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Saturday, 12 November 2016

MEXT research scholarship advice, part 1: Before starting the application


In this post:

-Overview of MEXT and Universities in Japan


-Finding a university and research group

-Contacting supervisors

Overview of MEXT and Universities in Japan

MEXT is a government scholarship program that will cover all your tuition for research at any university in Japan and in addition give you a living allowance of roughly 145,000 yen / month (depending on which city and other factors). If you have no dependents, you can probably live off this in most cities without an extra source of income. In Tokyo and other large cities it may not be quite enough, depending on your choice of accommodation etc. But often, relatively cheap dormitory places are offered to international students for at least the first year. [Edit: For my monthly budget, see here.]

Here are the official pages, I won’t repeat what you can find there, although as I say it’s not much. Please check you are eligible first of all.

You can apply for the scholarship either directly through a university or through the embassy of your country of citizenship (NOT residence). These two options are usually called “university recommendation” and “embassy recommendation”. The embassy guidelines from last year are here:

Japanese universities are divided into national, public and private depending on their funding source. The universities that are usually considered “the best” in Japan are as follows (in very approximate order of prestige/ranking):

1. Tokyo University “Toudai”
2. Kyoto University “Kyodai”
3. Keio University (private, located in Tokyo)
4. Waseda University (private, located in Tokyo)
5. Osaka University “Handai”
6. Tokyo Institute of Technology “Tokyo Tech”
7. Nagoya University “Meidai”
8. Kyushu University (located in Fukuoka)
9. Hokkaido University (located in Sapporo)
10. Tohoku University (located in Sendai)

Apart from Keio, Waseda, and Tokyo Tech, these are known as the “National Seven”, a historical group that generally receives the most funding for research activities. These ten universities are usually the most competitive for entry, but don't be put off. Students who come with their own funding are always appealing to any department.

An important thing to note is that private and public universities have higher tuition fees than national ones. Since MEXT promises to cover all tuition fees, this makes them less likely to place you at a private institution. However, it is certainly possible to be placed there. I will come back to this later.

If you are planning to study a taught masters, make sure you search for a course with lectures offered in English. Kind of an obvious point, but unless you’re near-fluent in Japanese there’s no way you’ll cope. It is not standard for courses to be given in English, so don't assume that they are without checking.

I advise you read through most of this guide (or at least the official guidelines) before contacting professors or starting on your application, so that you know what you’ll be facing. Also read the information in the links that I provide if you have time. MEXT has far more pitfalls than the average scholarship application, and by reading up on it you will improve your chances greatly.


As I said above, there are essentially two ways to apply for MEXT: through your embassy or through a university in Japan.

One of the most confusing things about the study in Japan webpage is that it says the research scholarship is a maximum of 1.5 or 2 years, and fails to explain properly what this means.

What actually happens is if you apply through the embassy, you will normally arrive as a “research student” (kenkyuusei) not formally enrolled on a course. From April / October you have 2 / 1.5 years to take the entrance exam at your university and enrol as a masters or doctoral student. You can then apply for an extension of the scholarship for 2 or 3 years respectively. After a masters you can apply again to start a PhD. Generally it is not possible to start directly on a course, because you have to pass the entrance exam which you can only take in Japan.

For university recommendation this is more vague; you will probably arrive as a research student, but some universities prefer you to apply directly to a course. For example it seems Toudai requires a GRE score instead of the doctoral entrance exam for university recommended candidates, and you start your PhD directly on arrival. See individual university department websites for details (they put the new information up each year in about October).

The whole application stage takes at least a year from you contacting supervisors and preparing your documents to arriving in Japan. You will especially need time for the research proposal.

For embassy recommendation, the application is around May/June, and you can then choose to arrive in Japan after 1 year (April) or 1.5 years (October). You will not have the “final final” result until about February, but you’ll have a good idea if you’re going by September.

For university recommendation, normally application is around November-December and you arrive the next October. Again, see individual university websites or contact professors for the specifics.

When you arrive as a research student/kenkyuusei there is an optional free 4-6 month Japanese course. If you take the full intensive course they are generally a lot of work, but depending on the university, you may have the option of just taking a couple of classes a week instead (especially if your level is high). The content and structure will be dependent on the university. I highly recommend you take this course if you are not conversationally fluent in Japanese. Even if you are - hey, it's free!

Finding a university and research group

I had it fairly easy here since my supervisor knew some researchers in Japan and gave me their details. Ask around your department in case there’s someone who knows someone; having a connection will give you a big advantage.

Remember you’ll have to work with this person and stay in this city for a few years. Consider your Japanese level, budget etc. Seek out professors well in advance. The embassy will give you a form where you can write 3 preferred unis/supervisors before the interview. My embassy actually requires you to do this, but even if yours doesn't, it will be seen as a good thing if you’ve already done your homework. In addition, you may run out of time later on if you leave it too late to find an appropriate course or supervisor.

