While it's not a cheap study destination, Japan's global reputation for innovation along with a line-up of top-quality universities means graduates will be well-prepared for employment
The Japanese government has pledged to increase the number of foreign students enrolled in its universities to 300,000 by 2020 - in 2017, an annual survey by the Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO) put the figure at 267,042.
Despite the fact only a small proportion of Japan's 127 million inhabitants can communicate in English, more than 60 undergraduate courses were taught in English during the 2016/17 academic year. With growing international communities thriving in major cities such as Tokyo, you certainly won't feel alone.
As a friendly, safe and welcoming Asian country that's easy (and affordable) to travel around, students will enjoy the remarkable Japanese culture that seamlessly combines its ancient traditions with the technological advancements of a modern society.
Japanese higher education places a high importance on personal development, so you'll get many opportunities to pick up new skills, including learning to speak Japanese while you're studying.
The cost of studying and living in Japan may be higher than in the UK, but it's an investment that's likely to pay off - a qualification from a leading Japanese institution provides you with excellent job prospects.
The vast majority (approximately 80%) of the 780 higher education institutions in Japan are private, accounting for around 70% of English-taught undergraduate programmes.
However, there are also specialist schools and technology colleges that typically deliver vocational qualifications. Public universities are typically held in the highest esteem by the Japanese people.
This is especially true of the prestigious National Seven Universities - former imperial colleges that continue to lead the way in terms of research excellence. As Japan's equivalent to the British Russell Group or the American Ivy League, it includes:
- The University of Tokyo
- Kyoto University
- Osaka University
- Nagoya University
- Tohoku University
- Hokkaido University
- Kyushu University.
Japan has 44 institutions in the QS World University Rankings 2019. Five feature in the top 100:
- The University of Tokyo (23rd)
- Kyoto University (35th)
- Tokyo Institute of Technology (58th)
- Osaka University (67th)
- Tohoku University (77th).
Japan and the UK have a long history of research collaboration and 12 institutions, including the University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham, Osaka University and Kyoto University, have partnered together through RENKEI to form a knowledge exchange.
The International University of Japan, the first graduate school to open in the country, offers all its courses in English.
The academic year in Japan typically runs from April to March (with breaks for the summer, winter and spring holidays) - although to become more attractive to students from overseas, more courses are now beginning in September.
Degree courses in Japan
Bachelors (or Gakushi) degrees typically last for four years, with dentistry, medicine and veterinary courses usually requiring at least six years of study. Most of these longer programmes are not fully taught in English at this time, so some grasp of Japanese would be expected.
Courses are primarily taught in Japanese, so if you'd like to study in English, you'll need to check which institutions cater to international students and prove your language ability. If you're planning on studying your preferred degree in Japanese, you'll need to pass a proficiency test before being admitted onto a programme.
The Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) is used by universities to evaluate your basic academic ability and Japanese language skills. It's available to take in the June and November of each year and incorporates the following four subjects:
- Japanese as a foreign language
- science (physics, chemistry and biology)
- Japan and the world
In addition to taking this undergraduate test, you'll need to be 18 years old or above and have completed 12 years of school education in your home country to apply.
Only a small proportion of students in Japan are engaged in postgraduate study, but with the country's dedication to research and development, courses are being offered by graduate schools and universities.
Masters degrees in Japan typically take two years to complete, with students gaining a specific amount of credits from core units through a combination of lectures, group work and tutorials. The final semester revolves around a dissertation, with the research project taken into account along with your final exam results.
The main language of instruction is Japanese, but an increasing number of universities are offering Masters courses in English to encourage international students to apply. Japanese language courses are available free of charge to postgraduate students, but they don't count towards your course credits.
To be admitted onto a Masters course, you'll need to hold a Bachelors degree or international equivalent and provide two letters of recommendation. Some universities will ask you to sit an entrance exam. You'll also be expected to prove your proficiency in English or Japanese, according to the method of course delivery.
Doctoral programmes are also available in Japan and usually take a minimum of three years to complete. However, if your research area is one of dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary science or medicine, it can take four years.
Most PhDs will start in April, in keeping with the Japanese academic calendar.
You'll need a Masters qualification or international equivalent, and at least two letters of recommendation from senior university staff for entry onto a course.
It's advisable to learn at least some Japanese to converse with your peers, if not your supervisor who may have been selected due to their English language ability.
