Are you open to continuing your education overseas? Does spending two to three years in Japan on the government's yen sound like a pretty sweet deal to you? If so, the MEXT Research Scholarship might just pique your interest.
It's a well-kept secret that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, & Technology (MEXT, or Monbukagakusho) in Japan gives out thousands of these full-ride scholarships to international students every year. In fact, there's a MEXT scholarship for just about every education level, from undergraduate and doctoral degrees to vocational training. This comprehensive guide will focus on the MEXT Research Scholarship for master's students, since that's the one I'm familiar with. I applied through an American consulate and was lucky enough to get the scholarship in 2019. I laughed, I cried, I penned a thesis amidst a worldwide pandemic. Now, at the end of my MEXT journey, I'm ready to share my advice and experiences with other potential beneficiaries of the Prime Minister.
So, how do you get your grubby paws on one of these scholarships? Honestly, it's a long road paved with bureaucracy that can be stressful to navigate, but I'll try to lower your blood pressure in this guide by laying it all out, step by step.
- What is the MEXT Research Scholarship?
- Before Applying
- Timeline of the Application Process
- Applying for the Scholarship
- Primary Screening
- Second Screening
- Getting Accepted into the Grad Program
- Congratulations, You Got MEXT! Here's Some Advice
What is the MEXT Research Scholarship?
The MEXT Research Scholarship is a scholarship from the Japanese government that fully waives tuition for international students pursuing a master's and/or Ph.D. degree at a Japanese university. It's given out most commonly by consulates and embassies in countries with a diplomatic relationship with Japan, but some people go directly through a Japanese university. Scholars also receive a monthly living stipend.
Basically, MEXT lets you get a master's degree for free in Japan, as long as you have a strong application and a good bit of luck.
Each embassy has a predetermined — and often small — number of scholarships it's allowed to give out, so beating out the competition can be tough. For example, my consulate in Florida typically only has one slot open. Your chances will largely depend on who else is applying at the same time and place as you are, which is a roll of the dice no one can predict. But as long as you remain eligible, you can reapply again and again — which many people do — so if you really want it, don't lose hope.
Who's a Good Candidate for MEXT?
Before you apply, it's probably a good idea to check whether you're even eligible. You can receive the MEXT scholarship if you're:
- A national of a country where MEXT scholarships are offered (Japanese nationals are not eligible)
- Born on or after April 2, 1987 (for the 2022 scholarship; it increases by one year every year)
- A university or college graduate who has completed at least 16 years of education
The official MEXT guidelines also state that you must pursue a degree in the same field as your previous studies or a related one, though this requirement tends to be flexible. But aside from just being eligible, who's truly a good fit for MEXT? As someone who's gone through it, I think an ideal MEXT recipient is an independent person who's relatively comfortable with Japanese culture and customs, interested enough in some topic to write a long master's thesis about it, and willing to learn to tackle the unique hurdles of life as a lone international student in Japan.
Personally, I've never grown so much or so fast as in the two years I've spent in Nagoya as a grad student. Learning a whole new set of cultural norms to navigate the intricacies of daily life in Japan alone has taken grit, perseverance, and no shortage of spur-of-the-moment vocabulary lessons. Even simple problems like fixing a power outage or finding cheap printing can turn into a physical, emotional, and financial puzzle for a non-native Japanese speaker on a student budget with no built-in family or friends nearby to rely on.
But if you're up for the extra challenge, I guarantee you'll come out a much more capable and confident person. And in exchange, you'll get a whole two to three years to travel, study, party, and make buddies from all over the world. So, if the prospect of getting a master's degree while building tons of character excites you, I say go for it!
That said, all the excitement in the world won't pay the rent. So how will you live to study another day as an empty-pocketed grad student? Happily, MEXT provides a monthly living stipend of ¥143,000 - ¥147,000, dropped directly into the Japan Post Bank account you'll open upon arrival. The small discrepancy depends on whether you're placed in a large metropolis where living is more expensive. For instance, since I live in Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan, I receive the maximum ¥147,000. You even get paid during school breaks when you're not actively taking classes, assuming you're still in Japan.
So how will you live to study another day as an empty-pocketed grad student? Happily, MEXT provides a monthly living stipend of ¥143,000 - ¥147,000.
