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Masters in Japan

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Why study for a Masters degree in Japan?

A Masters in Japan can be an excellent choice for postgraduates seeking a high quality study abroad experience with unique opportunities. An emerging study abroad destination, especially since the implementation of the Global 30 program of Government investment in 30 top universities, Japan has loads to offer when it comes to postgraduate studies. With 13 of its universities in the top 50 in Asia (two of them in the top 100 in the world), quality in teaching and research is not lacking. Education is at the heart of modern Japanese society with academic freedom being protected by the Constitution of Japan while the Fundamental Law of Education gives Japanese higher education institutions their autonomy (the principle of self-governance being sanctioned by the Japanese Supreme Court decision itself).

The number of international students in 2008 was a little over 120,000 with the top largest cohorts of students coming from China, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia. This represents only 4% of the total student population. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has, however, big plans to have over 300,000 international students in Japan by 2020, so the message is: you are welcome! And this is not just a recruitment drive, it is accompanied by a number of changes to ensure that the support structures from pre-arrival to post-graduation are in place for international students.

Masters degrees at Japanese universities

There are currently over 1,200 universities in Japan, 80% of those are private universities which host up to 80% of higher education students. This means that you will be able to choose from a range of institutions when studying a Masters in Japan. As a rule, Japanese universities can be divided into three different types: Private Universities, National Universities and Public Local Universities. The main differences between these different types of institution concern their establishment and administration. As a rule, all can offer postgraduate degrees.

  • Private universities: These are established by independent organisations, rather than by local or national government. Each promotes its own unique education and research strengths. Over the years, they have greatly contributed to the development of Japanese higher education.
  • National universities: These have been established in all local “prefectures” (or the equivalent of “Local Councils” in the UK) to ensure that there are no regional imbalance to the provision of higher education. Within its internationalisation agenda, MEXT has been implementing its “Global 30” project in which 30 universities have been selected for government investment and support to develop their areas of excellence and to ensure their competitiveness on the global stage.
  • Public local universities: they have been established by local public entities or public university corporations and are managed by them. They play important roles in providing higher education opportunities to local people and in acting as intellectual and cultural centres.

Graduate Schools

Since their creation in the mid-70s, Graduate Schools have been one of pillars of Japan’s internationalisation strategy. With a relatively small proportion of the student population currently engaging in postgraduate study, the professional and personal development of students has become central to graduate schools which are expected, not only to train researchers, but also to offer skills training as part of a well-rounded education for the future generation of teaching and research staff as well as enhancing the employability of postgraduate degree holders.

Structure and content of Masters degrees in Japan

Masters degrees in Japan are 24 months in duration. You will be required to gain a set number of credits from core courses (which are delivered through lectures, tutorials, group work and practicals, if applicable), research courses and elective courses (with a strict maximum obtained from final year undergraduate courses if allowed). Normally, the minimum number of credits to obtain is 30 (where 2 credits per courses are available) from a total of 31, leaving little room for error. The first three semesters will be dedicated to courses and the final semester to your Masters’ dissertation (as well as taking a smaller number of compulsory courses).

In addition to passing final exams, you will submit a Masters’ thesis or present your research results if you decided to conduct a Masters’ research project. You will be allocated a supervisor for your final semester but there is no harm in starting to discuss your dissertation plans early.

Japanese people take traditions and hierarchy very seriously. Professors command the most authority and the supervisor-supervisee relationship is more akin to a master-disciple interaction. Debating is not as common as in Western universities and if you feel you need to challenge your supervisor, do so with the highest level of diplomacy and respect. There is also a strict hierarchy within research teams which is determined by age and position, with post-docs and PhDs commanding more seniority than Masters students who, in turn, are considered as seniors to undergraduate students. As such you may find that discussions within a research teams are generally top down rather than on an equal footing.

Graduate Schools will also offer Japanese language classes which do not count towards your course credits but are often free of charge.

Academic calendar

This is an area the internationalisation agenda of Japan Higher education institutions has failed to address and there is no articulation with the semester system of countries such as Germany in the EU or the USA and Singapore further afield. Really useful if you want a break between your undergraduate degree and your Masters, Japan’s academic year starts in April with the second semester starting in October. Some, but not all, universities may offer Masters programmes with a start date in the second semester.

Applying for a Masters in Japan

Entry requirements

Applicants for a Masters in Japan should have a Bachelors degree or an international equivalent. You may have to sit an entrance examination in your subject area or be asked to provide a graduate entry test score such as GRE so check what the practice is at your chosen university.

Under the Global 30 program of Government investment, selected universities have been developing new programs in a range of disciplines which are delivered in English. These programs tend to be aimed at “global” problems (such as global warming) or have an “international” focus. They are often multi-disciplinary in nature. If English is not your first language, an English language certificate, such as TOEFL or IELTS, will be required, unless you studied your undergraduate program in a country where English is the official language.

If you want to join a course delivered in Japanese, then you will have to demonstrate proficiency, most likely through a Japanese-Language Proficiency Test.

How to apply

While the application process is mainly a procedural step with forms to fill in and documents to provide (see below), in Japan, the selection process is more aligned with that of a PhD. It is advisable to search for a prospective supervisor who may be prepared to take you on and to advise you during your Masters’ dissertation project. Having an academic who is willing to supervise you in the later stages of your Masters will bear a lot of weight and it will show that you are serious about your long-term goals and aspirations.