Make sure the department you’re considering actually does the research you’re interested in, and try to choose a supervisor whose interests match your own. Nothing wrong with a bit of google searching of their name in English and Japanese to see if they have a personal page etc. If you don’t speak Japanese and don’t know whether your supervisor speaks good English, it might be worth trying to find that out beforehand too.

Should the prestige of the university be a consideration? If you plan to stay in Japan long-term outside academia then going to one of the top few universities will make your life SO much easier when job-hunting that it's worth thinking about in my opinion*. But if you are doing a PhD or research-based masters you should also consider that a) number and quality of publications and a good reference are more important when applying for a postdoc and b) a poor supervisor can really make your life miserable. On the other hand, a more famous university may have a bigger budget for sending you to conferences and a more international atmosphere that's easier to fit into. For a mostly-taught course, you might have little regular contact with your supervisor and be more swayed by the prestige (or finances) of the university itself.

[*As an aside: when selecting new graduate students to employ, a good 95% of Japanese companies couldn't care less about your grades or even what your main subject was beyond "science or humanities". Now isn't that a great motivator...]

More advice about choosing a university and supervisor:

Contacting supervisors

For the first email, I’d recommend writing in Japanese if you can handle it. Academics are busy people who get a lot of emails and the chance of them replying is that much higher if they can do so in their native language. And of course, they may be more encouraged to take you on if they can see you speak some Japanese. Remember though that you will need all your keigo powers for this email.

Get a Japanese friend to check that your message is understandable and appropriately humble. “But there are no Japanese people in my area T_T” you reply – well, through the magic of the internet it’s easy to find a Japanese penpal who will help you out in various ways in return for chatting in English with you.

(Of course, please take all reasonable precautions when contacting people you don’t know over the internet and take care of your personal information. I’ve used this site a lot to find penpals, it has relatively good privacy settings:

When you write to the professor, keep your email as short as formal Japanese will allow. As I say, academics are busy people. Rather than talk about your academic successes in the email, attach your research proposal (if applicable) and a short CV with relevant achievements and qualifications.

If they reply, you can discuss your plans in more detail and ask them further questions. They might also suggest you chat on Skype. One professor whom I contacted early on also offered to help me with university recommendation if I wanted - unfortunately there was no way I could have done the health form in time.

Example email:

Dear Prof. [Magneto],

I am a [masters] student studying [advanced tomfoolery] at [the University of Hard Knocks]. I am contacting you because I will graduate in [September] and I am looking for a supervisor for [a PhD in being awesome] starting in [April].

[If someone recommended you contact the professor, put that here. And/or write about what in their research interests you and how that relates to what you’d like to do. Why are you contacting them, not someone else?]

I will apply for the MEXT scholarship to study in Japan [through my embassy in May]. I would like to ask if you would consider me as a student if I gain the scholarship.

I attach my CV. If you would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Thank you,

Kind regards,
[University of Hard Knocks]

Be aware that if you include a hyperlink to some website or use an email address that is not an academic one ( or .edu or whatever), it increases the chance of your first message ending up in the spam filter.

If they don’t reply within a couple of weeks, you can try resending the email. In any case, unless you already have some connection with a potential supervisor, be prepared to contact more than you actually need a reply from. Academia remains one of the only professions where it’s fine to completely ignore a certain percentage of emails…

I've heard it can be hard to find email addresses for some researchers. In this case you may consider contacting the graduate office of the department to ask, or calling the researchers up if a phone number is given on the webpage. Be aware of the time difference!

I've also heard some embassies say not to contact the professors before passing the primary screening. I think this is an utterly stupid rule. Ultimately they can't check if you've ever talked to the prof (I mean, if you knew them or worked with them before, what can you do about it?). I think the main point here is you should not ask the profs for letters of admission or say that you already have the scholarship while it's unconfirmed. I would still contact them, just don't bring this up to the embassy.

I saw in some other guides people saying things like “don't expect the professor to be too enthusiastic, you're asking an unknown person for a favour after all” but I kind of disagree with this. At least if you're doing a PhD or research-based masters, you are essentially offering them the opportunity for free funding for their group. Free labour for them. If you have a good CV and grades, you should pique their interest. If you have both that and a connection to the supervisor (someone you can namedrop in your email) I would take them being unenthusiastic as something of a warning sign. Consider whether you have other options in this case.

Continued in Part 2


  1. Thank you so much for your articles! They are very informative. I'm applying for the Undergrad scholarship. I'm quite nervous about the math exam but I hope to pass.

    1. I'm glad that you found them helpful. But please be aware that the undergraduate scholarship application process is quite different and actually I don't know much about it...

  2. Thank you very much for this information. It has been very helpful and I really did learn a lot. Kudos!!

    1. Hey, thanks for leaving a comment :) Good luck on getting the scholarship!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Thank you very much, this is very helpful. I was kinda afraid of sending mail to the proffesor but this gave me the courage i needed :))