Are you interested in pursuing further studies in Japan? The land of the rising sun certainly has a lot to offer–it is home to some of the best universities in Asia and in the world. Moreover, Japan has an incredibly rich culture and history, and is at the forefront of cutting-edge research on science and technology.  Learn more about how you can study abroad in Japan as we walk you through some basic information about applying for a master’s program in Japan.

Japanese Educational System

In Japan, students go through 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of lower secondary school, and 3 years of upper secondary school. Students can then move forward to pursuing higher education. There are five types of higher education institutions in Japan: Colleges of technology, Professional training colleges, Junior colleges, Universities (undergraduate) and Graduate schools (master’s, doctorate, research). Higher education institutions may be national, local public, or private institutions.

In this article, we will focus on the application process for graduate schools, particularly for master’s programs.

Academic year in Japan

Most universities in Japan have a semester system (two terms) and the academic year is from April to March of the following year. The first semester begins in April and the summer vacation is from August to September. The second semester begins in October with a short winter vacation at the end of December. Spring vacation is around February to March. Although the first semester starts in April, most graduate schools have September or October admission programs. However, some universities have a trimester system (three terms) or a quarter system (four terms). Master’s programs take at least 2 years and students need to earn at least 30 credits.

Application Period

The application period is generally between June to January of the following year for admissions in April. Some graduate schools also have September to October admissions systems. I personally recommend allotting six months to one year for the application period. For instance, if you plan to start your studies in April of the following year, start doing your research about possible schools and programs one year ahead.  

Eligibility for Admission

(Information from Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) Student Guide to Japan 2019-2020)

In principle, applicants must satisfy any one of the following eligibility criteria for the master’s program:

  • Japanese university graduates
  • Students that have been conferred their bachelor’s degree through the National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education (NIAD-QE)
  • Students who have completed 16 years of school education in countries other than Japan
  • Students who have completed a program with the standard study period of three years or more at universities or equivalent educational institutions in countries other than Japan and received a degree equivalent to a bachelor’s degree
  • Students who have completed 16 years of education at education institutions in Japan recognized as having overseas undergraduate programs
  • Students who have completed designated professional training college courses
  • Students recognized as having academic abilities equivalent to or better than university graduates in an individual entrance qualification examination conducted by a graduate school, and who have reached 22 years of age

Choosing a Graduate School – Writing a Research Plan – Looking for a Prospective Academic Advisor

In Japan, most master’s programs require a Research Plan or proposal. A good way to think about applying for a master’s in Japan is that you are not just applying to a university. You are actually applying to a department or graduate school in a university, and you are looking for an academic advisor in that department who can supervise your research.

Hence, you can start by writing a research proposal first, then look for a graduate school where your research will fit. You may also start the other way around–look for graduate schools that you are interested in studying in and write a research proposal that would fit their program. You may also take into consideration the fields of research of the available professors when choosing a research topic. 

Choosing a Graduate School

When choosing a university and a graduate school, there are several factors that you can consider. You may look at university rankings, research output and overall quality of the graduate schools in their field of knowledge, and options to finish your degree fully or mostly in English. Based on the data published by JASSO, most international students in Japan chose to study here because they are interested in Japanese society and want to live in the country, learn the language and learn more about the culture. If you feel the same way, you may also want to consider the location of your school. Check out some of the articles previously published by SchooLynk Media (linked above) that discusses some of these factors.

Writing a Research Proposal

Your research proposal is one of the most important documents that you will need when applying for graduate schools in Japan. Graduate schools will have different requirements such as word count and other specific formats. However, the general rule is that your research plan must include the following: Purpose of your research, Background, Significance of your Study, Research Methodology, and References. Double check with your graduate school if they have a specific form. Your research plan will be evaluated by your potential research advisor based on several criteria. However, JASSO’s student guide to Japan lists that graduate schools usually consider the following key examination points: Research ambition, Ability to find a topic, Ability to analyze things, Ability to think logically, and Knowledge relating to major/specialty.

Contacting a Prospective Research Advisor

As mentioned above, when applying for graduate schools in Japan, you may find it useful to think of the process this way: the essence of the application process is that you are asking for a professor in a graduate school to accept your research proposal. 

Thus, looking for a research advisor who can supervise your research and your studies is one of the most crucial steps in your application. Most websites of  graduate schools in Japan, especially top universities, publish up-to-date information about research advisors and their field of research. Sometimes graduate schools also publish information about the theses of previous students and the professors who supervised them. This will give you a good idea of what kinds of research plans these advisors can supervise and what their interests are. 

Finally, do as much research as you can. Ask previous international students from your country or your undergraduate academic advisor for recommendations. Try to find more information about the professors and what academic papers and books they have published and which conferences they have presented in.

Some graduate schools only need applicants to write the name of a prospective academic advisor in their application forms. This means that during the application process, all you actually need is a name. However, other graduate schools require applicants to already obtain approval from the academic advisor as part of the application process, even before taking an entrance exam. 

If you already need to ask for the approval of a prospective academic advisor, contact your graduate school and inform them that you would like to get in touch with your prospective advisor. It would be better if you already have a research proposal by this point, and include a cover letter to your prospective advisor as well. 

Some universities will give you direct contact with the professor while others have dedicated offices that facilitate the communication process to maintain the privacy of the professors. In my experience, of the four graduate schools I applied to, I only got direct email correspondence with one professor. I communicated with the three other professors through the “international students division” of the universities. The offices received my documents and messages and sent these to the professors. I also received the responses of the professors through these offices. Make sure that you allot ample amount of time for this process. As you can imagine, the communication process can take time if you are not directly sending and receiving messages from your advisor.

Entrance Examination

Generally, admissions procedure include the following: document screening (application forms and documents); test on academic ability (written exam); interview (in person or online); short essay; and and oral exam (in person or online). Some graduate schools accept master’s students through this admissions procedure. However, some will require students to enrol as a non-degree “research student” (kenyusei) first. Learn more about what a kenkyusei is by reading this article.


We hope that this article has helped you in your pursuit to study abroad in Japan. Information in this article is based on the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) Student Guide to Japan 2019-2020. For more information about universities in Japan, you may also sign up and create your own SchooLynk account to receive personalized, up-to-date information and to get notified about relevant study abroad opportunities.


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