Life in Japan blog - 1 - The first steps - scholarships in Japan

Let me talk about my personal experience in Japan, which started a couple of years ago, when I was an exchange student in South Korea. I had the chance to get on the ferry and go from Busan to Osaka and it was a significant point in my life. The atmosphere of Osaka and also Japanese language made me start digging myself into Japanese culture. On the way home back to Europe, I already did the first steps and started to learn the two alphabets, namely the hiraganas and katakanas. I only needed a pen a notebook and the Internet. When I got home I immediately signed up for a Japanese language course and attended Japanese classes. That time I was an undergraduate electrical engineer student, so basically I was taking university lectures during the day and kept on studying at night at the private language school. I have to mention it here, that when learning Japanese it is not enough to attend the courses only, you have to review a lot by yourself, and it makes the process more efficient if you study the materials in advance. Long story short, until I graduated from my home university, my days were basically filled up with math, physics and Japanese classes. When I look back, I say it definitely worth the effort.

Softbank, Yahoo Mobile, Au and Docomo are the main Japanese mobile providers, I found Au the most liberal

I heard from different sources, including my ex-Japanese teacher that the Japanese government offers scholarship programs for engineering or human science graduate students. These scholarships can cover your daily life expenses, and what is more, you get a tuition fee reduced to zero.

I hesitated for a few minutes, decided that I gotta be in Japan as soon as possible and made my application. I do not remember every detail of the application, but all in all, it was not difficult at all. Obviously, it involves a lot of paperwork. What is more difficult is to find a Japanese contact in Japan, who can guide your future research while you are on the peninsula. Basically, you need to find a lab with a research group, which you can join and carry out your own research.

You also need to know that the scholarship program that I am on is provided by the Ministry of Education and Japanese knowledge is not required when applying. When you do the interview (most likely on the Consulate of Japan) you can take it either in English or in Japanese. It is not a big advantage if you can speak Japanese this time, however, while you are on the program, Japanese knowledge is more important than you would think for the first time.

The best Japanese universities in 2016:

  • 1. Tokyo University (東京大学)
  • 2. Kyoto University (京都大学)
  • 3. Keio University (慶應義塾大学)
  • 4. Osaka University (大阪大学)
  • 5. Toyota Technological Institute (豊田工業大学)
  • 6. Waseda University (早稲田大学)
  • 7. Tohoku University (東北大学)
  • 8. Tokyo Insitute of Technology (東京工業大学)
  • 9. Nagoya University (名古屋大学)
  • 10. Kyushu University (九州大学)

Obviously, if you would like to get a valuable degree, you will need to choose from the top of the list.

As such, if you would like to study in Japan on a scholarship program provided by the Ministry of Education of Japan, I recommend you choosing a university from the list above, find a laboratory, in which they research something that is relevant to your field and then look up the contact of the professor. In general, these professors can speak good English, so you can write the first emails in English and attach your CV. Later on, as I realized that Japanese people prefer reading Japanese text, it is advised to do the communication in Japanese. For more information on scholarships, check out the homepage of the Japanese Consulate in your home country.

If you submitted the necessary documents, passed the interview, and the application procedure, depending on the time of the year, you have two dates for arrival. There is one in April and one in October.

The scholarship includes a return ticket between your home country and Japan. Thus the university will buy you the ticket for a date, that was specified by you. Be careful to keep all the documents, such as boarding cards, because you will have to submit these when you are in Japan so that you can prove that you were on a given flight.

As soon as you came over the jet-lag the rest of the difficulties are yet to come. The jet-lag lasted for about two weeks for me, however, it might differ by each individual. Okay, so what are the difficulties you have to face on the first weeks?

The first visa I got was valid for two years. I suppose many of the exchange students get the same 730 days visa.

And here comes the bumpy part of the road.