Living on the stipend alone is totally manageable for most single people with no dependents or debt in their home countries. However, most MEXT students I know do work part-time for more spending money, or to pay off any extra expenses. I've survived both with and without a baito (part-time job) as a student and even managed to save money from the stipends without living like a monk. That said, your mileage will vary depending on your financial situation coming into Japan, as well as whether you plan to jet set off to Okinawa every weekend.
Unfortunately, you will need to bring about $2,000 of your own money in the beginning, as the stipends only kick in 1-2 months after you land. For me, I arrived in mid-September and didn't get my first stipend until the end of October. In the meantime, I had to pay for rent, insurance, food, and the many other expenses involved in moving to a foreign country myself. This delay is likely related to how schools confirm your continued presence in Japan for the stipend. My university has me hike all the way to campus to sign a sheet of paper every month, rain or shine, to ensure each payment arrives weeks later. So make sure you've got enough yen to live on until that sweet federal dough finally rolls in!
But how will you afford to get to Japan in the first place? Blessedly, for those of us from the opposite side of the world, travel expenses are also included. MEXT pays for your economy-class plane ticket to Japan and, if you want, boots you back to your country for free after graduation. This doesn't include trains to or from the airport or any extra bags, but train fare tends to be cheap, and I'd recommend packing light anyway. You'll get an invoice to pay some airport fees and taxes yourself as well, which for me amounted to about ¥8,900 each time. Also, airfare back home is only paid for once you complete the program, so any visits in between are on you.
Many students choose not to take the free ticket home and stay in Japan instead. In this case, you switch to either a Designated Activities Visa (a job-hunting visa) or a work visa if you've already gotten a job in Japan. And if you're planning on continuing MEXT to pursue a PhD in Japan (which is possible), you just apply to extend the scholarship and renew your student visa. My school's international student office confirmed my post-graduation plans about a dozen times during my last semester, so I certainly never felt alone or lost when deciding my next step.
Before you apply to MEXT, there are some decisions you should make so you know what to put on the application. These include whether to apply through an embassy or a university, whether you want an extra year as a research student, which grad programs you're interested in, and what you want your thesis topic to be.
Embassy vs. University Recommendation
First things first: You'll need to obtain a recommendation for the MEXT Research Scholarship from either a Japanese embassy/consulate general in your country or a Japanese university. Here are the differences:
- Embassy Recommendation: You apply through your local Japanese embassy or consulate general, meeting all their deadlines — which are typically earlier than university recommendation deadlines. If chosen for recommendation, the embassy sends your application to the Japanese ministry, which likely approves you for the scholarship, barring any disasters in the background check.
- University Recommendation: You search for a university in Japan that offers university recommendations for MEXT and apply directly to them, meeting all their deadlines — which are typically later than embassy recommendation deadlines. If chosen for recommendation, the university sends your application to the Japanese ministry, which likely approves you for the scholarship, barring any disasters in the background check.
You can try for either, but going through an embassy seems to be the standard method. The deadlines are earlier too, so it's often best to try applying to an embassy first and leave university recommendation as a last resort. I went through my local consulate general, so while a lot of my advice applies to both paths, this article will focus on getting a shiny embassy recommendation.
Should I Be a Research Student or Regular Student?
You've decided which authority you want to snag a recommendation from. But if you get that recommendation, how many years would you like your MEXT experience to last? Here's a buck-wild part of the MEXT scholarship: After landing, you don't even have to start school for a year if you don't want to. It's called being a research student, and several of my classmates have done it.
Research Student: You'll spend about three years on the MEXT Research Scholarship, receiving living stipends as long as you're in Japan and in good standing with MEXT. During your first year, while not yet enrolled in grad school, you may audit courses, take Japanese classes, and/or plan your thesis topic with your advisor. In your second and third years, once your grad program accepts you, you'll be enrolled as a regular master's student.
Regular Student: You'll spend about two years on the MEXT Research Scholarship, receiving living stipends as long as you're in Japan and in good standing with MEXT. From the moment you arrive, you'll be enrolled as a regular master's student.
Often, if MEXT recommends that you take six months of preparatory Japanese language classes before starting the master's program, that's what you'll do as a research student. Even so, frankly, there doesn't seem to be much (if any) supervision dictating what you do during that first year.
