How to Survive as a Research Student at a Japanese University

May 01, 2020 5 min read

Do you realize that technical skills are not the only thing you need to prepare in the Japanese research environment? Let's hear some non-technical tips based on real-life experiences that will help you survive in one of the best research environments in the world, JAPAN!

Author: Achmed Shahram Edianto | Published date: 1 May 2020

Advancement in science, technology, and research is the impression of most people about the Japanese education environment. With more than 700 universities, from undergraduate to post-doctoral programs, Japan always becomes an attractive destination for international students around the world to study abroad or to support their research. Japanese Higher education system provides a broad variety of majors, great facilities and research funding to support student's research. Thus,  according to Japan Student Service Organization (JASSO) approximately 300,000 international students come to Japan in 2018, not only to get a degree or learn the Japanese language but sometimes join the research student program just to get access to the best research facilities.

Unseen Barriers behind the Enormous Advantage

Perhaps, many articles have shared about the technical aspect of the Japanese research world. For instance, there is much information on how to connect with Japanese professors as your future supervisor, how to get the scholarship/ funding, how to choose the right university, and so on. But, have you heard about tips that help you to survive in the Japanese research world that is not only thinking about scientific issues but also on basic things? Which one, I think, will really improve your everyday research life? Not much, or maybe none, I suppose. Apart from technological ability, non-technical factors such as social skills are also important to help you succeed in the Japanese research environment.

Source: Division of Mechanical Engineering Tohoku University

Students who engage in research activity in Japan, either Master student , PhD student or research student (short-period student) have to work closely with their Sensei/Kyoujyu (先生/教授) as their supervisor. Usually, this Sensei is the person in charge of the laboratory and makes the basic rule of how the student studies and works in the lab. Of course the rules between each faculty or major could be different. Experimental labs would need more research activities in the lab compared to the social scientist or even engineering, which can be more in the field for a survey or maybe just doing desk study everywhere and make them more flexible (as long as the internet connection is available). As a matter of fact, different labs under the same major can have different rules due to each Sensei’s interests and needs. In the context of discipline for example, different labs from different majors, somehow can also have a similarity. 

We have interviewed some senior year students/ senpai and friends from different labs, regarding unfortunate student cases that have serious problems with their research work or even their future education, just because of their lack of knowledge on tiny things or their close-minded behavior. So, here are few underrated yet useful tips to live in the Japanese research environment, based on the real-life observations of international students:

Manners are important, getting to know your supervisor is way more important

A freshmen PhD student from a university in the northern part of Japan being ignored by his supervisor/ sensei for 1 YEAR !!! Why does his sensei do this? Simply because of miscommunication !!! One day, at the beginning of the new semester, he had just arrived for a couple of days in Japan and didn't have a Japanese phone number. His sensei sent him an email to come to the lab to discuss his research plan, but unfortunately, this student has to go to the government office to take care of administration problems and since he had no access to the internet, he missed this message. On the other hand, his sensei had waited for hours without any clue, until his sensei realized that he never came. Long story short, he read the email at the end of the day, asking an apology to his sensei but still got ignored. Because his sensei thinks that he has wasted his sensei’s time.

Some of you may think that this is not a big problem, and some will think that this is completely the student's fault, how about you ??? Before we conclude everything, let's try to understand the big picture. Although, not all sensei have a similar concern, for some conservative Japanese sensei manners and politeness is a really big deal. Usually, they will treat their students as a professional office worker. For example, the student has to come to the laboratory before sensei comes and go home after their sensei going home or doing every work that sensei asked. Japanese students will see this as a piece of common knowledge, but for an international student, they might think this is an inconvenience or even odd. But rather than arguing about who is right or who is wrong, let's agree that an international student must understand the basic culture of their new society if they want to survive. Also, it is important for the new student to get to know their sensei, because they will work together for a long time, and building a good relationship is sound realistic, isn’t it?

Bring your diversity, respect the differences

Another difficulty that new students frequently encounter is the concept of the student-supervisor relationship and its effect on their study. As I mentioned earlier, some of the Japanese sensei is moderate. It reflects on how they build the relationship with the student (more horizontal relationship, not vertical) and the way they guide their student’s research. With this approach, the student will get more flexibility to explore their knowledge, how to overcome the problem and how to decide their logical framework, without too worry with their sensei. On the other hand, conservative sensei will take more intervention in your work, determine what you should do and control your research. Does that mean the moderate one is better than the conservative? Or the conservative is better than moderate? The answer simply depends on the student itself. 

If you are a type of student that feels more productive if you have the freedom on your work, maybe it will be hard for you to work with a supervisor that takes full control of your work. But, is it the end of your world? Not really. You can still bring your idea to your sensei in a respectful way, with proper manners, so that your sensei will learn something from you and you will definitely learn something from your sensei. You are still you, and you respect the way your supervisor thinks at the same time.

The other story is coming from my interview with a senior student that told a story about a brilliant International student who joined a master program in Japan that has a major issue with his sensei, only because of his inability to open his mind. This student said that his sensei rejected all of his ideas, didn't help his research at all, and eventually blamed the education system in Japan. Whereas other perspectives said that this student didn't want to listen to any input or suggestion from his sensei, and being more close-minded. This student's problem was never solved, he moved to other laboratories with a new supervisor. Yes, he is not experiencing the same problem with his new supervisor. But yet, this student hasn't changed at all, still hard to accept ideas from the supervisor, which is affecting his work progress and his future education goal.

Source: Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

One thing that we can learn from this story is how important it is to accept the differences. No matter where you come from, no matter how brilliant you are, differences are everywhere. Learning how to deal with it, will not only help your future work but also make you wiser. Because research is about collaboration, not competition. 

Final Words of Advice

I hope all of these stories and tips can help students to be more aware about simple things that are usually forgotten in their preparation process.  Always remember that preparation is important, so does adaptation.  If you are looking for more tips on Student life in Japan, you can check other articles on JPort. Click here for more articles about life in Japan!!!

Welcome to the Japanese research world and ENJOY !

JPort Student Support Team
We create Borderless Japan

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