Abroad: In Japan

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“So why did you choose to study in Japan?”

Honestly, I dread being asked this. To some, the answer comes easily. But for me, I always find myself at a loss in the face of this deceivingly innocent question.

I decided to apply for the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) undergraduate scholarship while half drunk on a fantasy daily life of a student in Japan that my mind had cooked up. At that time, I was accompanying my mother on her business trip to Japan. While she was at the office in the day, I was given free reign to roam around the streets of Tokyo by myself. Having been to Tokyo several times before, I skipped the usual tourist attractions and instead went shopping at my usual haunts, browsing second-hand books at Book-off and wandering through stationery heaven at Loft. Hence, rather than rushing from one tourist attraction to another, I was able to slow down and take in the bustling city around me. On my way back to the hotel, standing in a train surrounded by Japanese students in uniforms and salarymen dressed in identical suits, I felt like a local, and I loved it.

Just then, as I was on my holiday high, an email about studying in Japan from COG arrived in my mailbox. The allure of being able to buy cute Japanese stationery, cheap second-hand Japanese books, and onigiri for breakfast at the convenience store on the way to school must have overrode the more logical part of my brain. The next thing I knew, I was writing an email to my CT asking for a teacher’s recommendation while still on vacation.

So why did I choose to study in Japan? Was it just so I could buy stationery? That was probably part of it, however embarrassing it may be to admit. All the same, as I wandered through Tokyo on that trip, I felt like I caught a glimpse of what daily life in Japan was like and walked away wanting to experience more. For better or worse, that is exactly what I am doing now.

What is the MEXT Undergraduate Scholarship?

The MEXT scholarship for undergraduate students is a government scholarship funded by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). It is a 5-year programme consisting of 1 year of preparatory lessons and 4 years of regular university. For the preparatory course, you’ll be sent to either Osaka University or Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) to get you up to speed on the Japanese language and other subjects that first year Japanese university students are expected to know (e.g. History or Biology in Japanese).

At the end of the second term, you’ll sit for an examination which will determine which university you’ll be going to for the next 4 years. If all goes well, you’ll be headed to a university among your first few choices, but I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories of seniors who didn’t get into any of the universities they wanted to. (Pharmacy is apparently particularly bad) After that, it’s off to actual university in a totally Japanese environment!

Application

Stage 1: Documents screening

The applications for MEXT close in July, much earlier than other university or scholarship applications. That means that before you even finish IOC you’ll have to get your educational transcripts, teacher’s recommendation and application form ready. Fortunately, the application itself is relatively simple since MEXT graciously exempts applicants from the pain of having to write a dozen personal statements and hunt teachers down for predicted grades (I submitted my Year 5 promo grades and O level results).The application does, however, require a graduation certificate, which, if you’re applying in year 6, you obviously will not have. In exchange, a letter stating when you are expected to graduate printed with the school’s letterhead issufficient and can be requested for at the front office. If you have any doubts you can always check with your teachers. All in all, thanks to the relatively simple application process, I made the deadline even though I decided to apply only 3 weeks before.

Stage 2: Written examinations

After the documents screening stage is the written examinations. The subjects vary depending on whether you applied for a science or humanities major. While all applicants will have to sit for the English, Japanese and Math papers, expect a harder Math paper if you’re a science major. In addition to that, science majors will also have to take papers in Chemistry and Physics or Biology.

Stage 3: Interview

The next and final stage is the interview. Most of the interview is conducted in English except for a small portion where you will be asked simple questions in Japanese. (I was asked how I got to the embassy and what my favourite Japanese food was.) I’m not sure if they’ll ask the Japanese question(s) if you indicated in your application form that you have no Japanese experience though.

The final results will be announced by December. Acceptance is unconditional, which means no matter what your IB score is, you will be going to Japan! That also means that your IB score will not really be used for anything other than boosting your ego or making you feel sad when all your friends score higher than you.

Studying in Japan

Unfortunately, I was the latter. Having already accepted the MEXT scholarship offer, however, I tried my best to put IB aside and focus on spending as much time with my loved ones before I had to leave. Japanese school term starts in April so by the end of March, I was saying goodbye to my family and friends at Changi Airport and heading towards my new life of living in a small apartment in Tokyo.

