Top Tips for MEXT Scholarship Success – With Meira Chen

Having recently come back to Australia after being in Japan for two and a half years on the MEXT scholarship, former scholar Meira Chen sat down with us to talk all about her experience. Whether it be about the great points of the program and the not-so-great ones, Meira wasn’t shy about making her points known. During the program, she attended Waseda University and completed a Master of International Relations. Her main research focus was on the outcomes of Australia’s higher education and public diplomacy policy (the New Colombo Plan) that is targeted at the Indo-Pacific region. This choice of topic stems from personal insights gained through work and study experiences in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul and Singapore. Her objective is to contribute to policy that develops and enhances global citizenship attitudes, as well as Asia capable knowledge and skills among Australian youth. So, without further ado, let’s get into the interview.

MEXT Scholar Meira Chen
Sakura season at Shinjuku Koen. I’d sometimes ride my bike there for strolls around the park.

1. So, what first sparked your interest in Japan and why did you choose to apply to the MEXT program?

One of my earliest memories was researching fashion subcultures (ガングロganguro, 姫ギャルhime gyaru and so forth) and making a skit about them for the Video Matsuri competition. The topic was fascinating because until then, I had only been exposed to Australian fashion (shorts, thongs, t-shirt optional). That was really the starting point for me.

The main reason I applied for MEXT was because of my research interests. I was intending to conduct fieldwork on New Colombo Plan scholar experiences in Tokyo, as well as interview Japanese university staff and industry stakeholders on their perceptions of the Australian government initiative. As with many things in the past few years, my research ended up taking a sharp turn in the rapidly unfolding pandemic, but this was also a great learning experience. My other objectives were to attain full professional proficiency in Japanese, and experience quintessential Japanese life throughout the four seasons, like participating in bon odori, hanami and onsen trips.

2. How was your experience on the MEXT program and do you have any highlights?

Active participation in Waseda student circles brought a lot of insight into local student culture. For example, I had a ball attending KGK bible studies every week. Just by being there, I learned a lot from observing group dynamics and ways of communication, as well as contributing an alternate perspective to discussions. Somehow, I also ended up leading a bible study in Japanese. One highlight was visiting the hometowns of friends who I made through university and my dorm. Spending a week or more with their families gave me a glimpse into their upbringing and everyday life in suburban/rural Japan. I also couldn’t shake off my Kansai-ben for about a month after. For those that don’t know, Kansai-ben is the combination of a multitude of dialects in the Kansai region which comprise Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara and other rural towns. It’s known as being more casual and has a distinct difference in tone, pitch and accent to that of the standard Tokyo dialect. Lastly, living in a traditional female dorm that features communal cafeterias, shared bathing, and inter-dorm activities (futsal, basketball) felt like living with a huge family. We were looked after by our dorm mom (ryobou) and dorm dad (ryochou). Overall, I have many fond memories of my time there. Especially, walking from the dorm to the Sky Tree every other night was one of the top ones.

My friends’ hometown in Nagano. It was a peaceful getaway during Golden Week. 

What were the classes like?

Half of my classes were in English and the other half were in Japanese. I highly recommend taking courses in Japanese, even if you don’t understand everything. I definitely didn’t in my first semester. As class discussions were generally on the quieter end, this actually gave me opportunities to speak up and practise turning my convoluted thoughts into semi-comprehensible Japanese.

From the beginning of 2020, all classes, including zemi (seminars, went completely online. It was a bizarre time. With breakout rooms never utilised, class discussions far and few between, and a government decree to self-isolate, getting to know classmates beyond blacked out webcam screens, was a bit challenging.

As a heads up, MA students are required to participate in zemi (seminars) every week. My zemi was 3 hours long, consisting of two research presentations. It was also by far the largest in my program, with about 40 MA and PhD students attending. My supervisor was very supportive and friendly, though it was on the student themself to reserve meetings with him and ask for advice. If you are considering a Japanese MA program, be wary that more likely than not, you will need to take initiative in order to receive assistance for your research. Otherwise, you may never see your supervisor outside of zoom or physical zemi.

Exploring the pit dwellings of Sannai Maruyama in Aomori, where people lived during the Jomon period (approx 3900-2200 BCE)

3. What would you say were some of the positive takeaways for yourself from the program?

First off is that you create your own opportunities. I recommend getting involved with Australia-Japan circles if you want to meet different professionals. Whether it working professionals who can offer advice, or others who are going through the same life stage as you, getting involved with people with similar interests is always a positive for yourself and your career. Some groups and activities I’d recommend are the ANZCCJ Youth Empowerment Program, the Australia-Japan Youth Dialogue, any conferences that take your interest, the Australian Embassy in Japan, or start-ups if that’s your jam. I signed up for WomEnpowered International, based at Tokyo University. During my time there, they ran regular events on topics such as changes in women’s work and lifestyles due to COVID-19. Lastly, actively reach out to senpai (seniors) and kohai (juniors) in your zemi. My senpai gave me advice that was integral to completing my thesis. I tried to pay it forward by reaching out to my kohai, who have asked me many thesis-related questions that I had when starting out.

4. What advice would you have for people who are applying to MEXT in the coming year? 

Firstly, it’s always helpful to connect with scholar alumni and those in the degree program who you are aiming for, so you can get a more concrete idea of whether this is for you. Google and LinkedIn may assist.

Secondly, what’s your exit plan? consider whether you want to do shuukatsu in Japan, continue studying after graduation, or will return to Australia. If shuukatsu, company seminars (setsumeikai) start from as early as mid-March, and you should attend them during the first year of your Masters. If you’re an undergraduate, it’s recommended to start the job hunt from your 3rd year. Even if you don’t want to work in Japan, attending the huge career expos gives you an idea of the mainstream work/hiring culture in Japan, which I found fascinating.

Waseda graduation day. You can see the iconic Okuma Memorial Hall and Skytree behind me. A typhoon also hit that day, hence the textured sky. 

5. What are your top tips for people who want to succeed in receiving the MEXT scholarship? 

Number one is, ‘Understand the goals and priorities of the MEXT scholarship and address this in your application’; and, number two is, ‘you need a concrete research plan’. This is written about a lot, but it doesn’t have to be complete, although it needs to be clear and significant.

6. Any final comments?

Do think about what you want to contribute and gain from your time in Japan. Trust me, 2.5 years flashes by in a blink. Lastly, explore back streets and alleyways, if you like discovering local, niche shops. Also don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with strangers, in the ‘randomest’ of settings.

Thank you so much for your amazing insights Meira, it was great talking to you and all the best for your career!

Interested In finding out more about MEXT and how you can study in Japan? Then check out these articles below:

The MEXT Scholarship: Everything you need to know!

Learn more than just the Japanese language in Akita

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Tyson Mauk

Tyson is an avid follower of North-East Asian politics, business and culture with a particular love for all things Japan. You can usually find him chowing down on some Ramen, or possibly in an Izakaya.