I chose not to be a research student and dove right into grad school as soon as I got to Japan. But from the looks of it, my friends who were research students enjoyed themselves quite heartily! So if you want an extra calendar year to learn Japanese, ponder what your thesis will be about, or climb Mt. Fuji with a band of other delinquents, you've got the option.
Finding a Graduate Program in Japan
Alright, this is the part where things get real. In order to apply to MEXT, you must first sift through the tons of master's programs in Japan and pick which ones you want to attend.
If you're looking for a program taught in English, I recommend first considering programs that are part of the Japanese government's Global 30 (G30) Project. They're full-English degree programs to encourage internationalization in Japanese academia — perfect if the idea of taking master's-level classes in Japanese makes you violently ill. I attended a G30 program at Nagoya University, and almost all my courses were in English, with only a few I chose to take in Japanese.
Then, consult this School Search spreadsheet from the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) that lays out the characteristics of every master's program in Japan. On the same page, JASSO also has a list showing only programs taught in English (under "University Degree Courses Offered in English"). Don't let the lengths intimidate you! You can easily narrow your search parameters and weed out the programs you don't want by using the spreadsheet filters. Grab a cold beverage and take a couple hours to peruse, googling the programs that look most interesting.
There might not be a master's program that completely aligns with your undergraduate major, especially if you're looking for one taught in English. In that case, if you still want the scholarship, you may have to get creative. For example, history majors might apply to a broader Cultural Studies program, or psychology majors could consider a Japan-in-Asia program that combines international affairs and societal Japanese studies. Admittedly, liberal arts majors have more flexibility in this area than STEM majors.
You can also choose a program based on who you want to be your academic advisor. Your advisor oversees your thesis, gives you research advice, and ultimately decides whether you pass thesis defense. Since your research will probably be fairly unique, it's okay if you can't find anyone whose specialty exactly matches yours — lots of my classmates studied topics way outside of their advisors' purviews and taught the professors a thing or two. As long as their research is in the same general academic field as your thesis, you should be fine.
Coming Up with a Research Idea
The best grad program for you also depends on your — at this stage, tentative — thesis topic. Though I certainly didn't have it all figured out this early in the process, I knew I wanted to research something related to Japanese language and culture. So on the placement preference form, I put down three master's programs that included professors of Japanese sociolinguistics whose research seemed at least tangentially relevant to my idea.
But how do you come up with a research idea in the first place? From what I've seen, MEXT seems to like topics that:
- Are relevant, important, and/or potentially helpful to society today.
- Relate to Japan and (theoretically) further relations between your country and Japan in some way.
Nevertheless, not all ideas that get approved fall under both of those categories. Here are some examples from the MEXT scholars in my school's Linguistics and Japan-in-Asia Cultural Studies programs:
- Correlation between use of English loanwords and views on globalization among Japanese students (topic I got into MEXT with)
- English loanwords in Japanese LGBTQ+ and mental health activism on Instagram (topic I actually ended up writing my thesis on)
- Appropriation of Chinese culture in Japan
- The history and current state of performance art in Nagoya
- Gender and sexuality in eroguro1 manga
- Language education and policy in Cape Verde
- Experiment on the effect of listening to music on language learning and retention
- Representations of gender and girlhood in Japanese cinema
- Veganism and vegetarianism in Japan
As you can see, MEXT topics really run the gamut. In my opinion, what we all have in common is we dug deep for something we cared about. Since a master's thesis is largely self-directed, consider subjects you find yourself thinking about often without being required to. For me, that's LGBTQ+ rights in Japan and Japanese-made English, or wasei eigo (it makes me chuckle). So, after workshopping ideas with my friends, I found a way to combine those two interests and research something I gave many hoots about. Every grad student struggles with deciding their thesis topic, but if you pick something you care deeply about, you can't go wrong.
If you want to research something related to Japan (usually a good bet), think about what facets of Japanese culture intrigue you, what problems in Japan you'd like to help solve, and what unique skills or background you bring to the table that might benefit Japan.
And whether you want to do Japan-specific research or not, try brainstorming some topics you're so fascinated by that you could read about them into the wee hours of the night. After all, that is much of the grad student experience, so it helps to enjoy those hours.