Most of the mobile providers only sign a contract with you if your visa is valid for more than two years (since the contract is for 2 years). Consequently, if you don't rush and buy your phone on the first day, most of the providers will shut their doors in front of you. There was only one provider (AU), which had fairly liberal policies, and sold me their plan. It was not that easy though...

You enter the store, and you are very happy, because even though you are in Japan for less than 730 days, they still sell you the phone. If you have your address printed on your residence card... Which is not the case from day zero. You have to go to the city office (市役所or区役所) and that is the place where they write it for you. Keep in mind that most of them are not open on weekends, so there is no way that you can get a phone on weekends if you don't have the prerequisites done ( at least that was the case for me).

You also have to know that in Japan official documents are signed by a seal called "inkan(印鑑、いんかん)". If you do not have this personal seal, companies might refuse your handwritten sign. If your Japanese is good enough, you can convince the assistant that your sign is as good as a seal.

You have to pay attention to many things when buying a phone in Japan.

Every time, when you are dealing with a shop assistant in Japan, he or she will do the best, so that you believe that you are receiving a fair treatment and everything goes as supposed to.

If you use your phone for two years, without paying attention to what you are paying for, it might be the case for you.

I also realized, that when using English, instead of Japanese with the assistant, the important parts are somehow neglected.

Naturally, they will offer you the cheapest and the best plan. And then comes the rest. The whole procedure lasts until you sign (or seal...) the contract.

What are these nasty things?

When you are buying an Apple product, the so-called Apple Care insurance "goes" with the plan. When saying "goes" I mean, they switch it on, you have to pay for it every month, and you cannot disable it when purchasing the phone. You have to go back to the store and have it switched off. It is easy to forget it...

Most of the time the prices, initially displayed are before tax, the final bill, is usually 8% more than what you have expected (depending on the current tax rate in Japan). Probably they do it, because the tax rate changes from time to time in Japan. The government wanted to increase it to 10%, but it has not been applied yet.

When buying a phone in Japan, you also have to pay attention to the contract cancellation fees. They can be ridiculously high (20-30.000 Yen easily).

In addition, there are many services switched on by the provider and you keep paying every single month, even though you don't use them (SMS, MMS, etc who uses these in 2016???). Try to have them switched off as soon as possible.

Most of the providers don't support cash payment, usually your bill is paid automatically from your bank account, so you are not aware of how much you paid and what services you used in a given month.

I have another bad personal experience with Japanese carriers. I wanted to use more data. I was told that it is better to buy a new iPad, instead of purchasing more data for my phone, since the iPad comes with a 7 GB plan. I said fine, let's go for it. After signing the contract, the assistant told me that, since it is a campaign now, my data might decrease to 2 GB. And guess what, after a couple a month I was only able to use 2 GB for the same amount of money. I call this unfair. I cannot emphasize enough, be careful when buying a phone (or basically anything) in Japan!

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How do smart Japanese people buy phones in Japan?

Japanese people who are aware of what they are paying for don't necessarily buy phones at the big providers. It is possible to buy SIM free phones in Japan, however, it is not straightforward (okay, probably Apple Store would do it). They buy such a phone, and there are various providers offering SIM cards with good plans, that can be purchased online. They provide 4G data plans as well, with less limitation, compared to the big providers. Unfortunately, the fact that you will face, that in order to buy these cards, you will need to speak Japanese. As such for you first phone, I would recommend you buying a simple phone with a cheap plan and as long as your Japanese is good enough, go for the SIM free ones.

To sum up the whole article, let me reiterate the things you would ideally have to do on your first week in Japan:

  • if you didn't bring any yen, withdraw some money
  • if you will be staying in a dormitory, check in your dormitory
  • say hi to your professor and don't forget to give him your little gift brought from you home country
  • find the nearest city office and have your address registered
  • have a seal(印鑑、いんかん) made for you
  • open a bank account
  • following the guide above and buy a phone
  • do some research about the paper work that you will have to do at your university
  • eat a good sushi or a ramen
  • have some rest

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