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Steven (MEXT Direct Placement - Tohoku University)

Hi all, I am Steven and I am currently a freshman undergraduate studying information engineering at Tohoku University. When I am not studying or engaging in hardcore club activities, I love to hop into a rental car alone and explore the wilderness of Tohoku (Tohoku's vast nature is unfortunately, also synonymous to the depopulation crisis that we are facing here...

I came to Japan under the unpopular route - MEXT Scholarship (direct placement), which allowed me to bypass the usual 1 year preparatory education and enroll in a Japanese degree directly. I'll try to cover my experiences with MEXT and perhaps offer a bit of my insights on what is it like to blend into a overwhelmingly Japanese environment without any adjustment period.

My journey to MEXT Direct Placement

I was a bit too free during my army days after passing JLPT N1, so I decided to self-study the Japanese high school assessment books on a collapsible field chair during my outfields. It was a steep learning curve, but I eventually managed to clear the 3 Math books (数学I, II, III), as well as the Japanese physics syllabus by self-studying. Japanese Chemistry is arguably easier than H2 Chemistry, so I just took a few weeks to memorize the odd organic Chemistry stuff such as the names of synthetic polymers. These books really helped and the MEXT selection tests became manageable.

After clearing the document screening round and written tests in the embassy, I was given a list of universities which I can choose to apply to under direct placement. Strangely, the University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto (except for the English programs) were missing on the list, so I went with Tohoku University, which is very reputable in the field of scientific research.

There was no additional interview/written test whatsoever, and I did not hear anything from the embassy or Tohoku University for 6 months straight. The long wait was arduous, especially coupled with the frustration from NS. Finally, in January, I received an unofficial result from Tohoku University while being deployed to a Thai jungle. I jumped out of the Land Rover I was rotting in, and celebrated the glimpse of hope with days of unhealthy feast in Sai Yok Camp's canteen.

The final confirmation from the embassy came in at around Mid-February, and in less than 2 months, I packed my bags and embarked on a new chapter of life in Sendai, Japan.

What is it like blending into a homogenous Japanese environment

My biggest fear when I first stepped into Japan was in fact adjusting to the social life here. And with my university being 300 kilometers north of Tokyo, the level of international exposure among the Japanese students is in fact, relatively limited.

The Japanese novels that I had read reminded me that the Japanese people are 'behaviorists'. I spent a lot of time researching Japanese behavior by grinding countless Youtube reels, but I still felt out of place when I first stepped foot into my university. Crazy permed hair that drops down to almost nose level, leather shoes shinier than military parade boots... You name it. With my hair being quite short after leaving the army a mere month ago, my appearance was an immediate giveaway of a Gaijin. The Singaporean pragmatism inside my bones is also quite incompatible with the environment around me - while I was busy crafting a CV for internships and grinding hard for a high GPA in sem 1, the Japanese students around me seemed to couldn't care less about these things.

Despite us sticking out like sore thumbs, me and other international students received quite a fair bit of interest from the curious Japanese 18 year-olds. We were befriended in the international communications circle, and I even developed a sense of belonging there. However, the interest faded about 3 months into university as the Japanese students settle down in their own social circles.「留学生です」「へー留学生なんだ」, and the standard Japanese discourse resumes. It almost feels like the Japanese students admitting that we are trying hard to assimilate, but in fact we only reached the level of integration and they are telling us they are already comfortable with that. 「日本語難しいですね」would be another fantastic example carrying that nuance.

So what happened after 3 months is, I was essentially on the same playing field as other Japanese students when it comes to socializing. It can be a good thing or bad thing depending on how you view it - the good thing being that discrimination is almost non-existent, the bad thing being that one has to prove himself attractive from the Japanese point of view. I found the latter to be quite troubling as it sometimes conflicts with the values I subscribe to. I would not go all out here as some of them are unpopular opinions, but the rough idea is: adopting some characteristics in the typical Japanese's personality is just not...conducive for your human development in the long run, in my opinion.

However! With these being said, I actually strongly appreciate the environment I am in. My Japanese peers showed a lot of respect towards those who hail from different backgrounds. The fact that we are given a chance to be on the same playing field as them in socializing shows that Japan is more inclusive than you think - a stark contrast to many other racially homogenous countries.

And while blending in may sound unpragmatic, think about the intense battle for merit and prestige back home. A 4-year degree in Japan allows you to forget about the mad competition for internships, professor recommendations to reputable companies, and the constant cost-benefit analysis you are forced to partake every minute in order to graduate with the maximum glamour. Think being able to choose between chasing unpragmatic stuff such as club activities (部活) and chasing pragmatism such as working experience and GPA as a luxury rather than a compromise of Japanese universities.

What I have realized so far is that, very few study destinations outside of Japan allow you choose your own balance like this.

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Simon Ma
Simon Ma
23 sept 2023

Nice reflections Qing Song. Would’ve loved to see some of the nature photography you did!

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