Still, keep in mind that lots of people end up changing their topic well into their first or even second year of grad school. I didn't even land on my final idea until about four months before my thesis was due! And though I don't recommend waffling quite that long, you can absolutely tweak and/or overhaul your original idea with your advisor's help, if need be.
Basically, remember that while the topic you apply to MEXT with is important, it's not the be-all end-all of what you'll actually write. You just need to show the committee you can conjure up a solid-sounding research plan and have a strong idea to start out with, even if it changes over time.
Timeline of the Application Process
Hopefully, you now have an initial idea of which graduate programs and thesis topics may appeal to you. But how much time will this application process take, exactly? If you want to apply for MEXT, prepare for the long, long haul. Embassies typically open up submissions in spring of the year before you'd enroll in grad school, so the whole ordeal takes at least a year. Make sure you've got something to do in the interim, as well as a Plan B if it doesn't work out.
According to the official MEXT guidelines, here's a rough timeline of the application process for someone who applied in 2021:
|April-May 2021||Submit your application to the embassy.|
|June 2021||The embassy contacts applicants who passed Stage 1 of the primary screening to tell them the date and time of the interview.|
|June-July 2021||Stage 2 of the primary screening (Japanese test, English test, and interview).|
|July-August 2021||The embassy lets you know if they've recommended you for the scholarship. If you passed, you request Letters of Acceptance from the universities you want to attend and send them to the embassy.|
|September 2021||Submit your final placement preference form.|
|From October 2021||MEXT conducts the second screening and decides where to place you.|
|January-February 2022||The embassy lets you know if you've passed the second screening and informs you of your university placement.|
|March or September 2022||You leave for Japan.|
The exact dates vary between embassies, and during the pandemic, the process may differ a bit from previous years. But one thing's for sure — you'll be emailing the embassy or consulate a lot, so I suggest building a friendly rapport with whoever's on the other end of those long email chains. Not only because it's the kind thing to do, but also because it's possible they'll be one of your interviewers.
Applying for the Scholarship
Now you have an idea of what kind of program MEXT is and whether it might be a good fit for you. So if you do decide to take the plunge, here's a list of documents you'll need to prepare and things you'll need to do in order to apply for MEXT. Since the process is so lengthy and bureaucratic, I recommend setting aside at least a few months to prepare your application. This will give you ample time to research grad programs, gather all the required documents, and run your research plan by a trusted friend or mentor. Some parts, like the health certificate and recommendation letter, will take days or weeks to complete, so getting a head start will massively behoove you.
1. Writing Your Research Plan
The research plan is by far the most important part of your application. It's the basis of your argument on why they should shell out the big bucks for you to study in Japan, so invest time into polishing it as much as possible.
That said, you don't have to be a genius to write a good one — I didn't have an ounce of experience in statistics or data collection when I wrote mine. Just explain in clear academic language what you want to study and how you hypothetically plan to do it.
Some common research methods I've seen are:
|Media analysis||<ul><li>What films, books, games, shows, plays, artwork, social media posts, or other artifacts will you examine?</li><li>What theories will you use to analyze them?</li><li>Why is it important to study these texts?</li><li>Who will it help? </li><ul>|
|Designing a survey||<ul><li>Who will you survey, and what will you ask them?</li><li>How will you feasibly distribute your survey, and in what language?</li><li>Why is it important to collect this data?</li><li>Who will it help?</li></ul>|
|Conducting interviews||<ul><li>Who will you interview, and what will you ask them?</li><li>How will you feasibly interview them, and in what language?</li><li>Why is it important to interview these people? Who will it help?</li></ul>|
|Doing an experiment||<ul><li>What are the variables you want to measure, and how will you measure them?</li><li>How will you feasibly conduct the experiment?</li><li>Why is it important to do this experiment?</li><li>Who will it help?</li></ul>|
You can focus on one of these methods or combine multiple. Be sure to mention how your research will contribute to an existing field of study, cite your sources, and emphasize how being in Japan and/or learning from your professors will facilitate your plan.
Also, if you're proficient enough in Japanese, you can submit a Japanese version of your research plan. Personally, I translated my English plan into academic Japanese, then posted it in chunks to Lang8 — now HiNative — to have it corrected by native speakers. I toiled over this for weeks, so I wouldn't recommend it if you're not at least intermediate-advanced in Japanese already. It's definitely not necessary, especially if you want to attend an English program. But if you can pull it off, it will impress them.
