What I Learned about University Life in Japan

By Wanyu Chang : Student at Tokyo University
December 22,2015
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University of Tokyo's Komaba campus. (Photo by route134/PIXTA)

In 2008 the Japanese government initiated the 300,000 International Students Plan to stimulate the economy and internationalize Japanese society. The government wants to boost the number of foreign students attending Japanese universities to 300,000 by 2020.

One year after the start of the program 13 universities were selected as part of the “Global 30” project to attract foreign students. This program allows exchange students without Japanese proficiency at the time of admission to study at any of the selected universities.

I decided to take advantage of this program and enrolled in the University of Tokyo, which is one of the top universities in Asia. As an international student, it`s not surprising to notice the differences between schools in different countries. It was only after I attended a summer session at Yale University this summer that I truly realized some of the “peculiar” things about university life in Japan.

I discovered two unique things about Japanese universities: one is the intense involvement of students in extra-curricular club activities, the other is that classes tend to focus less on discussion and more on lectures.

Intense bukatsu culture

Many international students are surprised by the bukatsu (after-school clubs) culture and some find it extremely difficult to understand and integrate into such an environment. With weekly, if not daily, practices and meetings, it’s hard for them to imagine that they will have enough time to study or have a private life.

For example, the University of Tokyo’s oenbu—a cheering club consisting mostly of men—has practice three times a week and attends sporting events to cheer for the university’s team almost every weekend. In some cases, clubs in Japanese universities require all the members to live in the same dorm and practice every single day. There are even clubs that expect members to attend practice during summer and winter holidays.

While sport teams at American universities can be just as demanding as Japanese bukatsu, players are seriously committed to their team and university. Perhaps what makes life in Japanese university clubs so unique is the mindset of the members. Instead of thinking in terms of how something will benefit them or is it worth doing, they ask themselves, “is this important to me as well as to other people?”

Why classes in Japan are so boring?

Another big difference between Japanese universities and their counterparts in other countries are the way classes are taught. Although many foreign students like that class sizes tend to be smaller in Japan, some feel that classes are informative yet less inspiring.

“I find many Japanese professors teach their classes in a lecture style, and non-Japanese teachers tend to have discussion-based classes,” says Sophia University student Tomomi Nakada.

When I took a theater class at Yale by Professor Marc Robinson, I was impressed that there was always active discussion among participants. The professor never gave students “right answers” for questions. Instead, he tried to lead the discussion in a certain direction by asking questions and talking about his own interpretation of a play.

According to Professor Jin Sato of the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia at University of Tokyo, there are more fundamental reasons that cause the difference in teaching style. Those reasons are “the lack of pedagogical training and the lack of time for preparation,” he says.

Since facilitation is crucial for discussion-based classes, a professor has to pay close attention to the flow of the discussion, ensure that the class stays on topic, and make sure that key points are covered in the discussion. Such facilitation abilities take more effort and require experience and specific skills. In Japan, professors are not trained in these skills.

Professor Sato also pointed out that “because professors at Ivy League universities do not have that many classes to teach, they have enough time to fully prepare for classes—they can design the class content to be interesting and educational.”

At some Japanese universities, on the other hand, professors are assigned with so many classes that they just simply don’t have enough time to commit themselves for class preparation. “It’s no wonder why so many international students feel many Japanese classes are boring and fall asleep in those classes,” Professor Sato says.