Going to Graduate School in Japan on a Monbushō Scholarship

A long overdue primer on applying for a Monbusho. Hopefully just in time for this year’s application deadline.

What is a Monbusho scholarship?

Monbushō, short for Monbukagakushō (文部科学省), is the Japanese name of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It is also the metonymic name of the grad school scholarship distributed by said ministry to international students. In practice, unspecified mentions of “monbushō” will nearly always refer to the scholarship1.

In a nutshell, the main qualities of Monbushō scholarships are:

  • You get to study and live in Japan for up to 3-4 years (5-6, if you apply for a Master).
  • You have a free-meal ticket to practically any faculty in any university in Japan: both prestigious national ones (Todai, Kyodai…) or expensive private ones (Keio, Waseda…).
  • In addition to your (potentially costly) tuition fees, the grant includes a stipend for living expenses2.
  • Beside a few conditions (being a foreigner and having a bachelor degree, mostly) and a lengthy application process, these scholarship come with very few strings attached: you are free to study anything you’d like, wherever you’d like (and can leave a lot of the decisions to after the application gets approved).

For more technical details, Google, Wikipedia and your nearest Japanese embassy are your friends.

What do you know about Monbushō scholarships?

I successfully applied for one, 5 years ago, then went on to do my PhD in Bioinformatics at Kyoto University (Pharmaceutical Science faculty). I graduated last year and been working as a post-doc researcher in Tokyo ever since.

I still remember being intensely frustrated by the lack of accurate, unambiguous information regarding the application process at the time: for every vaguely-worded official email from the embassy, a million dumbass forum discussions based on hearsay and irrelevant anecdotal evidence. I was extremely lucky at the time (living and working in a Japanese academic institution) to know more than a few people who had already gone through the process and could give me first-hand advice (invariably more useful than anything I could find online or get from my embassy contact). Things might have improved ever since, but on the off chance they haven’t, I have long wanted to document my own experience here.

Although the Monbushō is a pretty old and static process, things are bound to have changed over time: everything contained in this post was accurate, back when I applied, and to the best of my (modest) knowledge, still is… However, I cannot advise you enough to double-check everything with monbushō officials. At any rate, the point of this entry is mostly to fill the gaps left by official instructions (and cover some of the topics they do not touch), not to replace them.

There are also many minor differences across application tracks, application types (Masters, PhDs etc), cities/countries of application and so forth. Most descriptions herein apply to my particular case (PhD with no kenkyūsei period, through the Japanese embassy in Paris), but seems to match the experience of most colleagues I have talked to ever since.

What are the main steps to obtaining a Monbushō?

There are three tracks for obtaining a Monbushō. For our purpose, we’ll just go and assume you are interested in the larger one: the embassy track3.

The practical order to applying for a Monbushō via an embassy would be:

  1. Check with the Japanese embassy of your country of citizenship (if you have many, you may want to check which one is most favourable, see below) for general conditions of applications. Generally, the deadline for the first round is toward April-May (for a start in April of the following year at the earliest. That’d be April or October 2014 for this year’s application).
  2. Once you have made sure the dates and conditions check out, I’d advise first starting to look for a potential supervisor in Japan.
  3. Submit the paper application to your embassy.
  4. If you pass the first round (i.e. managed to write your name on the dotted line and not screw up majorly in your application), you’ll be summoned for an in-person interview and some small written exams.
  5. A few weeks/months after your interview, you may hear back from the embassy to tell you you’ve been “conditionally” approved (every fucking step of the process is “conditional” or “temporary”). If you don’t hear back, you may still be on the waiting list. At that point, you will need to commit to a specific institution and host professor (don’t have to stick with your initial choice).
  6. Sometime around October-December, your application is officially handed to the ministry by the embassy and shit becomes real. From there on, the chances of your application failing are minuscule (barring anything stupid from your side).
  7. By the time your would-be supervisor starts receiving paperwork from the ministry, you can start packing your bag safely.
  8. Sometime in late march, out of the blue, the embassy will send you your (free) plane ticket to Japan, along with the official confirmation that you are indeed a Monbushō recipient. If you are lucky, this might leave you a week or so to prepare your move to Japan for the next N years.