If you're so inclined, you can even include a semester-by-semester or month-by-month timeline of the full two to three years of your trip. The interviewers know your plans will change somewhat once you get to Japan and you find out what's realistic — I don't even dare look back at my timeline because of how much of it didn't end up happening. So don't worry if it feels like you're drawing blueprints with your eyes closed. At this stage, they just want to see that you're dedicated enough to come up with a detailed, reasonable preliminary plan for your research.
2. Filling Out the Placement Preference Form
In addition to spelling out what you want to research, you'll also need to tell MEXT where you'd like to do that research. You get to specify up to three grad programs you'd like to attend in order of priority on the Placement Preference Form. However, it's super common for the government not to pick your first choice, especially if it's a private university, so make sure you're truly okay with ending up at any of them. Also, I do recommend putting down three universities instead of just one or two. It gives the government options, which makes the embassy more likely to recommend you.
You can also fill in the name of the professor you'd want to be your advisor at each university. If you've already contacted them, great! You should email them to get their preliminary approval before the interview at least (more about that later), but at this stage you can put their name down regardless. Bear in mind that you'll submit this form again if you pass the primary screening, so you can change the universities or update the order at that time.
3. Recommendation Letter
How will the MEXT panel tell whether you're capable enough to perform the academic feats you outlined in your proposal? Partially through a recommendation letter from the president/dean of the last university you attended or a previous academic advisor (i.e., any professor). In short, hunt down a school official who can wax poetic about your outstanding achievements and winning personality. For example, I asked my Japanese professor from undergrad to write mine. It's free format, but make sure the letter has an official-looking letterhead and signature before sending it in a sealed envelope.
4. Health Certificate
Also, like with most Japan-related ventures, you'll need to score a clean bill of health. Print out the MEXT Certificate of Health and have a doctor or physician fill it out to the best of their ability. You'll be required to bend over backwards in a few unusual ways — namely the chest x-ray, blood test, and urine sample — so get this done early to leave time for the results to come back. Some doctors have been known to scratch their heads upon sight of the form, which is written in English and Japanese, and question why it wants you to do so much. Thus, I recommend going to a family doctor you know well or a trusted facility with all the necessary equipment to make it as painless of an experience as possible. Handing over your bodily fluids is never fun, but rally, trooper, it's for a good cause.
5. Academic Transcripts
You've proven you're healthy and cool enough to impress at least one school official — but what about your grades? MEXT requires academic transcripts of any higher education you've completed, the grading scale at your previous college(s), a copy of your degree or prospective graduation certificate, and the standard MEXT application form found on your embassy's website. Japanese higher education tends to be on the lenient side when it comes to grading, so you probably don't need a 4.0 GPA, as long as your grades have been decent enough.
Since this is Japan, you'll of course also need to glue a proper 4.5 x 3.5 cm photo of your face onto the application form. If your country isn't touting a headshot booth on every street corner (unlike Japan), try ordering photos from your local drugstore and trimming one down to size. I'm pretty sure the employees at a certain Walgreens in Orlando know my face by heart after printing it so many times for Japan applications.
7. Optional Documents
We've gone through all the mandatory documents you'll need to gather, but you may also include optional documents to illustrate any relevant capabilities to the panel. These include abstracts of any theses you've already written, a certificate of language proficiency (from the JLPT, TOEFL, IELTS, etc.), a recommendation letter from your employer, and/or photos or videos of art or music you've created, if it's connected to your research project.
8. Reaching Out to Professors
Okay, here's the slightly intimidating part of preparing to apply for MEXT. Like I said, you have to email professors yourself to ask whether they'd consider accepting you as their advisee if you get the scholarship. Yes, this is way, way in advance. But it's okay — many professors are familiar with the long MEXT process and are used to answering this question from prospective students.
I started shooting out emails in May of 2018, after submitting my application but before the interview. The timing is up to you, but if you show up to the interview with preliminary approval from at least one professor, it will help convince them you're a safe bet.
