The other day, I got an email from someone in Kenya who has gotten a scholarship to study his master’s degree at a university in Tokyo. He wondered if I have some tips or advice for him. Of course, I do. But they wouldn’t fit in a short paragraph, so I decided to write a blog about it. I hope it will be of benefit to all students coming to Japan, although some advice may be specifically for Kenyans.
I’ll try to be brief, there is much ground to cover. From studies, food, language, culture, social life, banking and insurance, mobile phones, driving, earthquakes and disasters, finances, dating and relationships, life in the big city vs in rural Japan, rules, manners, social norms, renting apartments, hospital visits, cost of living, weather, living here with your family… I could write a book. Maybe I will write a book someday.
For now, I will try to keep it brief. Update: it ended up being almost 4,000 words so I decided to break it into 2 parts.
Here are a few tips, not in order of importance. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or want more info about a topic.
On Academic Life
- Don’t Come for Undergrad
There are many reasons not to do a bachelor’s degree in Japan. First of all, a majority of the courses in undergraduate are taught in Japanese. So unless you want to spend 2 years in language school followed by higher education in a language you are barely beginning to get a grasp of, don’t come here for undergrad. Imagine learning electrical engineering/political science in Japanese as a non-native speaker after only 2 years of studying the language. Also, if you haven’t been exposed to Kanji like the Chinese students, you’ll have a much harder time. In addition, campus in Japan is boring. Trust me on this (you might find out why later in the post). I had the best time in a Kenyan public university: the freedom and social life there surpasses no other. The friendships I made have spanned time and distance and are still strong today. Furthermore, I believe it is important to enjoy young adulthood in a familiar environment. You won’t have deal with the loneliness, culture shock, strange food and customs, new language.. all while studying for your degree and without your close friends or family nearby.
2. Come for your Master’s/PhD
Hopefully, you got a scholarship to come to Japan for your master’s or PhD. If you don’t have a scholarship, it will be harder to get one after arrival in Japan, but not impossible. It’s easier to get funding for PhD scholarships than a master’s degree. It’s also easier to get scholarships for some areas like technology and engineering than say, social sciences.
How to get scholarships? For African students, there is the Abe scholarship and also the MEXT scholarship for students worldwide. (The topic of finding a scholarship and a graduate supervisor deserves its own blog post).
If you do your master’s degree here, consider another country for PhD, just to get a different experience. That’s because you’ll also have a better chance at successful employment in a country that has less of a language and cultural barrier.
Oh, btw, here are some tips for PhD students.
3. You Won’t Fail
As a Kenyan, you won’t fail. There are hardly exams for classes, it’s mostly reports that you have to hand in. Attendance counts for a lot. For your thesis, it’s possible they consider effort more than contents – I have read several masters’ theses with atrocious grammar. Luckily, as a Kenyan, your English is at native-level. It will give you an advantage. Just don’t be surprised if you are asked to prove your proficiency through stupid TOEIC tests – I’ve done 3 so far and got the maximum score each fucking time. So don’t worry about your grades. I’m sure if you have made it thus far, you’ll do well in a Japanese university.
4. Publish and Attend Conferences
Most universities or laboratories have enough funding for you to attend 1-2 conferences a year. Use this chance to attend conferences, to get your work published, and to also travel… You can even submit a poster of your work, or work-in-progress. I did my master’s degree in Kenya and never published anything because our unis aren’t focused on publications and suffer from a lack of funding. In my PhD, I attended 4 conferences in Canada, New Zealand, France and the U.S. I also published one journal paper.
5. Take Advantage of the Funding
If you are studying physics or chemistry, take advantage of the ample funding in universities to request for equipment and materials. Even if you are in social sciences, be aware that you can make a request for a MacBookPro/decent laptop for your writing. This is one thing that Japan does very well, funding public universities from either the government or private sector. This is especially the case in specialized universities like JAIST, which I attended.
On Language and Culture
- If you get a chance to study Japanese, seize it with both hands
You’ll be surprised at just how little English is spoken here. Your lab mates will speak in broken English and you’ll be auto-correcting everything they speak in your head. Your professor will probably speak in broken English too. Do NOT correct them. It is an endless and thankless journey, and you might hurt their pride and feelings. Just appreciate the fact that you can communicate.
Outside of the lab though, it will be a real struggle to do anything without some Japanese language ability. You will need to drag along a Japanese speaking friend to go to city hall, the bank, the hospital, the restaurant, basically anywhere. You can’t even read your mail (oh there, will be tons of paper mail), so you won’t be able to tell what’s important or not, without knowing some Kanji.
If you get a chance to study Japanese, even if you are staying here for a short time, seize it. It will be helpful whether staying for the short or long term.
2. You’ll live in a foreign bubble, especially in campus
Since you won’t be speaking Japanese, you will probably be living in a bubble of foreign students who speak English. This is okay if you are planning to get your degree then go back to your country. If you plan to stay in Japan longer, try to explore out of your bubble. Join community events where international students are invited.