A few notes about the above:

Even though it is not mandatory to have a potential supervisor lined-up when you start applying, it will make your life a lot easier (and your application more likely to succeed). You can read some general remarks I (and others) wrote about finding a PhD advisor in Japan (probably applies for Masters supervisor as well). No need to get firm commitments from your would-be advisor, a simple verbal agreement to welcome you in their lab, should you successfully get the scholarship, is enough. As long as you come with your own scholarship (and funding), most professors will be very accommodating.

Don’t expect much advance notice for anything (especially the earlier parts of the application), so plan accordingly if you do not live close to the embassy. In my case, I had to fly specially from Tokyo to Paris and a typo in my email address meant I was only notified 24h before the official exam date4.

When your application moves onto semi-officially confirmed territories (basically, when they start speaking to your advisor in Japan), it is a good idea to start looking into entrance exam conditions and dates. Assuming you do not want to wait 6-12 months as a Research student (kenkyūsei) after your arrival, it may be worth your money to fund your own trip to Japan and take it in December with everybody else. That way you can join as a full-on student upon your arrival in April.

Edit: Regarding the entrance exam: it usually involves a fee (the one for Kyodai was somewhere around ¥20-30k) that you will have to pay out of pocket. However, MEXT will refund it to you (since it is essentially part of the tuition) as soon as your scholarship officially begins. The plane ticket, however, is entirely on you (if your would-be supervisor is loaded and generous, they might try to arrange a research visit at the right dates, but you should still expect to pay for that bit yourself).

You said there was money! Tell me more about this.

Depending on a few things5, the stipend for Monbushō students is about ¥130-140k per month, every month, for the duration of your stay (including small trips abroad, provided you are in Japan at least once during the calendar month to sign the ledger).

The stipend must cover your food/rent, but you will likely be eligible for student housing: depending on where you study (and how much comfort you want), you could pay as little as ¥5-10k per month for student lodging (of course, regular unsubsidised rent for a tiny studio is more along the line of ¥50k in Kyoto and ¥80k in Tokyo). You are enrolled in standard Japanese health coverage (kokumin hōken): for our European friends, that’s roughly like home (for everybody else: you pay a couple ¥1000 a month and everything else is taken care of… The Hell of socialised medicine). That’s a lot of money left for food and fun.

Bottom line: you can live comfortably off that, if you live outside of Tokyo (very comfortably if you go to a remote university in the middle of nowhere). If you pick the exciting neon-bright Tokyo life, your wallet will be a lot thinner on average, but you could still survive (frugally) without taking a side-job.

Depending on your faculty (and the whims of your professor, who might be opposed to the idea of your wasting valuable research time elsewhere), you should not have too much difficulty scoring small paying jobs on campus or nearby.

Sounds like the life! How long can I hide there?

Up to 6 years (theoretically 7, if you are in medicine and were to join at the M.Sc. level). You have:

  • Up to one year of free play aka Research Student (kenkyūsei). More on that later.
  • 2 years for your M.Sc. (if you apply at this level)
  • 3 years for your Ph.D. (4 if medicine).

There is no room for extensions. If you are not done after 3 years of Ph.D., your only option will be to find funding elsewhere (generally, your prof. will either ensure that you are done in time, or help you find the cash for an extra 6-12 months).

On the bright side, once you are in the system, getting renewed from a M.Sc. to a Ph.D. (even if you did not originally apply for it) is a no-brainer: as long as your supervisor supports you, it is no more than a paperwork formality.

What is this ‘Research Student’ status you keep mentioning?

When applying for a Monbushō, you are offered the choice of spending up to two semesters without being officially enrolled as a student: as a kenkyūsei (“Research student”). Officially, this gives you time to prepare for the entrance exam (nearly all grade schools have one), as well as take Japanese language classes. In practice, it is mostly up to your supervisor and yourself: you could just as well be starting your Ph.D.(/Masters) research, or have a year of semi-vacation.

