Many people dream of living abroad. We live in a blessed time where opportunities to travel and even settling in other countries are more abundant than ever. The more 'foreign' the country is in terms of culture and language, the more challenging it is, but it can also be more rewarding. Japan is an exciting cultural challenge. In this article, I want to share my experience of coming here as a student as well as some advice for others who dare follow.
“How did you get to Japan?” I have often been asked this question. I know you do not want to hear "by plane" (actually, a valid answer since I can warmly recommend the ship option; there are daily ferries from Korea’s Busan to Fukuoka and Shanghai to Osaka). The real question is “How did you end up living in Japan?” By now I'm a veteran expat, and I work in a completely different setting than when I first came here in 2004. A good start is very important. So here is my little "How To" guide.
Many foreigners start their time here teaching English, for example in the Jet program. This seems to work really well for people who are from English speaking countries. Not so much if you are not a national of the US, the UK, Australia, etc. The drawback here, however, is that teaching a language full time while trying to learn another is not easy. Another way people choose to finance their Japan adventure is by getting their foreign company to send them over. Compared to the crazy expat life in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore, people who come to Japan are usually those who have always dreamed of living here. Besides these, there are of course many other ways people find their way to Japan. For many nationalities there is the Working Holiday Visa option – a great way to spend a year studying Japanese culture and working various jobs.
Japan: But How?
Now, where do I fit into the above? Perhaps I actually managed to create a fourth way... I was flown to Japan and did not pay anything (I even got paid) for 3 years, and I had plenty of free time. In fact, I even got a Master's degree for it. How did that happen?
Well, I decided that I wanted to experience living in Japan when I was around 20. I had just spent an amazing 1.5 year long ‘gap year' that brought me to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan. Oz had become my second home, but I was fascinated by cultures very different from ours. So I wanted to learn at least one Asian language and Japan seemed strange enough, yet familiar. (My great aunt used to live in Japan in the 1920s, even though I was never a fan of anything Japanese in my youth.)
My plan was to become a teacher so I could live and work anywhere, Japan of course being my prime destination. First, I studied to become an English teacher, taking the Cambridge CELTA at a school in Oxford. I had worked long hours in the Munich Hofbräuhaus as a pretzels sales boy wearing lederhosen, and asked my parents to 'invest' the rest to be able to afford it.
After obtaining the certificate, my first teaching job was in Madrid of all places. This was a horrible gig; I got cheated by my boss and ended up broke. And I also realized that teaching English full time doesn't leave much time to really study. So I quickly moved on to my next plan: somebody had to pay me to go to Japan. By then I had already traveled extensively around the world and realized what the best-kept secret in the world is: many European universities are free of charge, regardless where you come from (one of my best buddies in school was from China). They even offer scholarships. While our American peers and many other countries that follow the fascinatingly perverted “get broke to get a degree” system end up with 100K in debt, universities in most EU countries are free. And as I said, there are additional perks.
Going to Japan as a Student - Can someone pay please?
So I applied to all kinds of universities, mostly looking into what information I could find on their scholarship offers. As fate had it, the best offer for students to get a scholarship in Asia at this time was Munich. As one of the uni officers said: "Basically everybody who wants to go will get some kind of support to go to Japan." Munich, my hometown. The city I had left three years earlier to discover the world. Well then, I was back with a tiny student room and spent every Sunday with my parents and family eating at home. The first two years were a blast.
As I entered university I was not particularly studious, preferring to learn at home or not at all and taking advantage of the then common non-mandatory attendance schemes, i.e. I was there mostly for the exams. In the first year the rules were changed so that people could only apply for scholarships after their midterms. Damn. In the second year they reduced the number of scholarships. It didn't help that I was not really a 'teacher's pet'. Several attempts to secure a scholarship through the school failed.
Scholarships: If you can - cut out the middle man
I then realized that the Japanese Ministry of Education offered a scholarship that one could apply for through the Japanese embassy. No need to consult the gatekeepers at your school. “That could be it!”, I thought. It read back to me like a dream: “Full coverage of the school fees regardless of the cost, monthly stipend of 1500 USD, including flights. OMG! I needed to have that.” One drunk summer night, somewhere among a group of students, I met a young man named Holger who told me that he had received this scholarship from the Japanese government. I was electrified. “Holger, how did you do that? There must be so many people applying for this!”