Even though I do live in Tokyo, the Tokyo I live in is probably different from what you’re imagining. If you’re thinking high rise buildings, bustling streets and bright advertisement boards, think more low-rise houses as far as the eye can see, trees and a surprising number of Indian curry restaurants. That’s where the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies student dormitories are.

Academics

School in the preparatory year consists of intensive Japanese classes every day for the first term (Science and business/economics majors also have math). Classes are split according to Japanese language ability, so students who have no experience with the Japanese language start from learning the Japanese writing system. On the other hand, students already familiarwith the language dive straight into actively using it through giving presentations and writing reports.Halfwaythrough the term, science majors will start taking foundation science lessons to acquaint themselves with scientific terms in Japanese.

In the second term, in addition to Japanese lessons, there’ll be other subjects added to the time table such as Japanese History, Politics and Economics, Japanese Culture for the humanities students and Chemistry, Biology, Physics for the science students. The second term is pretty much the busiest and most stressful term since it’s gearing up to the final examination.

After that examination is over, there’ll still be classes in the third term, but according to seniors, everyone will already be in a holidaying mood.

Living in Japan

One of the greatest perks of living alone in a foreign country is the freedom that you gain. Sometimes I will feel like going out, so I get dressed in 10 minutes and just hop on a train without having to seek anyone’s permission. While I was never really restricted by my parents, the freedom of being able to give into my whims without having to worry about whether I was neglecting my family by hanging with my friends too much was liberating. What ensues is spontaneous trips to sing karaoke before popping by the supermarket to get 2kg of frozen chicken and other groceries. Most days, though, time trickles by calmly as I go aboutmy usual routine of going to class, returning to the dorm to study with friends before making dinner and spending the rest of the day leisurely in my room.

Of course, there are also difficulties that come with living in a country with a different language and culture. One of the things I struggled with initially was how to interact with other Japanese students. Inspired by Hanyu Yuzuru, the Japanese 2-time Olympic figure skating champion, I joined the figure skating club when I started school. My seniors at the figure skating club welcomed and patiently guided me, constantly showering me with encouragement as I learnt the new techniques. I was having fun on ice, but off it, I was struggling. I was the foreigner in a Japanese club, desperately trying to blend in. Constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing while lacking confidence in my ability to speak in polite Japanese, I mostly kept my mouth shut and stood on the sidelines. Unsurprisingly, I felt like a complete outsider as I watched everyone around me laughing and talking to one another. That’s when it clicked. I realised that because of my fear, I was actually alienating myself. I am a foreigner, that fact was not going to change. I may make mistakes that a Japanese person would not, but I realised that as long as I opened myself up to the people in my club, my sincerity would get through to them and I would be able to build relationships just like any other Japanese person. Of course, paying attention the country’s social norms is important, but being genuine is what I think really helps you connect to people.

Being away from the people you are most comfortable with, homesickness will eventually also strike. When I first arrived in Japan in April, everything was new and exciting, not to mention I was struggling with adjusting to figure skating club as said above. As a result, I barely even had the time to miss home. After spending summer holidays at home though, I was dreading having to go back to Japan. I guess the novelty of studying in a new environment had already worn off and studying in Japan just meant not being able to see my family and friends for a year at a time. The first few days back in Japan, I cried almost every day. However, going back to the ice-skatingrink after a month-long absence and being greeted with smiles by my rink mates, going crazy at karaoke with my MEXT scholarship friends, I was reminded that things would be alright because I had a community in Japan that would support me too.

After 9 months of living in Japan, I’d been living and breathing the language and culture, so much so that I was told by my mother that my English had gotten worse when I went back to Singapore. When bumping into a stranger accidentally, I instinctively bow my head in apology instead of just muttering a ‘sorry’. More than that though, being a part of Japanese society, as cheesy as it may be, I get to see the world through another lens. One where order and conformity is valued. One where ‘omotenashi’, or hospitality is highly regarded.

I came to Japan to experience what life would be like. Whatever your reason for wanting to go to Japan is, I’m sure you’ll be able to come away with more than you’d expected.

 Rebecca Chan is from the class of 2018 and is currently in her first year of the MEXT undergraduate scholarship programme going through the intensive language preparation course at TUFS before hopefully heading to a university in Tokyo. When she’s not studying, she spends her time at the skating rink and dreaming of seeing Hanyu Yuzuru skate live.  

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