In this article, we’ll take you through an interview with a current MEXT Scholar, Iain Johnson. But, What is MEXT? Well, the MEXT scholarship, or the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Scholarship, is a yearly scholarship that enables students from all over the world to study in Japan. Students can choose from doing undergraduate, research, teacher training or Japanese studies and are completely covered in tuition and also receive a monthly stipend.
Without having ever studied the language and never having even been to Japan, in 2020, Iain Johnson decided to move to Japan after being successful in his application for the MEXT scholarship. He did his bachelor at Monash University with a double major in politics and IR. Following his degree, he did his honour’s year examining the political relationship in the postwar period between Japan and Australia. Specifically, he was interested in how two wartime enemies could so quickly become close allies. This research made him really curious to learn more about Japan. He felt that while being an Australian and studying at an Australian University got him a holistic view of the Australian side of the relationship, he always felt left wanting with the Japanese side. This is why Iain decided to apply for the research category of the MEXT scholarship and is now studying at Waseda University through the program.
Q. So, first off, why MEXT?
Aside from the fact that the MEXT scholarship offers unparalleled sponsorship to students hoping to travel to Japan by covering their tuition, living costs and travel expenses, the scholarship also gives recipients the opportunity to experience Japan and its rich culture firsthand. This was important to me because I am someone who, having never previously travelled to Japan, learned a great deal of what I know while writing my thesis. And while I felt like I’d learned a lot academically, it always felt like something critical was missing – the experience of actually being there. So, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after my Honours, and I came across the MEXT program, I knew immediately that this was the opportunity I had wanted to fill in those gaps. By studying in a Japanese university, under Japanese supervisors, alongside Japanese peers, I would be able to experience what I had previously only read about.
Q. Was there any reason you chose Waseda University specifically?
Once I had successfully passed through the first and second stages of the application, I was required to apply to three universities. Knowing that I wanted to be based in Tokyo, I applied for the University of Tokyo, Waseda University and Keio University. Really, I would have been beyond happy to attend any of these amazing universities, though ultimately, I received and accepted an offer from Waseda. The Waseda Graduate School of Political Science offers a world-class education in the political science discipline and is home to a number of researchers who are making great strides in the use of computational social science methods – a methodological approach which I am super excited to pursue in my graduate research. It’s also an absolutely beautiful campus and as someone who likes to spend a lot of time at the university, this was a big plus!
Q. Did you study Japanese before moving to Japan?
I took a few classes before I left, but I never studied the Japanese language at school or at university. Despite having had a strong interest in Japan for such a long time I always felt that the language posed such a steep learning curve. Once I was approved for the scholarship, I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could and have continued my language learning while here, but I definitely still get stuck. My advice to anyone considering pursuing MEXT or opportunities in Japan, start learning today!
Q. How’s was your experience been in getting to Japan durign COVID-19?
Originally, I was scheduled to depart in April 2020. However, two weeks out from my flight Australia announced a travel ban on all outgoing flights due to COVID-19. I had just quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and was in the process of selling my furniture – the timing couldn’t have been worse. For months I was stuck in a kind of limbo, knowing the scholarship was still there in principle, but not knowing if I’d be able to get to Japan to actually start it. During this time, the Japanese Embassy in Australia did their best to be accommodating and always kept me up to date with the changes as they happened. In addition, Waseda offered to allow me to start classes online, though I initially refused this not wanting to cut short the time I was supposed to be in Japan. During the long Melbourne lockdown of 2020, I did what I could to keep occupied, I spent some time working as a research officer and got my CELTA, but eventually, the downtime got to me and I started Waseda online classes in September. Finally, in December I got word that I could apply for a travel exemption, and by January 2021 I was quarantined in a hotel in Narita.
Q. What has the experience on MEXT been like so far?
Before answering that question, I’d just like to say that despite the uncertainties produced by COVID-19, the ongoing support from both the Australian and the Japanese governments has been spectacular. In particular, my contacts at the Japanese embassy in Canberra were a lifeline when my travel date was up in the air. They were always available and able to answer any questions I had. Additionally, at Waseda University, the staff were absolutely fantastic in keeping in touch while I was stuck in Australia; support was always there when I needed it.
In terms of the application process, it can be a real challenge to get your head around. Though the procedure changes from year to year, for me the process involved a formal written application, a Japanese and English language exam, an interview with a selection panel, and a host of medical exams including x-rays and pathology. There are so many moving parts and boxes to check that keeping it straight requires quite a lot of planning and significant time investment. To anyone considering applying, I would strongly recommend checking out Transenz Japan. Travis’ website has dozens of articles offering advice on how to apply for the scholarship and it really helped me as I was putting together my application.
Regarding my time in Japan receiving the scholarship, it’s fantastic! I live just around the corner from my university and am having a great time with the people I’ve met since moving here. Though many of my classes are currently online, I have had the chance to get to some classes and the learning environment is very respectful and engaging. The teaching staff are fantastic, and my supervisor is insightful. Overall, I can’t speak highly enough of the program.