First Step: The right Recommendation
“I will tell you the secret,” he said. His private Japanese teacher believed that the trick was to have an informal recommendation letter from a Japanese professor, saying that he/she agrees to be your supervisor should you be accepted. Even though that is not a requirement, this letter included in your application would propel you to the final interview.
Sounded like a plan. I must have written more than 30 emails to random people to introduce professors to me. All dead ends. And Japanese professors do not publish their email addresses. Eventually by chance, I found a research paper that included a professor's email address, exactly from the university and school I wanted to go to.
I sent him an email right away, explaining how much I loved his paper and telling him that it is my dream to study in Japan. He replied a day later, and after another email I asked him if he could write an informal recommendation for me. Reluctantly he agreed, if I could submit a paper to him. So I did that, and he sent me a recommendation. “That’s it! My ticket to Japan.”
The interview process - Relax, you won't be worse than me
After I had sent all my papers off, I did not hear anything for 6 months but was then invited to an interview in the former West German capital Bonn. I was in miserable shape, sick and exhausted, surrounded by a bunch of really bright, fluent Japanese speakers (I could barely introduce myself). I remember sitting next to a tall, smart guy, who mentioned he had just finished reading his first novel in Japanese and was studying a double degree in Physics and Mathematics, fascinated with Japanese architecture and wanted to do his Ph.D. in Tokyo. I thought, "Omg! Who am I? A fraudster!"
We were called in one after another. I was nervous as hell. And unsurprisingly, I really screwed up. I went completely off script. “What do you like about Japan?”, I was suddenly asked. My mind was telling me: “Say something about politics, because that is what you want to study." “Architecture!”, my lips mustered. I started sweating. “Did I just say this? Why, Michel, why? “. The panel woman smiled happily, "Oh great, I am a passionate architect as well!” "I'm going to pass out!", I thought. She enthusiastically started to tell me about famous architectural projects I had never heard of, believing she was speaking to a passionate peer. I must have lost my complexion entirely. I could not answer any of the 10 follow-up questions. At the end she was irritated, urging me on: “Can you at least name one Japanese architect?”. I couldn't. The interview was pretty much finished and so was I.
I had just screwed up the 3-year plan in the making through one freak accident. I felt even sicker. I was notified later that I had indeed screwed up. Of the 15 scholarships that were awarded to the 15 best applicants, I was selected as number 16. It was very frustrating, but at least I was the first reserve should someone ahead of me change their mind.
One quiet Thursday afternoon the phone rang. Somebody canceled, and I was in. I later heard that it was the guy who sat next to me. Apparently he was terrified of the 12-hour flight.
Moral of the story: learn how to suck at an interview and still go on living. Good things will happen as long as you keep trying.
And then it happened
I received a flight ticket to Japan by postal mail and a really colorful, intense time started. But that is another story. During the next three years, I was on the Japanese government payroll at Waseda University, receiving a Master's in International Relations.
The Japanese Ministry of Education still continues this internationalization scheme where every country gets an annual contingent of scholarships to study in Japan. It is a fantastic way to spend between one year and however long you want; I think the maximum is six years on a scholarship in Japan. To me, it was a great start. Many of my close friends from Japan and around the world stem from my time at the Graduate School of Asian Pacific Studies.
There are many great ways to experience living in another country. I think being a student is one of the best because you have time and you can easily become part of a community. The world is more open than most people believe. Furthermore, there are plenty of scholarships to be claimed. (When I tell that I also studied in China and America on scholarships, people might think I show off. But let me also include that I have written probably 15 scholarship applications to get accepted to 3. It is to a large degree a matter of chance.)
For Japan, I warmly recommend the MEXT scholarship. There are three 'entrances' 1) embassy selection 2) university selection and for those already living in Japan 3) domestic selection. I did it with a direct application to the embassy.
- Go to the homepage of your country's Japanese Embassy and look for the MEXT scholarship.
- Find out about the details and which route you want to choose
- Make a connection with a professor in Japan and get a written recommendation which you include in your application to increase your chances
- Go for it