Japanese University vs. American University

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With finals approaching quickly, I’ve been doing some reflecting on my semester so far. This is the longest I’ve been in a foreign country abroad without family, and there have been a lot of obstacles I’ve had to overcome. I think that experiencing living abroad through a study abroad program is a truly unique experience.


View from the main entrance at dusk.

My particular program gives me a fair amount of freedom – this is good for me. It’s not faculty-led, and I’m free to choose what I do with my days (assuming I pass all my classes and don’t get into trouble). One of my goals I mentioned in my first post, 5 Things I Want to Do in Japan, was that I wanted to learn more about the Japanese education system. Throughout the term, I’ve been asking my Japanese friends questions. I’ve picked up a few things, wrote them down, and now I’m gonna compare them to how things are back home. Keep in mind, my sample size is pretty small. I’m only one person – I’ve attended 3 different universities in the US and only 1 in Japan.

1. Honestly, the work load is about the same if not more time consuming.

I heard this myth before I came to Japan. This really awesome myth about how university in Japan was much easier than American University. Based on my experience, this is unfortunately untrue. Now, I’m taking two courses in Japanese (a required language course and a kanji-specific course) and two courses in English (history and culture). And my most time-consuming class by far is kanji. We learn 16 kanji a week (sounds reasonable, right?), but we’re also responsible for learning the vocabulary that goes with that kanji, anywhere from 1-8 words per kanji. Even if we haven’t learned the other characters in the combination, we’re still required to write them on weekly quizzes and tests. Add that to the other 40 vocabulary words per week I’m learning with my other Japanese class – it’s usually around 100 or more new vocabulary words per week. I’m also naturally bad at this, so I might have to spend a little extra time than other people.

2. The schedule is different.

So, again, this is something that may only be a facet of my particular university, but I thought it was really peculiar. First, the semester schedule for the study abroad students is different from the Japanese students. The study abroad students started classes (including orientation week) two weeks before the Japanese students. We finish early, almost 3 weeks before the Japanese students. Japanese students graduate in March so they can start their new jobs in April, at the start of the fiscal year. At my school we also have set “periods.” There are 5 periods or chunks of time every day during which classes take place. We’re also allocated a 1 hour lunch period. It reminds me a lot of high school, since the cafeterias are always crowded during lunch time. Everyone is always scrambling to make it to class before the bell rings.

3. Most Japanese students have a job before they graduate university.

The Japanese “job hunting season” or shūkatsu was something I hadn’t heard of before I got to Japan. Coming from America where more and more graduates are unable to find proper jobs in their field, people are joking, “Master’s is the new Bachelor’s!”, and graduates are unable to pay their huge student debts, this system seems like nothing more than a fantasy. During my stay here, out of all of the fourth year students I met only 3 who did not have jobs, and all of them had interviews lined up. Japanese students typically start their job search in their junior year of university and submit applications during their senior year. Companies conduct interviews and make job offers, and students start in April after graduating in March. For those that don’t get a job the first time around, there’s always next year. I’ve heard rumors of this system beginning to change – but only on the internet. It doesn’t seem to be something my Japanese friends know about – or want to discuss.