Japan calling

Universities in the Land of the Rising Sun are on the lookout for bright international students. Trishit Banerjee on why it is a great option for those interested in basic sciences

By As told to Chandana Chandra
  • Published 8.10.18, 9:57 PM
  • Updated 8.10.18, 9:57 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Students at the Aoba Matsuri festival Telegraph archive picture

The list of this year’s Nobel prize winners features a Japanese medical scientist. In recent years, the Nobel list consistently features Japanese scientists. One of the reasons is the high quality of research carried out there. There is a lot of work in basic sciences and no dearth of laboratory equipment. A majority of funding in Japanese universities comes from government grants, the rest is funded by different companies. Apart from research in space and defence, there’s plenty of study in the fields of chemistry, engineering and marine biology. Much of the research in cutting edge science, such as in stem cells, is carried out in Tokyo University.

University students in Japan are very much a part of this research and development eco-system. Big companies use university labs and involve students, professors and researchers for their R&D. As a result, the labs are flush with funds. The companies turn research output from university labs into marketable products and services.

I got a chance to visit Japan on a youth exchange programme, Jenesys (Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths), in 2014. Seeing the superior education system first hand, I made up my mind to pursue higher education in the country.

Under Jenesys, the Japanese government invites students from selected countries to visit Japan for a week. The Union ministry of human resource development selects candidates across India from among students nominated by schools, based on their academic and extra-curricular activities.

When I started researching scholarships to study in Japan, I found out about the Global 30 programme initiated by the Japanese government in 2011 to promote internationalisation of Japanese universities. The 13 selected universities can each recruit 30 foreign students under this programme.

I opted to apply to Tohoku University in Sendai, one of the oldest universities founded by the Japanese emperor and one of seven former Imperial universities that are viewed as the most prestigious in Japan, similar to the Ivy League in the US. Koichi Tanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002, studied at this university.

Tohuku University library lobby
Tohuku University library lobby Telegraph archive picture

I applied through the online portal of the university. Usually, they invite applications for admission in April-May every year. The criteria for selection includes the grades of both school board exams (Class X and Class XII), SAT score and extra-curricular activities. The next step is to clear a written test and interview. The written exam is held in the first half of the day while university professors conduct the interview in the second half. The scripts of the written test are sent to the university for checking.

I appeared at an exam centre in Mumbai on June 26. Apart from the test in Physics, Chemistry and Maths, I was asked to write an essay (statement of purpose). Results were declared on July 8 and I was selected! I had won a President Fellowship which would pay my tuition fees for four years of study. I also qualified for a Jasso fellowship that covered my living expenses (approximately Rs 25,000 per month) for the first one-and-a-half years. I used to stay at the university dormitory. Then I was awarded a Mext scholarship (approximately Rs 72,000 per month) for one year. A private foundation, Kaneko Foundation, offered me a monthly scholarship of Rs 40,000 per month. These scholarships not only covered my tuition fees and living expenses but I could save a substantial amount and spend this to tour the beautiful country.

Although I didn’t have to work while studying , foreign students in Japan are allowed to work up to 28 hours per week. If you work at a restaurant, you can earn the equivalent of Rs 350 to Rs 400 per hour. However, if you tutor high school students in English, you can earn as much as Rs 1,200-1,300 per hour.

There are usually two academic breaks in Japan, a summer break in August-September and winter break in February-March. This is when university students go for internships and attend conferences. Some students visit their home countries too.

Trishit’s team at Biomod
Trishit’s team at Biomod Telegraph archive picture

I am a student of Advanced Molecular Chemistry. Last year I represented my university at Biomod, a biomolecular design competition for international students, at Harvard University, US. Our project on “making DNA gels which can self-heal as a possible future alternative for haemo-philia treatments or artificial organs” won second prize.

In Japan, programmes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) are exceptional. However, you can’t study Medicine in English, although you can study Engineering. Engineering courses in that country are interdisciplinary.

Students in Japan can participate in a variety of clubs —city planning, law policy, newspaper, athletics, racing car, diving, skydiving and even Japanese tea ceremony. Activities of many such clubs are often funded by the university.

All foreign students in Japan must have health insurance. Premiums cost around Rs 1,300 per month and cover 70 per cent of hospitalisation expenses.

Japan is also one of the safest places on earth and the crime rate has consistently fallen ever since I joined the university. Civic amenities in Japan are unparalleled. For instance, for extreme cold weather in northern Japan, they have installed heaters beneath the roads and footpaths to melt the snow. The country’s unemployment rate is only three per cent. There are plenty of jobs for people with master’s degrees.

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