If you are not in any hurry to graduate, I would strongly recommend making full use of your allowed time as a kenkyūsei, even if you are ready to take the entrance exam earlier. This gives you time to get to know the place you just moved to, take some intensive language classes if necessary and overall relax before the years to follow (which are supposed to be a little more intense). Of course, you can also take the opposite road and push to take the entrance exam before officially starting the year so as to enter the university as a regular student directly. Either way: the optional kenkyūsei year does not affect the time limit on your further studying (2 and 3 years for MSc and PhD respectively).

What are my chances of getting in?

Assuming you are even remotely grad school material: pretty damn good. There is obviously no sure-fire way to tell until you apply, however there are a few good pointers to what make a successful application (some obvious and some less):

  • Applying in the right country. You have limited (/no) control over this, but each country gets its own quota of scholarships, and some receive more applications than others. I have heard of small Latin-American countries getting one single application for one or two positions (everybody gets in, yay!), while some Western European countries tend to count lots of Japan fanatics (or people desperate to get in grad school abroad) and only a limited number of places.
  • Having somewhat decent academic transcripts, academic resume etc.
  • Good recommendations by important people. Bonus for recommendations by people with a connection to Japan.
  • Japan experience. If you can show you’ve spent a sizeable amount of time in this blessed land, you’ll alleviate their greatest fear: that you’d land in Japan, hate it and run for the hills before completing your degree (apparently happens).
  • Japanese language experience: by no means a requirement, but anything you have will play in your favour (officially, an English language test grade is substituted to your Japanese test grade, if better, but let’s not kid ourselves: they probably look at both). If you are serious about getting some Japanese practice, that other project of mine might be of help. The embassy test for Japanese looks like a mini-JLPT with exercises going easiest to hardest, designed to let you go as far as your level allows.
  • Japan academic connection: particularly in showing that you have established one toward your graduate degree there. Having found a potential supervisor (and mentioning them in your application) will definitely go a long way toward showing that you mean business.
  • Having a concrete plan. Like many of the now numerous Japanese applications I’ve had to fill through the years, Monbushō asks you to plan ahead at a ridiculous level. Basically, they’d like it if you could write up your PhD thesis outline, one year before even starting your PhD. The best strategy is to go with it and write that outline as if you had a clue and nothing was ever going to change (ie: make stuff up). Of course, nobody will hold you to any of it once you are approved, it’s just there to show that you can write nice plans.

All these criteria are by no means exhaustive or independent requirements: approval just seems a matter of ticking enough of these boxes, whichever they might be.

I want in! Any more advice about applying?

Beside keeping the list above in mind, equip yourself with a lot of patience: like most bureaucratic affairs, this one involves a fair bit of whipping, crying and being left in the dark for extensive amount of time. Do not put too much credit on the word of your embassy contacts: very often, they won’t know all that much about what’s going on (and when they do, they’ll prefer to remain noncommittal, lest they have to go back on something they tell you).

The messy communication channels between embassy and ministry and opaque workings of the Japanese side mean that a lot of things can change at the last minute. Nevertheless, do not take at face-value all the talks of “temporary” and “unofficial” in your communications with the embassy: there’s a lot of arse-covering going on, and usually things are a lot more set than you are told. Don’t expect much advance notice about anything: you’ll be lucky to get a week to pack up before you are supposed to be on a plane to your new university.

Picking your advisor and university is obviously the most important part of the process: a supportive supervisor will go a long way toward smoothing out bureaucratic snags during the process. Do not expect your would-be supervisor to be unduly excited at first: they will remain cautiously distant until you come back with more than vague promises of funding6. But once your application is approved, they should be 100% behind you (and if they aren’t, you should be worried): their recommendation will single-handedly get you through the entrance exam (the written part is usually just for show).