Most Japanese institutions have an exchange agreement with overseas universities, so if you're enrolled at a UK university, you may be able to study in Japan for part of your programme. Speak to your international office about any partnerships that may exist.
For example, undergraduate students at The University of Sheffield can spend a year studying at one of twenty possible destinations including Kyushu University and the University of Tokyo, through its School of East Asian Studies. During your programme, you can take advantage of upper-intermediate level Japanese language courses to fully immerse yourself in the country.
To find out more, see JASSO - Student Exchange Support Programme.
Studying in Japan isn't cheap, but costs aren't as high as in the UK or USA. Annual tuition fees at public universities range from £3,000-£6,000, while at private institutions this could rise to as high as £9,000 per year.
You can also expect to pay an admission fee, which varies according to each university. Contact the admissions department to find out the exact amount you'll pay for your course.
More than half of undergraduate courses taught in English are based in Tokyo, one of the world's most expensive cities. However, as the second ranked city in the QS Best Student Cities 2018, international students usually find it a great place to live. Through some research, you can find affordable accommodation (possibly through your university), while public transport costs are reasonable.
Students at universities in regions such as Tohoku and Kyushu will find the cost of living lower than the estimated £650 per month you'll need to fund your stay in Tokyo.
Funding to study in Japan
There are a number of Japanese scholarships available to international students.
If you're a British national under the age of 24 (in the year you wish to study in Japan) with 12 years of school education, you can apply for Japanese Government MEXT Undergraduate Scholarships. Applications are made via the Embassy of Japan in the UK from between mid-April and mid-June. Successful candidates receive around £800 per month for five to seven years, including a one-year Japanese language preparation course. The scholarship is available in specific fields of study within the categories of social sciences and humanities, and natural sciences.
For UK students looking to study for a Masters in Japan, the Japanese government also runs the MEXT Postgraduate Scholarship Programme. Applications are accepted from mid-April until early June in the year before you propose to study. Those aged under 35 holding a Bachelors degree are eligible to apply for the award, which covers both taught and research courses. You don't need to speak Japanese for most subject areas.
You'll also find many leading Japanese universities have set up their own scholarship schemes for foreign students. For example, Kyushu University offers a range of scholarships as well as exemption and deferment programmes for tuition and enrolment fees. Read more at Kyushu University - Tuition, fees and scholarships.
For more information on the MEXT programme and other scholarships, see Study In Japan - Scholarships.
International students who intend to study in Japan for more than three months will need to obtain a visa. Once you've been accepted by a university, the institution will apply for a Certificate of Eligibility from the Japanese Ministry of Justice on your behalf.
The document is only valid for three months from the date of issue, so you'll need to visit your country's Japanese embassy in person after obtaining it.
The Embassy of Japan in the UK is based in London, but those living in Scotland and the North East of England can contact the Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh.
For UK visa applicants, you should be aware it takes around four working days for the application to be processed by the embassy.
You'll need to bring:
- a valid passport
- a completed and signed Visa Application Form with a recent colour passport photo (taken within the last six months)
- the original and a photocopy of the Certificate of Eligibility issued by your institution.
For more information on Japanese study visas, visit the Embassy of Japan in the UK.
Upon arrival at a Japanese airport, you'll have your fingerprints and a photograph taken in order to receive a Zairyū Card. This residence card is designed for those staying in the country for the mid to long term. You'll also need to pay for national health insurance, which works out at around £130 per year.
Read more about the procedures for entering and residing in the country at Study In Japan - Immigration Procedures.
How to apply
International undergraduate and postgraduate students can search and apply for a place at a Japanese university by visiting its website. Each university sets its own requirements for entry and application deadlines vary, so you'll need to adhere to these individual terms before being accepted onto a course.
With most university courses taught in Japanese, you'll need to prove you level of proficiency. The majority of universities ask students to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). This can be taken from the UK in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
However, with a growing number of courses now available in English, you may not need to have a strong grasp of Japanese to study in the country. Free Japanese language courses are typically offered to international students in advance of their degree programme or even alongside the other course units.
For English-taught degree courses, if you're not a native English speaker, you may be asked to submit your English proficiency results (such as IELTS) as part of the application process.
Comparison to UK qualifications
A Bachelors degree from the UK is comparable to a degree awarded in Japan, with a B-grade or GPA of 3.0 considered equivalent to a 2:1.
Find out more
- Discover what it's like to work in Japan.
- Read the official guide to studying in Japan at Study In Japan.