Is Japanese University ‘Easy?’ My Experience Studying in Japan and the US Compared

I am a part of what just may be a very exclusive group of people on this planet. I had the pleasure of studying at both a Japanese and American university. Well, technically I studied at an American college, but that’s besides the point. I had lived the university life in both countries as a student. A student that was going to stick it out until the very end. Until graduation! (I definitely didn’t stick it out until graduation in the case of my US further education. I was destined to leave after a full year.)

A true reward for a job well done!

My inspiration for writing this article.

I decided to write this post after seeing an increasingly common sentiment across the internet of Japanese university serving as this big break in the stressful lives of Japanese students. That university in Japan is where students enjoy this 4 year-long party after the pressure of high school, and before the stress of being a new employee in Japan’s workforce. There also seems to be this sentiment that a degree from a Japanese university is entirely worthless from an international standpoint. I’m…not really sure where that last one came from. First of all, as an American, I can’t shake this feeling that nearly ANY non technical degree nowadays is nearly worthless in helping you find a job. Also, when people think of Japan, surely the first thing they think of is…’uneducated’…(Sarcasm sarcasm.) I don’t really get that idea at all.

But let’s look at the first idea, based on my own experience studying in both the US and Japan.

Photo taken in downtown Osaka. Summer 2017?

Is Japanese university easy?

This is a bit difficult to answer, but I can look back on some of my own experiences. For context, I’m comparing my first year of higher education in the US and Japan, which would be two entirely different and probably equally defining chapters of my life. I actually wrote another very in-depth article on my experience studying at a Japanese university last year. Has it really been that long? (I believe it’s my longest article on this site as of the time of this post).

So, is Japanese university easier than American university? In a way, I believe it is. I believe it probably is easier to graduate from a Japanese university, however, in my experience compared to my time studying in the US, students at my Japanese university were expected to be much more independent…from a certain point of view. It’s difficult for me even now to articulate exactly what I mean here, because the dynamic is quite subtle, but I could feel it.

Japanese university students are more self-sufficient? ‘Is Japanese university easy?’ from a different perspective.

Actually, I find this is true in a lot of different ways in Japanese society. Ironically enough, Japanese students (in some ways and absolutely not in others) are much more independent than Americans of the same age. This is somewhat of a cultural difference I have noticed over time. A dynamic forms in the Japanese classroom as a result of a few different variables that make self-sufficiency much more essential than what I had felt. There are many reasons why this dynamic forms, but the most clear factor that differentiates Japanese university from my experience in American university is the ‘lecture’ style of teaching.

The most impromptu and slightly awkward photo I could find.

Put simply, Japanese students never ask questions. Ever. And for good reason. There is a great deal of shame and embarrassment that goes along with getting the wrong answer, or even asking a ‘bad’ question in Japanese society. Especially in the Kansai region of Japan where I had attended university, there was this culture of ‘tsukkomi’, which basically means (something like) bonding through teasing. Of course, people would rather be the one teasing (The ‘tsukkomi’), rather than the one being teased (The ‘boke’). To be completely honest, I did pick up on a flavor of mean-spiritedness throughout my experiences in the Japanese education system, and I was never picked on or anything like that. It’s just a general feeling in the air.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a generally positive experience studying at a Japanese university. (Actually, it was probably better than my time at American university because of the freedom allowed to students in Japan. Talk about ironic.) It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what I mean. It’s just that in the Japanese classroom, there’s a general fear of being seen, and I felt there was less encouragement given to students in general. At the same time, I think Japanese teachers tend to treat students more like adults. You’re there because you need to learn the material for the test. You’re not getting brownie points by raising your hand 15 times, or earning half your grade through participation (usually, I did have a few courses like this.) As you can see, I can make fun of western style education and Japanese style education alike. School really does kind of suck, doesn’t it?

