How uni­ver­si­ty is dif­fer­ent in Japan

Having studied at a Japanese university for a couple of months now, I have started to understand how things work here. As someone who has experienced the French and German education system, I found many differences and particularities I find worth sharing.

Campus of Hitotsubashi University
The Hitotsubashi University campus is always busy - and there is more than one reason why! Photo: private

Part of spending a semester abroad is getting to know a new environment, learning to adapt, and to see one’s own everyday life at home through a different lens. I have only been in Tokyo for a couple of months, but my stay here is already checking all these boxes. In this blog, I would like to tell you about the differences I found between studying at HU and Hitotsubashi university, and between the European and Japanese education systems more broadly.

At Hitotsubashi University, almost all studying happens at the main campus. However, you’ll mostly find undergraduates here. As a matter of fact, there are mostly international students in the graduate programmes. I asked my Japanese buddy about it, and she just said that there is very little point in doing a graduate degree here, unless you want to pursue a doctorate. On the regular job market, she says, it’s not necessarily an advantage. However, Japanese people will see you as a very smart person: “Amatagaii!”

For me, this was a contrast to what I am used to, as in France it is practically a must to do a master’s degree. Another difference is that Japanese students take four to five years to finish their undergraduate degree. It is typically four, but they can extend it for personal reasons, side jobs, internships and even going abroad. I have met lots of students who have gone on a semester abroad or are planning to do so, and many have told me they would like to go to Germany.

Attendance rules and grades

As my Tokyo semester started, one of the first differences I was confronted with was that attendance is graded. You have to go to class or points will be taken off your grade. The same goes for being late. If you are sick, you need to present a doctor’s note or it will be counted as an absence. Some lecturers are very strict about this: one of my friends has broken her foot and although the professor has seen her on her crutches, she still counts her as absent on days when my friend is in too much pain to go to university. I personally find that quite excessive. Luckily, not all professors are like that! The upside of this insistence on attendance is that everybody has to go to university, which allows students to meet. As an exchange student, I do appreciate this.

Overall, I like the university’s grading system. At HU, most of my grades depend on one exam at the end of the semester, whereas here it’s more of a continuous workload and one learns more throughout the semester. There are multiple assignments or presentations and maybe an additional exam at the end. Personally, I find this to be less stressful.

Participation and culture

I have many classes in which, on average, we are only ten people. Some revolve around group discussion, where active participation is encouraged. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the norm: my Japanese undergrad friends have told me that that they are rarely asked for their opinions and point of view. One of my buddies confirmed that this had been the case throughout her high school years.

After having these conversations, I noticed in several situations how the Japanese students don’t seem used to expressing themselves. In one of my courses, I happen to be the only exchange student and apart from myself, there is only one more student who asks questions. The six other Japanese do not. A friend of mine told me that in one of his courses the professor asked students to give their political opinion, which would not be a problem in Europe in a class setting, but this made many of the students uneasy. Of course, there are exceptions. Some “Europeans” do not participate, and some “Asians” do. These are just tendencies that I have noticed and heard about.

After studying in France and then in Germany, I have to say I do enjoy my studies here in Japan. It provides a new perspective on learning, teaching and on university life. For example, here, there are also campus clubs, activities and even a university festival which makes the campus a lively and social place to be. I really feel all these new impressions and experiences are allowing me to grow as a person - the exchange is definitely meeting my expectations!

(Published: 27 November 2023)