Toudai’s Akamon, circa 2008

Once in a while, people tell me that they want to study in Japan. Most of the time, they speak no Japanese. Fortunately for these people, the Japanese government has been actively pushing a programme that will see numerous top Japanese universities offer full undergraduate courses in English.

Known as the Global 30 Project, the initiative by MEXT intends to bring 300,000 international students to Japan by 2020.


Currently, 13 schools have been selected to participate in the project, including University of Tokyo (東京大学), Kyoto University (京都大学), Keio University (慶應義塾大学) and Waseda University (早稲田大学).

Recruitment poster for Kyoto U’s anime interest group, circa 2011

Waseda University actually started its own English degree programmes in 2004, under the School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) and for a long time was the only option for lazy Americans who want to study in Tokyo without knowing a word of Japanese.

Among the rest of the schools selected for the Global 30 Project, the level of commitment appears to vary quite a fair bit, with some schools offering just a few niche degree programmes, while others are attempting to emulate Waseda in establishing a standalone international college.

Most of the schools are offering some form of liberal arts education, but Nagoya University (名古屋大学) is taking in students for the 2011 school year for both undergraduate and graduate research programmes in science and engineering. I believe Nagoya University is also the fastest school (excluding those with existing English programmes) in getting its programme up and running under the initiative, as other schools such as University of Tokyo and Ritsumeikan University (立命館大学) will only start taking in students next year.

Incidentally, a professor from Ritsumeikan will be in Singapore this Friday to explain and promote the school’s new English-based programme.

Lawson at Toudai’s Hongo Campus, complete with Toudai’s logo

University of Tokyo

University of Tokyo (aka Toudai) has come up with a Web 2.0-style logo for what it calls PEAK (Programs in English at Komaba), which is a really fancy way of saying that international students enrolled in its new English degree programmes will get to spend four years in Toudai’s secondary campus, far away from the main Hongo campus with its iconic Akamon and Yasuda Auditorium.

Other than a handful of graduate students, Komaba is where freshmen and sophomores study before moving on to Hongo. This means that foreign students in PEAK will probably be left alone at Komaba after the second year… Not to mention the fact that extracurriculars and club activities mostly take place at the main campus, so it’s going to be a pain in the ass. (See map.)

PEAK will start admitting students in Fall 2012. The application forms will be made available on the website starting from 1 Aug 2011.

Recruitment poster for Toudai’s animation club I found at Komaba Campus this past spring

School Terms

Interestingly, most English programmes such as PEAK are choosing to follow American and European college terms even though school years in Japan all start in April. Toudai is even evaluating the (remote) possibility of moving the entire school to a fall intake system in order to become more internationalized.

Personally, I don’t see how this will ever fly given that the entire corporate recruitment cycle in Japan is dependant on having April as the start of the fiscal year. Toudai graduates would be at a disadvantage if they graduated five months after everyone else in their batch had already found a job. Of course, given Toudai’s awe-inspiring reputation in Japan, it might just end up causing the entire employment system to change to suit its fancy.


The main problem with English programmes run by Japanese schools is that they end up being even more isolated from the rest of the school when foreign students have enough trouble fitting in as it is. (Okay, I suppose the real main problem is that most professors in Japan can’t teach in English.) The entire college experience becomes very different for these students, especially when their classes are physically located away from the rest of the student body. It’s almost like a foreigner ghetto of sorts.

Leftist students at Kyoto University protesting the mutual security treaty between Japan and the USA that will lead to Japan being dragged into a war

Entry requirements for undergraduate programmes in English are generally less stringent than their equivalent Japanese-language counterparts at the same school. This is because very few foreigners can score well in the horrifying mess of rote learning known as the National Center Test for University Admissions that Japanese high school students spend their whole lives preparing for while resisting the urge to fling themselves in front of an incoming train on the Chuo Line.

This means that programmes such as SILS generally have some form of stigma attached to them when it comes to seeking employment in Japan, where brand name elitism and social stratification have been perfected to an exact science. In a country that ranks not just universities but every individual faculty of every school on a national level, SILS is not the “real” Waseda.

Of course, employers back home are unlikely to know the subtle difference between Toudai and Toudai Komaba, so PEAK participants will no doubt be able to proudly proclaim that they are Toudai students, drawing loud cheers of adulation from fellow fans of Love Hina.

Bicycles parked on Toudai grounds have stickers that indicate the faculty of their owners

Engineering Diversity

For the Japanese government, the long-term strategic consideration for pushing internationalism and English programmes in school is the country’s rapidly ageing population. The country needs skill immigrants and foreign business partners familiar with its cultural intricacies, but the language and cultural barriers make it a very difficult for foreign students to choose Japan for their college education.

I am kind of cynical about such initiatives. At some level, it starts off as an idealistic pursue of internationalism and cultural exchange mixed with long-term pragmatic goals, but the implementation often degenerates into yet another bureaucratic performance index, where the figures and statistics take on an importance of their own. Global 30 may indeed bring 300,000 foreign students to Japan by 2020, but it’s hard to imagine the quality of education they will receive in English in a country where few can speak the language at the high school level.

Will the English programmes provide meaningful value for the foreign students and the larger Japanese college education system? Or will they serve as a superficial facade of diversity — The equivalent of a token black guy being Photoshopped into a student handbook cover photo to showcase the school’s diversity? I guess we will find out in a decade or two.

For now, the Japanese government can throw a bunch of impressive numbers around, the participating schools can claim to be international education hubs and the foreign students have an easier backdoor into brand-name Japanese schools. Win-win all around, I suppose.

Another poster for Kyoto U’s anime interest group, next to a poster for the Korean student group


Okay, so it’s not all bad if you ignore my cynical asides, which can really be said for most things in life.

In fact, for non-Japanese speakers genuinely interested in studying in Japan, programmes such as Waseda’s SILS are actually pretty nice options to have. You do get the opportunity to live and study in Japan and you will eventually pick up the language during your time there. You will also make friends with a lot of Koreans.

If you are interested in studying in Japan and you don’t speak Japanese, take a look through the official sites:

Those looking for ways to fund their studies can consider the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship for foreigners. It’s a full-ride scholarship from the Japanese government with no strings attached.

I guess this post was really just an excuse for me to post the highly irrelevant photos I took at various Japanese universities over the years.

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