Another thing to consider when looking for a suitable program and supervisor is the teaching staff (how many are international for example) and whether they have a good level of English, ie sufficient to read your dissertation should they become your thesis advisor. But how to find out? Well, your e-mail conversations will tell you a lot but research publications in English will be a definitive way to find out. You should look into their research expertise anyway and if you are not really proficient in Japanese then articles in English-language journals will be your best chance of exploring their topic of interest.

Documents to supply

  • The application form, normally available online or as a downloadable document.
  • Personal statement, sometimes called “Academic essay”.
  • Bachelor diploma (if you have already graduated) and transcripts.
  • References/letters of recommendation (most often two).
  • English-proficiency test scores and certificates (and Japanese equivalent if required).
  • Application fee certificate or receipt.

Selection process

Public universities in Japan commonly operate a two-step selection process. Candidates who are successful at the document screening stage will be interviewed. Applicants who live in Japan will be invited to the university for an interview while applicants outside Japan will have the option of being interviewed via video conferencing.

Visas and immigration for Masters students in Japan

Once you have accepted an offer of admission, your university (as your proxy) can apply on your behalf for a Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence , issued by Regional Immigration Bureaux in Japan. The University will send you this document which you can present to the Japanese embassy or consulate in your country of residence when you apply for your visa.

When you arrive in Japan, you will be granted “College Student” status by the immigration authorities (and this process is easier at the large Japanese airports). There are two periods of stay for Masters students (depending on what information your university provides in the Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence ), either 2 years or 2 years + 3 months.

There is also the option to apply for your visa personally (without a Certificate of Eligibility for a Status of Residence ) at the Japanese Embassy or Consulate in your home country. However, there is a longer processing time because documents have to be sent back and forth between your home country and Japan.

From 2012, holders of a “College Student” visa granted for more than 3 months no longer have to go through the “alien registration system”. You will be given a Resident Card, by your Regional Immigration Bureau, which you must carry at all times. If your details change, such as a change of course, institution or withdrawal from studies, you must inform a Regional Immigration Bureau. Another new thing from 2012, you are no longer required to apply for re-entry permit if you leave Japan temporarily (for example, to go on holiday or for conferences) as long as you indicate that you intend to come back when you are at the airport.

Students with families

With your “College Student” visa, you are allowed to bring your spouse and children who will be given “dependent” status for a duration corresponding to the main visa holder’s period stay. It is, however, recommended that you think of settling in first before your family joins you in Japan.

Fees and funding for Masters degrees in Japan

Tuition fees

In national universities, tuition fees for pursuing a Masters program in Japan are fixed by the Ministry or by local authorities for public universities. They are currently:

  • National universities: ¥535,800 ($4,875)per year + ¥282,000 ($2,565) for admission fees.
  • Local public universities: ¥535,948 ($4,876) per year + ¥374,913 ($3,410) for admission fees.

In private universities, annual tuition fees range from ¥660,000 ($6,005) – ¥1,300,000 ($11,828) per year. Admission fees are around ¥220,000 ($2,000). Some private universities, called International, offer Masters programs which are 1-year in duration but check that the qualifications are accredited by an official body (Japanese or overseas).

Additional expenses

All international students are required to enrol in the National Health Insurance system. This is done through the office which has processed your residence registration. The annual premium varies depending on where in Japan you live but is around ¥20,000 ($182) per year.

Optional expenses include:

  • University Student Health Insurance.
  • Personal Accident Insurance.
  • Personal Liability Insurance.


There are several scholarships available to international Masters students. The most prestigious scholarships are those awarded by MEXT.

  • Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarships
    Applied through the Japanese embassy in your home country, these highly selective scholarships provide return air fare, university fees, a monthly grant of ¥155,000, ($1,410) an optional 6-month course in Japanese and help finding accommodation. The scholarships are tenable at selected institutions but in all subject areas.
  • Scholarship program for self-financed international students
    These scholarships awarded by the Japanese Government provide a monthly allowance of ¥65,000 ($590) for graduate students who do not hold a scholarship (from any source).
  • Japanese Grant Aid for Human Resource Development Scholarship
    A Masters scholarship available to students from China, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Mongolia, Philippines, Republic of Uzbekistan, Republic of Tajikistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. The scholarships are tenable at selected universities and provide tuition fees, admission fees, traveling and seminar allowance, book allowance, arrival allowance, accommodation allowance, stipend and shipping allowance.
  • Asian Development Bank-Japan Scholarship Program
    These scholarships are available to those from borrowing member countries of the ADB. Full tuition fees, a monthly subsistence and housing allowance, an allowance for books and instructional materials, medical insurance, and travel expenses are provided for one year, renewable for a second year. Eligibility criteria include a minimum of two years’ professional experience.
  • Scholarships provided by JASSO
    JASSO is the Japan Student Services Organization is an independent administrative institution established under MEXT and which also runs the undergraduate university entrance examination EJU.
  • Scholarships offered by local authorities
  • Scholarships for International students


Our own postgraduate funding website provides a comprehensive database of small grants and bursaries available to support postgraduate study around the world, including travel bursaries, living cost support, fee waivers and exchange programmes. Click here to start searching for funding to study a Masters in Japan, or elsewhere.

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