Japan's international students embrace college life after bumper start

Polish student Anna Wozny (standing, left) has made a smooth transition to campus life in Japan. The 22-year-old now hangs out with Japanese friends that she came to know while on a school trip to Italy in summer. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANNA WOZN
Polish student Anna Wozny (standing, left) has made a smooth transition to campus life in Japan. The 22-year-old now hangs out with Japanese friends that she came to know while on a school trip to Italy in summer. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANNA WOZNY 

MR BRYAN Kuek gets teased by friends about having the time of his life in culturally rich Japan but, in reality, the Tokyo University student spent much of his first year in an almost endless blur of classes.

The 21-year-old does not regret giving up a place in the National University of Singapore’s law faculty to join the pioneer batch of Tokyo University’s new English-language undergraduate programme introduced in October last year.

But the Singaporean, like his 26 other classmates from countries such as the United States, South Korea, China and Poland, have had to struggle at times both on and off campus.

Fellow student Lin Gengxian, 22, agreed with Mr Kuek that the university’s hallmark liberal arts curriculum for the first two years takes some getting used to.

“I was taking 16 classes a week, each lasting 11/2 hours... As most of them involved some kind of test at the end of the semester, that meant a lot of cramming,” he said, adding that the many subjects they were required to take also meant that they could not be dealt with in depth.

And even though the students take Japanese language classes three times a week, most of them started from almost scratch. Their lack of proficiency means they cannot take minor subjects or join campus activities conducted only in Japanese, bringing into question the university’s aim of “internationalising” its campus with the help of the programme’s students.

In recognition of the difficulties faced, the university sponsors events to encourage the English-language programme students and the larger university community to meet and mingle.

“We do not want to create an island of international students cut off from the rest of the students,” said Associate Professor Yujin Yaguchi, who heads the programme’s first two years. In their third and fourth years, students will choose their majors in either environmental sciences or the Japan in East Asia course.

The school’s assistance, including having staff and volunteers on hand to help the students settle in, has been valuable for Ms Anna Wozny, 22, from Poland.

“Thanks to them, the first weeks were really enjoyable – no culture shock,” she said.

However, while she has made friends with some Japanese students over the months, she reckons she would have made more if her Japanese was more fluent.

Apart from the language, academic issues also weigh on the students’ minds, such as the limited choice of classes in English available and what the expiry next March of a government scholarship means for the programme.

Addressing the students’ concerns, Prof Yaguchi stressed that the programme will be a permanent feature of the university, whose own scholarships for up to 10 students will continue even as it actively seeks more scholarship opportunities for the students.

The university’s English-language undergraduate programme was started in conjunction with a 2008 government initiative that set a target of attracting 300,000 international students by 2020 in the light of an expected drop in the student population.

As of May last year, there were close to 138,000 foreign students in Japan.

Prof Yaguchi said of the role of the English-language programme: “We are interested in attracting the best students and we know we have to go beyond our national borders... and beyond our language to attract them.”

The school’s idea is to eventually expand the programme to more specialties, he said.

For Mr Lin, the English-language programme is indeed an attraction as he gets to study at Japan’s premier university without having to spend an extra year on an intensive Japanese-language course required of foreign students undertaking the standard four-year Japanese curriculum.

And despite the language bugbear, the students have mostly found their niches in school, whether it’s Mr Lin jamming with his jazz group or Ms Wozny, who hangs out with most of the Japanese friends she made during a summer school trip.

As his Japanese continues to improve, Mr Kuek, now a second-year student, looks forward to taking part in more activities and having a good time, just as his friends expect him to.

boonlai@sph.com.sg