A Guide to Japan’s Higher Education System for Foreigners Looking to Study Abroad

Today, education is not just about preparing people for adulthood, but also a means to showcase a country’s strength and attract overseas talent. The school system varies between countries, but this article will briefly introduce the general education system in Japan, with a focus on higher education. If you’re considering studying abroad in Japan, make sure to read this to know what you’re signing up for.

The Education System in Japan

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The school system in Japan is classified into primary (6 years of elementary school), secondary (3 years of junior high and 3 years of high school), and tertiary education.

While there are study-abroad programs for primary and secondary students, most people end up experiencing Japan and its education system for the first time in a higher education institution. Tertiary education can be undertaken in a wide variety of ways, but below, we go through the four most common options: vocational college, community college, university, and graduate school.

Vocational College

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Known as “senshu gakko” or “senmon gakko” in Japanese, as well as more commonly translated as “specialized training school” in English, these institutions focus on developing professional or practical skills. To enter one, you need to have completed high school or studied for more than half a year in a Japanese language school. Some may also ask you to take an entrance exam.

Most vocational college courses are two years long. Completion of 1-3 year courses will grant you a diploma (“senmon-shi”), after which you can either find a job or enter university as a third-year student, assuming you pass the university’s entrance examination. If you enroll in and complete a rarer 4-year course, you can receive an advanced diploma (“kodo-senmon-shi”). This is equivalent to obtaining a bachelor’s degree and qualifies you to enroll into any graduate school in Japan.

There are 3 types of courses available at most vocational colleges in Japan: upper secondary courses, vocational courses, and general courses.

Upper Secondary Courses

Upper secondary courses/institutions (“koto senshu gakko”) offer early professional training to those who have completed junior high school. Unlike the locals, international students are required to complete a full 12 years of education (or equivalent) in their home country in order to be accepted into one of these courses, hence why most international junior high students are unable to enroll in this type of program.

Vocational Courses

Vocational courses (“senmon katei”) are meant for those who have obtained a high school diploma or above and wish to obtain professional certifications or build professional or practical skills. This academic requirement applies to both locals and foreigners. Out of all three types of vocational college courses, this is by far the most popular with international students, as most are unable to enroll in any other type of vocational college program.

General Courses

General courses (“ippan katei”) are for students who are just looking to improve their knowledge or skills, or find their path in life. Cram schools, kimono classes, casual cooking schools… Anything that doesn’t really fit in any of the other two categories is considered a “general course.” There are no age limitations or admission requirements, which may sound great, but this also means that there is no specialized purpose in taking them, and so international students cannot obtain student visas to study any general courses. As such, it is impossible for them to apply for any general course.

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According to statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), vocational colleges provide courses for approximately 8,200 subjects. For those who have a clear career goal and plan, attending this type of school would be helpful for employment and career planning. Some of these colleges are quite prestigious, such as the Tokyo Sushi Academy Tsukiji Branch and Mode Gakuen in Shinjuku , which is famous for fashion design and makeup. Graduates of famous institutions usually have a very high rate of employment, as a reputable school can widen your professional network and any industry-specific certificates can greatly increase your competitiveness. It is therefore the recommended education option for those who intend to stay in Japan for work after graduation.

Community College

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According to MEXT, a community college (coined “junior college” in Japan) is a higher education institution offering general and specialized education within a short period of time. They are a happy mix between universities and vocational colleges; you get an associate’s degree or diploma in a shorter period of time and at a lower cost than a university!

Just like a vocational college, most courses at a community college are 2 years long, though some programs like medical technology and nursing can take up to 3 years. Unlike the former, however, they put more emphasis on research since they are actually classified as institutions that offer university-level education.

Compared to universities, community colleges have a more jam-packed schedule, as students must obtain the required credits and, if they’re looking to work after graduation, find a job within 2 years—a difficult feat considering university students have double the time to do all of the above—but this also means more internship opportunities as community colleges know this and have various programs set up to help students get as many employment opportunities as possible. So, if you want to obtain a degree in a short amount of time and minimal cost, and you’re dead set on working right after graduation, a community college could be it for you.

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One interesting fact about community colleges in Japan is that many of them are targeted towards women – about 42% of Japan’s community colleges only admit female students! This has to do with the historical gender gap in higher education in Japan. In the past, very few women received any kind of higher education, but as Japan began to modernize and open up to the rest of the world, it realized the need to educate its women in order to improve its workforce and the nation as a whole, and so community colleges were established. Today, many community colleges are open to men as well, and this number is only increasing. With each year, Japan is making strides in achieving gender equality in all facets of society.

University

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Universities (“daigaku”) in Japan generally provide four years of education leading to a bachelor’s degree. The tuition fee is generally higher than what you’d pay at a vocational or community college, but that also means more grants and scholarships are available. The admission criteria is also a lot stricter, as on top of reaching a certain academic standard, most universities require international students to pass N1 of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and take the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) to determine if they are qualified to be admitted. That said, private or newly-established universities are more active in recruiting international students, with some even lowering the criteria in order to make it easier for them to get in.

If you’re looking to study abroad for a bit and earn credit at your university back home, or if you excel at academics and envision a life working in Japan or pursuing academia and research here, enrolling in a Japanese university could be a good idea. Just keep in mind that you will be restricted in the number of hours you can work as an international student and that most undergraduate programs in Japan are still taught entirely in Japanese, though more and more English-taught programs are opening up year after year.

Graduate School

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A graduate school (“daigakuin”) awards master’s or doctoral degrees. The former is obtained by finishing a pre-doctoral course that typically takes 2 years, while the latter is a 3-year doctoral program. The majority of master’s courses in Japan are related to a student’s field of study during their undergraduate years. Only a few cases are cross-field and it is very hard to be admitted. Unlike undergraduate programs in Japan, however, there are far more postgraduate programs offered entirely in English, so if you can’t find the bachelor’s program you want to pursue being taught in English in Japan, you can always return to the idea of studying in Japan when pursuing your master’s or doctorate.

It is worth mentioning that in addition to regular postgraduate students, in Japan there is also a “research student” system where you study for only a semester or academic year without acquiring a degree. In fact, several top national universities, including the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, and Osaka University, have an unwritten rule: you have to study as a research student for at least 6 months to 1 year before becoming a postgraduate student. Make sure you do thorough research, such as interview any former international postgraduate students at the university you wish to study at in order to learn how they got in. This knowledge will be essential in securing your place at a graduate school in Japan.

Go Study in Japan!

Now that you have a better idea of what sort of higher education systems are in place in Japan, you should be able to make a more informed decision on whether to study abroad in Japan or not. Studying abroad can be a wonderful way to experience a new country and its culture, so if the opportunity ever opens itself up to you, we do hope you’ll consider making Japan your destination.

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you’d really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook!

By the way, if you're looking for a job or career change and you're already in Japan, we now have a jobs site called tsunagu Local Jobs! On top of having exclusive job listings that you won't find anywhere else, we've vetted all the listings to ensure that they're foreigner-friendly and high quality. If you register for an account on the site, you can even make use of our agent service where our international staff will help you find the perfect job in Japan, so check it out today!

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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