3. Rules, manners and norms
Japan is a rule-based country. Everything is done by the book. Japanese people are scared to go abroad because they fear the chaos out there. Everyone keeps time. To be on time is to be late. Even if everyone has arrived and is seated, and the PowerPoint is ready, the meeting won’t start even a second early. Everyone will keep looking at the clock, keep fidgeting (no chatter though) until the second-hand strikes 00. Then the chair will clear his throat and say, “good morning, welcome everyone” or whatever. Do not talk on the phone on the train. Don’t eat in public. The longer you stay, the more rules, manners and norms you will discover. Japanese people never make ‘independent’ decisions, they always follow some rule book (written or otherwise). This can be shocking to you as a Kenyan coming from a country where everyone thinks for themselves and where we threw the rule book out of the window. It can get annoying sometimes when it’s for small inconsequential things that are blown out of proportion. Don’t be surprised if at McDonald’s you are denied Ketchup if on the menu it states that your burger comes with BBQ sauce. The bus will leave you if you are 2 seconds late, even if the driver can see you sprinting. The students’ office can deny your application for graduation if you submit your documents 1 second after the stated time. You can lose an entire academic year because you were lax with the deadlines. It doesn’t matter if the people who will sign the documents are missing, or the printer is not working. Deadlines don’t get extended for whatever reason or excuse. Don’t get frustrated, you’ll soon get used to the rules.
4. On Indirect Communication and the Difficulty of Making Japanese Friends
Japanese is an indirect language and in this culture, people never say yes or no. They never say what they are thinking either. They tell you what you want to hear. They talk about safe topics, like food or the weather.TV is just food shows, this country has a food porn problem – it’s food shows on every channel. (If you have lived in Japan, you’ll appreciate that video, otherwise don’t click on the link.) You assume that after a couple of months of meeting, you’ll form close friendships with Japanese people but it can take years to get close to them. You’ll find yourself making friends with fellow foreigners. That’s fine, you should make and maintain friendships. The unfortunate thing is most foreigners in Japan are transients. You make friends with people this year and the following year they are gone so make the most of it.
5. You represent all Kenyans (and all Africans)
If you like a certain thing, say pancakes, Japanese people will be like “oh.. Kenyans like pancakes.” That’s because of their collective culture, in which they say things like “Japanese people like this… or that..”. So everything you do will represent Kenyans (and Africans) in general. They’ll make remarks about your long legs, your well-defined muscles, your small head.. things you’ve never thought about.
6. Everything you have heard about safety and cleanness is true.
Ref to 3 above. Following the rules is one of the reasons Japan is as safe and as clean as it is. You can leave your iPhone, MacBook, and wallet on a table in a restaurant unattended, go the toilet and come back to find everything untouched. You can jog at night. Muggings are extremely, extremely rare. Even then, they’re not violent – I read the news of an old lady who was pick-pocketing young distracted mothers out shopping.
The first thing you will learn is how to separate the trash. Plastics, plastic bottles, coloured glass bottles, clear glass bottles, aluminium cans, steel cans, metals.. all go into separate bags. Jut follow the rules.
Don’t be surprised by Japan’s love affair with plastic. There is so much plastic packaging in Japan, it will drive you crazy if you are an environmentalist. I mean, we’ve had to ban plastic bags in Kenya but in here, it’s plastic on steroids.
7. A country where things work nearly perfectly.
Everything works. Welcome to a country where the national health insurance scheme even includes international students, who are offered a huge discount on the premium. Health insurance includes dental care. People obey the rules, even traffic rules. No overlapping. No hooting. Peace and quiet. You will never encounter corruption at public offices. The power never goes off, unless it’s a disaster (actually during the strong typhoon we had last year, we still had power in my area). In the 6 years I have been living here, never once have I experienced a power cut. Or a water cut. Or downtime with the internet. No dust. No trash in the streets. Clean public bathrooms everywhere, with toilet paper (albeit single ply). Clean water to drink the park. Safe tap water. It’s just so refreshing to be in a country where things work. Convenience stores that are conveniently open 24/7.
8. High tech, Low Tech
Sure, Japan is said to be high tech but don’t be surprised by the large amount of paperwork needed just to carry out many procedures in the university or at city hall. I still don’t have a debit card. Many places are cash only. Fax machines are still in use. You’ll be surprised to find that Kenya is more tech-savvy in some areas than Japan is. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change.
At first, the food will taste very strange. Everything has soy sauce in it – we hardly ever use soy sauce in Kenya. Then there are the deep-fried meat cutlets; meat should never be fried. But eventually, you’ll get used to it.
Ramen, okonomiyaki and curry are the only Japanese foods you can enjoy the first few weeks. However, they are calorie-heavy. So watch out, many of the people I came to Japan with are significantly heavier now.
Fruits are expensive. Avocado is a luxury. So are watermelons. A fresh mango can set you back ¥2,000 (USD $20). But please make sure you add some fruit in your budget, otherwise.. the scurvy. If you can’t afford fruits, then maybe try canned fruits like pineapples.
Food is generally expensive in Japan. If you are a single person, it might even be cheaper to eat at the school cafeteria than to make meals for yourself. My advice is don’t stress or starve yourself. That is what it costs to stay alive.
Eating out alone isn’t expensive. Eating out with friends can become expensive though, especially if accompanied by drinks. You can easily spend ¥10,000 – ¥20,000 on a night out.
Nobody eats sushi every day.
Food is a safe topic that Japanese people talk about constantly.
Whenever you are offered food in Japan, be sure to pause in chewing, appreciate it, and say “oiishii desu ne“. It will please everyone. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. Just learn how to say “oishii” and other variations like of the same like “umai“.