Clarence Ma on the New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan

University of Tokyo's Hachiko Statue in Yayoi Campus (Agriculture Dept.) New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan
University of Tokyo’s Hachiko Statue in Yayoi Campus (Agriculture Dept.)

Living in the world’s most populous metropolitan city, Tokyo, I was lucky enough to interview Clarence Ma, a fourth-year undergraduate Law/International Relations student from UNSW, who is currently studying at the University of Tokyo (Tōdai). Last year, he was one of the fortunate few to receive the New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan, each worth up to a whopping $67,000!

This year, the NCP Scholarship will award around 100 scholarships to Australian undergraduates aged 18-28 interested in studying in the Indo-Pacific region. The New Colombo Plan Scholarship is fast becoming a regular feature at Asia Options articles – all with good reason though, especially with nominations beginning in July.

So, with the backdrop of Disneyland Tokyo – and whilst we destroyed our beautifully curated Micky Mouse lunch sets – Clarence opened up about his experience applying for the scholarship, what his scholarship programme entails, and what it’s like to live in Tokyo, Japan.

Clarence in front of the famous Akamon ('Red Gate') of Todai's main campus, Hongo - New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan
Clarence in front of the famous Akamon (‘Red Gate’) of Todai’s main campus, Hongo

Clarence, congratulations on receiving the prestigious New Colombo Plan scholarship to Japan! The application procedure seems to be extremely difficult. What was it like for you and what kind of stages were involved?

It was quite a long application process indeed, and I wouldn’t have gotten through it without heaps of support from my friends, family and colleagues. Forever grateful to them!

There are 3 stages to receive the scholarship:

  1. An internal selection process conducted by each university to decide who will be nominated to apply for the Scholarship. And this process varies with the university: some do a written application and an interview, others just an interview;
  2. The second stage is an external written application to DFAT; and
  3. The last is an external interview at DFAT.

Altogether it felt like more than a subject’s workload – but in the end, it was all worth it!

What do you think makes these NCP scholarships so good for young Australians?

The NCP application process was really challenging but having the support of the Scholarship really enhances the exchange experience. The benefits include:

  • Many professional opportunities such as networking opportunities and internship openings;
  • Not having to worry about the financial burden of exchange, which can be quite hefty in a city like Tokyo; and
  • The money that you’ve worked hard over the holidays to earn can be saved for travel – and no exchange experience is complete without travel!

Many thanks to the Australian Government and the New Colombo Plan for offering such a once in a lifetime opportunity.

So, what was the most difficult part of the process?

The most difficult part of the process was juggling the application process with my other commitments; there were many times where I requested time off work or volunteering to supervisors to undertake the application.

I also had to make the difficult decision to under-load that semester because I didn’t want my results to take a hit. But in the end, I don’t have any qualms because it all worked out!

Do you have any tips for students who are hoping to apply for the NCP Scholarship?

My main tip would be to think through your intended Scholarship Program properly and to have a concrete plan for exchange.

You need to ask yourself: which country or city do you want to go to, and why? Which university, and why? Where would you like to do an internship? Where would you like to do language training? What else do you want to get involved in addition to that?

The more clear a plan you provide the selection panel and the interviewers, the more convincing you will be about your passion for exchange and your host location.

This is important because NCP looks favourably upon people keen to learn more about the culture and language of the host location, as well as to build relationships and connections with people there.

Are internships compulsory as part of the NCP Scholarship programme?

Internships are not compulsory but they are highly encouraged as part of the NCP. At the moment I am looking into internships at law firms in Tokyo. I might also consider extending my stay in Tokyo for an extra few months to do a couple of full-time internships – which is something that NCP encourages and will provide financial support for!

Having received the New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan and experienced life there first-hand, are there some misconceptions that Australians have about exchange in Japan? Has your views of Japan and Australia changed since coming to Tokyo?

There are many misconceptions on whether it’s essential to know the language, and to what extent. The common misconceptions are:

  • That you need to speak the language fluently like a native speaker in order to survive. This isn’t true because you gradually pick up the Japanese you need and fill gaps in your knowledge over time;
  • That you can get away without knowing Japanese at all. This also isn’t true if you want to integrate into local university life, because some (if not all) Circles only take in people who speak at least some Japanese; and
  • The idea that one’s Japanese will improve by leaps and bounds while here. This is true only if the person makes an effort and maximises opportunities to expose themselves to Japanese in a variety of contexts, not just the classroom.

Being able to speak some Japanese will make your experience more enjoyable. You will get to know the locals better and enjoy the day to day stuff, like ordering food, far more! So knowing some Japanese is highly beneficial! I would recommend that you make an effort to use Japanese with friends, join conversation classes, and find language partners! All of which I can definitely work more on doing.

Clarence and Junya working on a report for an intercollegiate competition as a part of the International Law Collegium in the Komaba campus' cafeteria - New Colombo Plan Scholarship to Japan
Clarence and Junya working on a report for an intercollegiate competition as a part of the International Law Collegium in the Komaba campus’ cafeteria


What is the student life like at Tōdai? How are your living arrangements in Tokyo? Are you participating in any club activities at the university?

Student life is great! There are heaps of Circles (student societies) available. I’ve joined the English Debating Society and the International Law Collegium and I go to their events regularly.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to find time to join the Cooking Circle sometime soon to get some balance! Some Circles and Clubs require fluent Japanese, but there are also many open to students with minimal Japanese.

Being an exchange student adds an extra layer of fun to student life – the exchange students at Todai are like a community and we all tend to chill in the study area outside the Global Office. It’s become our lounge of sorts and I’ve gotten to know some of the other exchange students better by hanging out there!

I’m currently living in a dorm a bit over half an hour from Komaba campus and an hour from Hongo campus. The commute sometimes makes me quite envious of people living on the dorms on campus, but Australian commuting has trained me to deal with distance so it’s not too bad.

My dorm is made up of mostly local students but there are some international students, which makes for some interesting multilingual conversations at dinner time!

Cooking circles sound fun! Before we finish, what is it like studying Law and International Relations in a Japanese university?

It’s been very interesting! I’ve been doing IR courses taught in English, which are taken mainly by international students. So my classmates come from all over the world, which means you get to hear different perspectives on things. This is very different to my experience in Australia where I found it quite rare to see international students in IR or law classes.

To apply, applications are made through your home institution in Australia. For more information, see the Scholarship guidelines.


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Tuna Cheung

Tuna is a Melburnian who thinks tuna is delicious, but knows mackerel is by far the best.

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