Asshole supervisors who have a change of heart and silently drop their support are a rare but real occurrence: in a perfect symbiosis of both typical academic and Japanese business practices, they will not bother informing you, leaving you to find out on your own that you have ‘failed’ the entrance exam. If you are notified of such a failure, it is generally a waste of time to go for for another try. Although you usually are allowed two attempts and Monbusho will support you for two semesters as a kenkyūsei while you prepare, do not believe for one second that your exam performances are what get you in. Short of truly abysmal test results, nobody will so much as glance at your scores. I suspect this might be because even the most sheltered Japanese faculty members realise how crazy it would be to expect a freshly-arrived foreigner to take an engineering (or biology, or whatever other topic, except maybe for actual Japanese humanities) test in Japanese after a rough 3 months of accelerated language studies7. Instead, what truly happens is that all faculty members looking to get new members in will get together in a room and chat about their vacation and recent grants, all the while going over the list and rubber-stamping each other’s prospective grad student’s application.

If you get notified that you ‘failed the entrance exam’, what actually happened is that your would-be supervisor fell asleep when your name came up, or worse: scored some street cred with their colleagues by casually mentioning that you are a worthless piece of crap unworthy of joining their lab. Either way, chances are you’ll get the exact same result the next time around. In such a case, your best strategy is to cut your losses: find a more supportive supervisor (preferably in another faculty/university) and convince your current supervisor to let you go free (ultimately, the decision lies with MEXT rather than them, but always better to pretend and let them save face). They’ll usually be more than happy to let you go and become someone else’s problem.

On that note: beware of the Japanese fascination with “prestigious” university names. If daily interactions with Japanese civilians were any indication, all graduates of these institutions (the big national 5 + Keio/Waseda) would belong to some rarefied breed of genetically engineered super-geniuses who had to best a few million eager candidates just to get in8. The truth is that you will find just as many idiot savants and cunning slackers there as anywhere else. With the added annoyance that being constantly reminded of their eliteness tends to get to their head, resulting in higher-than-average rates of pompous idiot savants haunting the halls of these otherwise fine places of higher-learning. After collaborating with professors and researchers across the entire spectrum of Japanese institutions, I can say that some of the finer, more competent, not to mention motivated people I have met were hailing from would-be “second-tier” institutions in the Japanese academic pecking order. Unless your goal is to stop research immediately upon graduation and get hired by one of the big Japanese corporations9, the brand recognition won’t do much for you. Ignore the Shanghai rankings and Oxbridge-inspired university coat of arms, and focus instead on finding a lab with a young, dynamic, internationally-minded professor, even if it means their university doesn’t have a yachting circle.

Finally, if you successfully apply and end up studying in a Japanese university, do me a personal favour and make great efforts toward actually integrating. And I do not mean joining the local foreign student support group and hanging out with the same small group of foreign exchange students and the odd token English-speaking Japanese thrown in. Getting a Japanese boy/girlfriend (aka your own private English student) doesn’t count either. Make use of the 6+ months intensive Japanese language courses your university will probably offer (and on the note of Japanese studying…) and try to meet regular Japanese people (outside your lab/university is your best bet). It won’t be easy at first, but will make for a much more interesting stay than whatever group of people you find yourself sharing a linguistic affinity with. Especially when your academic pursuits will have taken their toll and you’ll be sick and tired of discussions centred on research or university matters.

  1. “MEXT” is the favoured English abbreviation when talking about the ministry []
  2. constantly decreasing over the years, but still pretty decent for a scholarship []
  3. the domestic ones are very similar, but if they are on your radar, you probably have a local university contact sorting out the application for you []
  4. considering it was their mistake, they made a special catch-up session for me and gave me a munificent 5 days to get there in time for the interview []
  5. slightly more for PhDs than Masters, plus a tiny variable part covered by the city you live in []
  6. especially if they aren’t familiar with Monbusho scholarship and unsure of what your chances are []
  7. hint: that will get you just about far enough to know where to write the date on the exam sheet []
  8. little do they know, basic literacy, endless patience for bureaucratic tasks and a foreign passport are all you need to get into Tōdai nowadays []
  9. better have flawless Japanese for that []