Today’s feature article is a written by Chris Kern, a Ph.D. student of The Ohio State University who will be traveling to Japan this month as a MEXT (or Monbukagakusho 文部科学省) award recipient. He introduces what the MEXT scholarship is and his experience with the application process.
If you are working on a PhD in Japanese, eventually you will probably want to go to Japan on a research scholarship. There are many opportunities — Fulbright, Fulbright-Hayes, Japan foundation, etc. What I will cover in this post is the MEXT scholarship, a scholarship sponsored by the Japanese government (MEXT is the abbreviation for the ministry that handles education, among other things). I will be going to Japan on this scholarship in a few months. My advice is based on what I did in my application—obviously everyone’s experiences will differ, but this should at least give you an idea of what to do. It’s also based on my position as a 6th year graduate student — if you’re not as far along in your research you may not be able to follow everything to the letter. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t apply. This is a general scholarship, not one exclusively meant for advanced research students. Note that you have to be under 35 years of age to apply for this award.
I won’t cover general stuff like transcripts and recommendation letters which are common to most scholarships. Obviously you want to find people who can speak to your ability to do the research you are going to be doing.
1. Be sure of the deadlines.
The deadline for the MEXT scholarship is very early — depending on when you are going, you may have to apply as long as a year and a half (yes, 18 months) before you leave. You must check with your local consulate. Different consulates have different deadlines, and you have to apply to the consulate that is in your area — you can find out which area you’re in by checking the consulate’s web pages, and there are people to e-mail if you’re not sure.
This is the reason I’m not providing links in this post – the details vary so much that I don’t want to run the risk of misleading people. Just search google for your closest consulate city plus either “MEXT scholarship” or “monbukagakusho scholarship” and you should be able to find the information.
2. Find a professor in Japan to work with.
One of the best things you can do for your chances on any foreign research scholarship in general is to start a relationship with a professor in Japan. Having an idea of who you want to study with strengthens your application because it shows that you’ll be able to do something with your time there. There are several methods you can use to find a professor; ideally you can get a connection through your advisor or some other contact at your school. Even if your contact turns out to be a friend of a friend of a friend, that’s OK.
Eventually you’ll have to e-mail the professor introducing yourself, explaining your research and the scholarship, and asking them to write a short letter. Make sure that you use a book when writing this (such as Writing Letters in Japanese) and have people who know academic Japanese check it over. An e-mail like this is one of the most formal things that you will write, so you want to make sure that at least your initial contact with the professor follows all the rules. (Once you establish the relationship you probably don’t have to get every e-mail checked, since you do want the professor to have an idea of what your actual Japanese ability is. But any time you need to make a request of the professor or thank them for a major service, it’s probably a good idea to get it checked.)
You may even want to find multiple contacts in Japan. If you’re hoping to go to a major university that frequently deals with international students you may be OK, but if it’s a smaller university it’s possible that they may not accept you even if you get the MEXT award. The government award does not force a university to accept you even if you get the award.
The professor may have to fill out a small form or write a brief letter for your application.
3. Define your research goals in Japan.
This is a common feature of any graduate research scholarship you apply to. Even if you are still somewhat uncertain of your exact dissertation topic, you want to at least appear as if you have a clearly defined subject and goals. If you have a clear dissertation topic that’s great, if not, you want to choose something that at least can be your topic. No one will check up to make sure you are following what you said before, but presumably you have at least a general idea of what you’re doing.
A very important area to focus on is your purpose of study in Japan. As much as possible you want to communicate the idea that you need to go to Japan to fulfill your research goals. Don’t be afraid to put forth things you aren’t completely certain you’ll need. You should probably avoid outright lying about what you want to do there, but you want to make your case as strongly as possible.
4. Write the statement of purpose in both English and Japanese.
This is technically optional but if you are able to write your statement of purpose in Japanese it will help establish that you have the Japanese ability necessary to work with your professor in Japan, and it’s good practice for communicating with the professor there (and for the interview).
Your statement of purpose will be mostly the same as other applications, but make sure that you mention your scholar contact (if you have one) and explain why you will be working with him. One of your major goals on your statement of purpose is essentially to tell the judging committee that you’re not going to have problems getting things done in Japan.
The only other somewhat unusual part to the application is the health form; you’ll need to schedule a doctor’s visit for this (and insurance may not cover it), and it is mandatory to submit it with your initial application materials.
Once you send off the materials, you should be notified relatively soon about whether you made it to the interview stage or not. The speed of response differs based on the consulate.
5. The interview stage
If you are selected for the interview, you will have to go in person to the consulate to have your interview. The interview will be conducted in the Japanese style, meaning that there will be a three or four person committee (and some of the interviewers may not ask any questions). The questions they ask will be more or less what you would expect from any scholarship interview. You may be asked to explain your research in Japanese – if you have already written your statement of purpose in Japanese you should be able to do this.
I also had to take a language test (with the option of also taking some sort of English test, which I didn’t do). The language test was less than an hour, and to me it looked to be about JLPT 1 level.
6. Applying to the schools
If you pass the interview stage, the next step is to apply to the school or schools you want to study at. You will receive forms from the consulate that you will send to the school. If you have a contact there you may also need to have them write a letter.
You will probably have to contact the school in order to find out where to send the materials. If the university you want to go to is a large one that frequently deals with foreign students, they will probably have a department devoted to international applications, which you can contact. Otherwise you may have to work harder to find out where to send the materials.
7. The final round
Once you get your acceptance to the university, there is one final round of judging in Tokyo. I don’t know how this process works. If I remember correctly, you don’t actually do anything (the schools send materials directly to Tokyo). However, it’s possible you have to send some sort of acceptance letter to Tokyo.
All of this takes an extraordinary amount of time. Once you get your final acceptance, you may have to wait months to find out where you’re living, when you’re going over there, etc. Of course you will have to apply for a visa at the consulate, but finding housing and such is really beyond the scope of this post.
Currently I’m supposed to be going to Japan in two weeks or so, and I still don’t have the details of my plane flight or exactly when I’m going. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.
Chris Kern is currently a PhD student of Japanese literature at The
Ohio State University. He obtained a Master’s degree in Japanese at
the Ohio State University (2007) and has a B.A. in Computer Science
from Grinnell College (2002). His present research is on Kamakura and Edo-period commentaries on the Tale of Genji.