Once you've built your leaning tower of documents, it's time to send it in and wait to hear the results. The MEXT process consists of two screenings: the Primary Screening from the embassy and the Second Screening from the Japanese government. But really, your only job is to pass the primary screening by submitting a strong enough application to score an interview, and then passing that interview. After that, the embassy or consulate does the legwork for you.
Japanese and English Language Tests
Before you interview, the embassy gives everyone a timed Japanese test and a timed English test, mostly on grammar and vocabulary. Essentially, they're making sure you're proficient enough in the language you want to take classes in (English or Japanese), as well as hopefully familiar enough with Japanese to at least communicate at a beginner's level. Most of the MEXT scholars I know are not N1-N2 level at Japanese even after living here, so you don't need to blow them away. Even so, any extra talent you can whip out will inspire confidence that you're capable of surviving in Japan on your own.
So you've shown the interviewers you're capable of speaking the language you want to take grad classes in. Now for the part of the MEXT process you've probably been having nightmares about: the interview at the consulate. You can expect about a 20-30 minute interview, and if it's in person, you'll leave all your electronics in a security box at the entrance. Dress professionally, especially considering how much moolah you're asking them to give you! I wore a simple collared black dress, which went over fine. Usually there are three interviewers; I had two native Japanese speakers and a native English-speaking consulate official I'd been exchanging emails with.
If you're able, tossing out a shitsureishimasu (失礼します, "excuse me") when you sit down and an arigatougozaimashita (ありがとうございました, "thank you") when it's over may impress them, or at least show you've looked up Japanese interview etiquette. But the main portion of the interview will be conducted in English, and they may not use Japanese with you at all. One interviewer asked me how the Japanese test was in Japanese, and I quipped that it was easy — just kidding! — which she seemed to get a kick out of. Regardless, if you don't speak any Japanese in the interview, it's typically no big deal, especially if you want to attend an English program.
Most of the interview questions are predictable, like:
- Why do you want to study this topic?
- How will your research benefit Japan?
- How confident are you in your ability to live independently in Japan?
- Why have you chosen these master's programs?
- Are these programs taught in English or Japanese?
- Have you contacted any professors at these universities yet? (Hopefully yes!)
- What's your Plan B if you don't get the scholarship?
For these questions, prepare a clean, concise answer that you can expand on if necessary. The interviewers probably aren't experts on your subject, so no need to inundate them with jargon. If you clearly explain why your research is an important contribution to the field, how flexible you are in tweaking your plan if need be, and how committed you are to being a cultural ambassador to Japan, you've done all you can do.
But as any embassy-recommended MEXT scholar can tell you, you'll probably get a hardball question asking whether you'd freak out and flee Japan if something alarming happened. For instance, mine was, "If North Korea sent a missile over Japan while you were there, what would you do?" I answered, "Well, if I'm gonna die, might as well die in Japan!" Then we all had a good laugh, and one interviewer offered to attend my funeral. So if you suspect your interviewers have a sense of humor, don't be afraid to throw in a well-timed joke. As long as you've dressed nicely and acted politely, some genuine light-heartedness can go a long way to endearing you to the panel.
Back when I applied, I was so riddled with anxiety about the interview that I wanted to be as prepared as humanly possible. So, true to my neurotic form, I typed up a 20-page document of my answers to potential questions and recited them until I could (and probably did) describe my love for the Japanese language in my sleep. And honestly, I think it helped.
You don't have to obsess over memorizing your answers quite as much as I did, but some careful forethought and rehearsal will make you feel calmer and more prepared, despite the pressure of the interview.
If the embassy passes you through the primary screening and recommends your application to the Japanese government, the MEXT board will be the one who gives you the final approval. Not much to worry about here in the second screening, assuming they don't discover any undeclared crime in your past.
Requesting Letters of Acceptance from Professors
While you're waiting for the ministry to declare you worthy, you'll need to gather Letters of Acceptance (LoA) from all the professors you put on your placement preference form. On these letters, the professors write why they're tentatively willing to be your advisor, should you be placed at their university.
My consulate gave me a template to email the professors, which they filled out and sent back as hard copies to my address. I then forwarded them to the consulate via — you guessed it — more snail mail. But I hear some universities do it all digitally now, so you may not have to lick as many envelopes as I did.