Q. What’s the scholarship money like on MEXT?
The MEXT scholarship covers the cost of your travel to and from Japan, pays for the entirety of your tuition, and provides a stipend. Currently, I receive 143,000 yen a month which covers my rent, food, travel expenses, and utilities. Given that your expenses are covered, this gives applicants a lot of time to experience life in Japan by doing things like participating in circles at university and getting involved in volunteering opportunities and internships! So if you were hoping to travel, I’d definitely recommend ensuring that you save up some money before you go! That said if you do find yourself wanting some extra money though there are certainly options available to you. While the MEXT scholarship requires that you do not accept other scholarships, you can work up to 28 hours a week if need be. However, in my case getting permission to work meant making an application to adjust my visa conditions and required permission from my supervisor first.
Q. Have you felt any culture shock so far?
This may sound silly, but Konbini (convenience stores)? Wow. The array of services that are available at convenience stores is just unbelievable. You can snack on a chicken cutlet or yakitori while you pay for a bill and get ID photos printed from your phone.
In all seriousness though, I constantly find myself astounded by the sheer scale of Tokyo. Though Tokyo is a called city, until you get here and see it for yourself, it’s hard to imagine in comparison to somewhere like Melbourne or Sydney. Exploring Tokyo is an activity in and of itself, and truly I’m not sure you could ever see it all. What amazes me is that you can hop on the metro, travel for five minutes and end up somewhere that feels like a completely different city from where you were just moments ago. From the serenity of Hamarikyu Gardens to the crazy scramble crossing at Shibuya, from the modern buildings in Roppongi to Senso-Ji and the market streets in Asakusa it’s astounding just how much difference there is across this amazing city.
Q. In saying that, what’s an interview if it doesn’t mention Covid-19. So, what has life been like with Covid-19 at the moment?
Currently, we’re in a state of emergency in Tokyo which means that restaurants and businesses close at 8 pm and many bars are simply closed as the serving of alcohol has been temporarily prohibited. I feel for the small businesses and understand that many are doing it quite tough at the moment. For their sake, I hope for a speedy return to normality. I have been generally very impressed with the community here, even though there are no fines imposed on people, many still choose to wear masks and just follow the rules. I get the sense that there’s a strong sense of social responsibility and I find that to be commendable. For me personally, the state of emergency and the situation in Tokyo has just meant more hours in my room than I had initially planned. While that poses its own challenges, I’d say I feel quite safe here despite the current situation and am still very grateful to have this opportunity.
Q. Even with everything going on in the world and Japan right now, would you say MEXT has been a positive experience?
Definitely, after all, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and one I don’t think gets anywhere near enough attention. Programs like New Columbo Plan are pretty well known in Australia, but I found many people were not aware at all of the MEXT program. And for that reason, I think it’s important to note that even though my time here has not been exactly what I had expected going into the application process, it’s still an amazing experience. To have the opportunity to learn new perspectives from scholars with completely different backgrounds and be in a different country with such a rich history and unique culture is just amazing. I’ve always been a strong advocate for international study programs because of how eye-opening and horizon-broadening they can be, and the MEXT program is absolutely up there with the best.
What’s your experience been like with classes so far?
At Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science, my research focuses on security and diplomacy in the Asia Pacific. Waseda offers a number of courses specific to this region and that has meant that the classes align nicely with my research work. One thing I have found that was markedly different to my experience in Australian tertiary studies however is the extremely rigorous focus on a methodological procedure in Japan. Regardless of what it is that you want to do with your research, you will be taking both quantitative and qualitative methodology classes. Waseda’s focus is to produce well-rounded researchers, and they really deliver on that goal. Compulsory units for PolSci graduates include normative analysis, text analysis, game theory for political science, programming and all sorts of other things you may not be used in your own research. Personally, I find this to be an extremely appealing component of the program. Having this knowledge will definitely make me a better researcher and I’m excited to continue this journey.
As for my final question, after MEXT, what’s next? (This wasn’t meant to rhyme I promise)
These things are always subject to change, but for the past few years, I have envisioned myself undertaking a PhD at the Australian National University and then either pursuing an academic career or moving into a public sector role. I’ve always loved research and I think that research in this field specifically really has the potential to contribute directly to positive outcomes in Australia’s relations with the Asia Pacific – something I’m very passionate about. As time marches on, our future will only become more and more tied to the outcomes of the region and I would love to be a part of the academic or policy community that is guiding Australia into this future.
Any final comments?
Due to the financial pressures of COVID-19 many degree programs and scholarships have faced cutbacks and changes that are in many cases not for the better, despite this, the MEXT program has continued very much in the same fashion as it was prior to the pandemic. I think this is important to note because it is a clear indication of the value that the Japanese government places on this program and on higher education more generally. So, I would strongly recommend that anyone who might be on the fence about applying, should still go ahead and do so. The people who are there to support you are fantastic at what they do, and even though the world may seem uncertain now, it’s never a bad time to pursue your dream. And you don’t have to be studying politics or IR like me, there are many academic backgrounds you can come in with. I know people coming from backgrounds in medicine, science, and even fine arts and history. I hope by this point I’ve made it clear that I believe that it’s a wonderful opportunity for a lot of Australians with an interest in Japan, and so let me just say: anyone with even the slightest interest should definitely apply. And if you’re successful in your application, and you come to Tokyo between now and 2023, look me up! I’ll show you my favourite ramen spots!
Currently, Iain is continuing his studies at Waseda University while working with the Australian Japan Youth Dialogue to promote closer relations between the two countries. We wish Iain all the best with his scholarship and can’t wait to see how things turn out for him.
Thank you so much for your amazing insights Iain
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