How university in Japan can be more difficult than in America

The almost complete lack of class interaction and encouraged participation means that you either hunker down and learn the information or you don’t. There are no participation points. There is no dialogue with the teacher. There are usually no questions asked. In most cases, the teacher might as well be replaced with a YouTube lecture. This demands that university students in Japan facilitate their own study habits and learn how to pinpoint important information, because in most cases the midterm and final exam make up 100% of your grade. I personally enjoyed this sense of freedom and relief from the general nonsense group projects and presentations of the western education experience, but I also would say that I do prefer the socratic method. As somebody who is always trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone (I did move to Japan, after all.), the idea that asking questions is seen as some kind of failure is absolutely absurd to me. I prefer the Socratic method.

Some of my goofier experiences. 

One thing I found funny was that, despite the fact that nobody would ever answer, some professors I had still insisted on asking the class questions. “Class, what do you think about x,y,z?” , and then utter ego-deafening silence as rows of blank stares invade the soul of our dear teacher. The lack of participation in the classroom sometimes comes from a lack of interest from the professor, but more often than not it’s the students who have been conditioned by the Japanese education system to hide in their shells. The Japanese education entity as a whole prepares and waxes these shells, but it’s the students themselves who decorate and maintain their warm cozy exterior. 
Seeing the humor in the situation, I would try to answer every question in the class. First, as a bit of social parody as me being the only America in the room, of course I couldn’t resist but opening my mouth at every opportunity. 2nd, to rub in the fact that i’m speaking in my 2nd language and still gave it a shot. And 3rd, as a way to keep myself on my toes and forcibly challenge myself. 

There was a time when this backfired though. In one of my university classes the teacher asked a reasonable question, and I believe I gave him a reasonable answer. His response? He basically scoffed at my answer in front of 300 other students. The next time he asked people to answer a question in class that army of crickets returned. Nobody was going to take that risk. Really though, that’s one of those funny things in life. His response just made me want to raise my hand more. He shot me down? Well, I was going to show him! Annoying American here! Check! In all seriousness, this is a pretty normal psychological response to this kind of situation. Failure and embarrassment leads to resistance to the fear of failure and embarrassment. At least, this is the way it should be. Unfortunately, because of this view-by-proxy scenario where most Japanese students have only seen other people getting laughed at, they never realize that making mistakes in front of their peers really isn’t that big of a deal. Essentially, people in Japan are scared out of being risk takers. And that’s really a shame.  

How my experience studying at a Japanese university helped me survive in Japan

Of course, my time studying at university in Japan was much, much more difficult for me personally. I had, after all, begun studying Japanese just when I turned 18 years old, and by 20 I was taking university courses in Japan, sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other Japanese students. I…don’t know how I did that. I almost didn’t do it. There was so much failure along the way. But that’s what makes it interesting. And any time you move to another country and try to relearn how to do life, things are bound to be interesting.

Living in Japan is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and extremes. Ever thing you’ve ever known. Every word. Every concept. Every thing you’ve ever done in your life. You need to learn how to do it again, and in a slightly different way, all through an entirely new language. It is intense. I suppose my point here is that the notion that Japanese university is easier than the university experience of the west is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. The lifestyle, culture, and societal expectations of countries aren’t not only comparable, it isn’t even on the same level.  In other words, everyone is playing an entirely different game. This is more apparent while living in Japan as foreigner than perhaps any other country. If you are thinking of studying at a Japanese university, you should absolutely go for it. Not because it is easier, or harder, or has more value, or can help you get a job. You should do it because it will be YOUR experience. You can’t condense an entire complex experience into a reddit post. This is quickly becoming a scathing criticism of this site…

If you’re considering studying abroad in Japan

Have you ever considered what it’s like to study at a Japanese language school? I wrote all about my experiences studying at a language school in Osaka from 2015 to 2016, and I think you will find it worth your time. Please check it out below!

One thought on “Is Japanese University ‘Easy?’ My Experience Studying in Japan and the US Compared

  1. It’s crazy how things work here.

    While its more relaxed in the schools where I teach, there are some classes where the students all just clam up when a question is asked to them. And it feels almost painful as the teacher to just pick someone and ask them what they think, or what they wrote down for something.

    I imagine this gets even worse in HS, then university as you mention, culminating in the workplace where I’ve heard you never speak up or question anything said or done by anyone senior to you.


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