question in the application form, but I heard an applicant report they were asked the question during the interview in 2023.
Try to be specific and highlight a unique contribution that you can make. If possible, avoid something that anyone else can say.
Think about this question in two phases: What can you do in Japan while you are a student to contribute to the relationship between the countries (i.e. intercultural exchange related to your research topic or to a unique talent) and what can you do after you graduate to strengthen connections, regardless of whether you plan to work in Japan or your home country (i.e. a professional, diplomatic, academic, or volunteer contribution).
- How do you think you will be able to handle living in Japan?
This line of questioning is intended to determine if you’ll be able to settle into life in Japan without any disruption to your studies.
If you have experience living in Japan for any length of time, you can bring that up as part of your example of how you will succeed.
If you don’t have any experience living in Japan, then you should give examples of how you are adjustable to other cultures or uncomfortable situations, such as friendships with people from other cultures, experience living abroad in other countries, or any experience interacting with foreigners, especially Japanese.
On the other hand, if there are any obvious challenges to you living in Japan, you should mention those and how you will adapt. For example, if you have a spouse and/or children, talk about what they will do while you are in Japan (hint: If you’re bringing them to Japan, MEXT recommends that you come alone first then invite them to Japan on a Dependent Visa after you have settled in.) If you have religious or dietary needs (e.g. halal food), mention how you plan to take on those challenges in Japan. No matter what your needs, there should be groups of international students from the past who had the same needs. Find these groups online and see how they handled the challenges you will face!
- What do you know about Japan/the Japanese Language?
(Or, “How long have you been studying the Japanese language?”) Similar to the previous question, this aims to see how prepared you are to adapt to life in Japan. Take this opportunity to show the panel that you have done some basic research on the status of your research field in Japan as well as what day-to-day life is like in Japan. If you have any Japanese language ability, even if it’s at the level of basic interaction skills, you can bring that up, as well.
- What are some famous places you want to visit in Japan?This question is just a test to see what you know about the country to make sure that you are really interested in Japan, and not just the scholarship.
To prepare, look up some locations in advance that are related to your research, if possible, related to the reason you described for your initial interest in Japan, or are at least near your intended universities.
- Tell us about your academic background.
Another variation on this question is, “Do you have any research experience, or will this be your first time?” (Particularly for MBA or master’s students without a thesis).
In this question, the reviewers are looking for evidence that you can handle the academic workload and research in Japan without needing a lot of support and hand-holding. So, this is a great chance to talk about your performance in your previous degree while highlighting the research methods you have used and any publications, presentations, or awards, particularly related to your field in Japan.
- Tell us about your background. (without the “academic” in the question).
Seemingly open-ended questions like this can be the most tricky. The key here is that you want to focus and use this to your advantage. If you tell any anecdotes about your past, make sure they relate to one of your sales points.
For example, if you moved around a lot as a child, you don’t need to talk about that, unless it specifically relates to your research topic. If you grew up in a single-parent household, that isn’t necessarily relevant. But, if growing up in a single-family household taught you independence and self determination, or inspired you to take action to help others in similar situations, then that is definitely something you want to mention.
If you get this kind of question before you have talked about your research interest or intended outcomes, then this is also a great opportunity to introduce those. What inspired you to this research topic? How did your background make you want to create a positive change in the world?
- What do you plan to do after your studies?
I have a lot of people ask me whether it’s “better” to say that you want to work in Japan or go back to your home country. But that’s the wrong question.
The best answer is to have a clear plan that involves contributing to relations between your country and Japan. Whether that involves working in Japan, or your home country is not so important. Having a realistic, well thought-out goal is.
- What is your plan if you do not get this scholarship?
Do not let this question discourage you. The interviewer is not foreshadowing failure. Instead, they want you to prove that you are dedicated to the goals you described and not just seeking a free degree. When you think about your goals before the interview, make sure that you have a Plan B – another way that you can make progress toward the same goals even if you do not receive the MEXT scholarship. (Ideally, that Plan B should not be more effective than your Plan A of winning the scholarship, of course.)
- Why do you deserve this scholarship?
For this question, I recommend that you mention your past academic accomplishments and practical contributions (such as work experience or community service, etc.), to show that you have a track record of success and contribution, then pivot to explain how you will continue that pattern as a MEXT scholar and after graduation. You are trying to persuade them that awarding you the scholarship will better achieve the government’s goals of strengthening the link between the countries and contributing to society in both Japan and your home country than awarding it to another applicant.
- Do you have any questions for the panel?
Personally, I have always hated having to answer this question, but it comes up on almost all interviews, regardless of what it’s for. When I have sat on the other side of the room, as an interviewer, though, I have seen that it makes a significant difference if the applicant has prepared a well-thought-out question for the panel. It shows a level of interest and passion that gives a much stronger impression than someone who says, “No, thank you.” (Although a question that you should have been able to answer yourself, or a selfish question about the process, do not give a strong impression.)
One best practice is to ask a question that refers back to your previous conversation or a comment by the interviewers. For example, if the academic expert made comments about your research proposal or mentioned their own research, you could follow up on that.
Some “general” questions that almost anyone could ask would be about how the interviewers have worked with past MEXT Scholars after their studies, or you could ask the Japanese members of the panel what their one piece of advice would be for an international student when they first start their studies in Japan.
I have put this list together based on feedback from readers like you and from other blogs and forums, but you could always come up against something I haven’t seen before.
If you get a type of question I didn’t include above, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!
Good luck with your interview!