Studying in Japan without a scholarship

I was 15 when I made up my mind to attend university in Japan. At that time, armed with JLPT 3 proficiency and a whole lot of enthusiasm, there was nothing I wanted more than to spend a whole 4 years of my life soaking up the language. After 4 years of studying Japanese at MOELC and 2 years of H2 Japanese, I was adamant that my study of the language should not stop there, and what better than finishing a whole degree in Japanese?


Back then, funding options for those wanting to study in Japan were rather limited. The only bond-free option was the Monbusho scholarship, while all other available scholarships (that I knew of) had some sort of bond attached. Since I was not considering English-medium programs at all, this meant that if I did not get the Monbusho scholarship, I would have to pay my own way to Japan. 

It then turned out that yes, I got eliminated at the final interview round for the Monbusho scholarship and that I was on my own. After lots of back and forth and discussion with the parental units, it was decided that I would attend a year of Japanese language school at JASSO Tokyo before applying for university in Japan. 

Japanese Language Schools

Now, here was the catch – JASSO Tokyo required every applicant to have a point of contact that had to be physically in Japan in order to facilitate the application process. We managed to get a family friend to help out after some impassioned begging. In those pre-smartphone days, this process also meant a whole lot of paperwork, reprinting each sheet and rewriting each time a mistake was made. This, I was told, was essential to make a good impression and get through the bureaucratic Japanese system. 

Eventually, after many trees were sacrificed, I received my student visa and was finally able to head to Japan. 

For those without a willing and able point of contact in Japan, there are other language schools that do issue student visas (Ryuugaku visa). Interestingly, each school has its own target population of students – JASSO Tokyo at that time was mainly recruiting from China and the Middle East, whilst some other schools tended to be more popular with Malaysians, Vietnamese and Koreans instead. 


Most Japanese-medium degree programs in Japan require prospective international students to take the EJU (Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students). Depending on the major/faculty one is applying for, the requirements may include either Math I/Math II, Science or Social Studies in either English or Japanese as well. 

The one year I spent at JASSO Tokyo was focused on preparing for this exam. The school day was not too different than that of a regular high school – we had Japanese classes in the mornings, math and social studies in the afternoons. There were regular tests and quizzes, as well as extracurricular activities from time to time with the aim of helping us international students acclimatize to Japan and Japanese culture.

For Singaporeans, the approach might seem excessively focused on rote-learning. I remember zoning out frequently during lessons and getting really, really bored by autumn that year. Most people lost their motivation and started skipping classes after the EJU, but for those of us who were angling for scholarships (read: free money), we had to keep up appearances and drag ourselves to class each morning.

Choosing a university

After a year of language and humanities classes, it was finally time to make big decisions. My first choice was public university Hitotsubashi University, notorious for only accepting a few students each year. I also applied to a few other universities, namely Sophia University, Ritsumeikan University, and Chuo University. 

Applying to a Japanese-medium degree program in Japan as an international student usually means an interview and sometimes a second exam held by the university in question. Most schools also require an essay as part of the application documents. A level scores, despite the high regard they are held in Singapore and the UK, have only perfunctory value when it comes to applying for university in Japan. (I.e. an important, but not crucial part of the entire application package). In most cases, EJU scores and doing well in the interview has more impact on whether or not one makes it into a university or not. Certain universities back then were also known to have preferential policies towards students from particular countries. 

Here’s a summary of my options:

Hitotsubashi UniversityCheap, public university, highly-ranked, difficult to get in.
Sophia UniversityExpensive, private university, highly-ranked
Ritsumeikan UniversityMid-range cost, cheaper living environment, international reputation, scholarships
Chuo UniversitySafety choice

I did not manage to get into Hitotsubashi University. The exam question, which I can still vaguely remember to this day, contained an indecipherable Confucian quote that applicants were supposed to write an essay in response to. I was also unable to apply to other public universities as many of them had interviews on the exact same day, ensuring that only genuinely interested students and those with teleporting/cloning powers would be able to apply. There was even a rumour floating around that there was a high school in China known for sending its students to apply to top Japanese universities, taking up space but not actually matriculating unless they got into the top of the top…

I did, however, get into the other 3 universities that I applied for. 

My Acceptance Letter from Sophia University

The final decision

Ultimately, I decided on Ritsumeikan University. While I admit that I might have been swayed by the regal, laid-back atmosphere of Kyoto when I visited for the interview, other more practical factors informed my decision. Firstly, Kyoto had significantly cheaper living costs than Tokyo. For the amount I would need to pay to rent a tiny apartment in an undesirable location in central Tokyo, I could get a rather comfortable mansion (no not those massive villas but more like a nicer apartment) in Kyoto. 

Ritsumeikan also offered generous scholarships for international students and a tuition reduction of up to 50% for those with good grades. One point that stood out for me was how the school took an active stance in increasing its global reputation. Back then, I had already planned to do a Masters’s out of Japan, and attending a university that was recognizable overseas would help my case if not anything else. 

So that meant I had to pack up my life in Tokyo to make the journey to the west, which is another story for another time. 

About the author

Translator, writer, and all-around multilingual person.
Always on the lookout for interesting people and projects in Japanese/English/Chinese.