Then, once you've passed the second screening, MEXT will notify you of which university you'll be attending. It'll be one of the schools you put on your final Placement Preference Form, but other than that, the choice is up to the head honchos in the Japanese bureaucracy. For me, the news of my fate graced my inbox about six months after I passed the primary screening. Unsurprisingly, MEXT tends to place students at public universities more often than private ones. It's improbable that they'll waive expensive private school tuition for you if they can find you a spot at a cheap public university instead. For example, private Waseda University was my first choice, but MEXT sent me to my second choice, public Nagoya University. No hard feelings, Abe-san. As long as you're open to being plopped at any one of your choices (and likely slumming it at a public university like the rest of us), you're good to go.
Getting Accepted into the Grad Program
It's almost all over — you've been approved by the Japanese government, accepted by at least one professor, and placed at a Japanese university. But before you set sail for the Land of the Rising Sun, there's one more step: applying to the master's program itself and passing any entrance exams or interviews the program may require. I sent my program the same full application I'd sent the consulate, a copy of my passport, an extra letter of reference, and my final acceptance letter from MEXT. Since I was a MEXT scholar, the admission fees were waived.
Then came a quick Skype interview, where they asked me basic questions like what I wanted to research, why I was interested in their program, and why I picked my advisor. I actually lost my voice beforehand and had to type all my answers, which one of the professors read aloud in a booming British accent (I've never sounded better!). In my program, the interviews are mostly to make sure the students speak English well. And from what I've gathered, even if you don't perform perfectly on the interview or entrance exam, you'll likely get in anyway if you're flaunting the gold seal of approval from MEXT.
Congratulations, You Got MEXT! Here's Some Advice
If you've successfully gotten the scholarship, congratulations! Enjoy being a sugar baby of the Japanese ministry — I know I have. Here's some extra advice for your life as a MEXT scholar:
Get Your School's Help for Housing
Your university may make you live in a dorm for at least the first few months. I moved out of mine after six months because, well, I wanted to drink chūhai2 freely in a place that wasn't crawling with undergrads. Getting your own apartment as a foreign student can be tricky, so ask for help and take advantage of any apartment-hunting services your school offers. Also, finding an English-speaking realtor at Minimini or Sumitomo — one who's used to working with international students in the area — could help you understand all the fine print and avoid unnecessary fees.
Know That Japanese Grad School Is Pretty Chill
Japanese grad school might defy your expectations, especially if you're accustomed to a more active, less passive education system. In my program, if you show up to class and do the report and/or presentation at the end of the semester, you get an A. The one time I had to take a test, the professor assured us he would not let us fail. Your experience may vary depending on whether your professors embrace a more Western or Japanese teaching style, but generally, I found it to be way more relaxed than in the U.S.
Join a "Circle" To Make Friends
If your school has an international connections club or "circle" (サークル)3, joining is an excellent way to make friends. Everyone there is presumably interested in socializing with foreigners, and it's likely that at least some speak English well. Before the pandemic KO'd my social life, cultural exchange events were my main way of meeting internationally-minded Japanese students outside of my all-foreigner grad program.
Never Miss the Deadlines for Proving Your Presence in Japan
As mentioned, my university requires me to sign a sheet at the student support desk every month to prove I'm still in Japan. Otherwise, my stipend doesn't come. If I sign by the first deadline in the first few days of the month, the money arrives at the end of the month. If I sign by the second deadline at the end of the month, the money comes several weeks later. This applies even during school breaks. I know people who have missed the deadlines and lost whole stipend checks, so for the sake of your wallet, try to stay on top of this.
All in all, despite my MEXT experience getting taken down a few notches by a global catastrophe, I still don't regret all the effort I put into getting here. So if you love Japan but loathe the thought of teaching English to small children on the JET Program, MEXT might be a promising option for you. It's not the easiest road to living in Japan, and you may not get the scholarship on your first try. But if you truly want to pursue a master's degree in Japan, it's worth jumping through all the hoops.
You may now be thinking about applying for this program. If so, listen to this podcast episode that we recorded. Emily shares her experience through the MEXT research scholarship that she couldn't cover in this article.
For more information, check your local embassy or consulate's website. And if the latest information isn't available yet, here's a helpful pamphlet from the Japan Student Services Organization. May the funds be with you!