What are classes like in Japan?

Although I can’t speak for every university, for the most part Japanese university classes are much easier than the ones in the States (particularly the ones at Allegheny). But this really isn’t so different than what you’ll find for most study abroad experiences, so what makes Japan unique?

Comparison of School Values:

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Some Japanese high school students (courtesy of my friend Hajime).

Well, although the expectation in America is that university students need to work hard in college in order to obtain a good, well-paying job, in Japan, high school students are expected to work hard to enter a top university. As a Japanese university student, once you’re accepted into a good school you’re almost guaranteed a job once you graduate (assuming your job hunting goes well – but that’s another whole blog post).

However, it’s important to point out that the quality of your education begins in elementary school in Japan. Unlike the public education system in the States, in Japan your ability to go to a good school is determined by (1) your previous education and (2) test scores. This means that if you’re a smart, Japanese kid and go to a nice elementary school and score well, you are likely to be accepted in a nice middle school and, assuming you keep doing well, you will probably go to a nice high school and a nice university after that. BUT if you do well in elementary school but poorly in middle school, your chances to get into a top high school are diminished, which consequently makes it harder to get into a top university.

My japanese grammar class this semester!
My Japanese grammar class this semester!

So, what does all of this have to do with what classes are like in Japan? It translates to putting a lot more pressure on Japanese middle and high school students than university students. Since a student has already proven his/her self by getting into the university, they aren’t required to do quite as much work in college as their American counterparts.

Comparison of Workload/Class:

Of course, in order to convince you that this isn’t all made up, here’s a quick comparison of my average workload at Allegheny versus at Keio. (Keep in mind that I’m a History & English double major so I do a whole lot of reading and writing.)

One Semester at Allegheny

  • HIST 300-something: 5 books for class + 2 research papers (2,500 words each) + 2 essay-based exams
  • ENGL 300-something: 5 novels for class + 2 presentations + 2 papers (3,000 words each)
  • HIST 200-something: 4 books for class + 3 papers (2,000 words each) + 2 essay-based exams
  • Other class that makes me do a lot of work.

*All classes are 4 credits each, in-class time = 10 hours per week. 

One Semester at Keio

  • HIST #1: 1 book + 2 papers (1,500 words each), no exam
  • HIST #2: 2 books + 1 research paper (2,500 words), no exam
  • ENGL: no books + 1 research presentation, no exam
  • CULTURE: 1 light reading per week, + 2 mini-presentations, multiple choice exam
  • HIST #3: 1 reading/week, 1 writing (500 words) per week, no exam
  • LANGUAGE #1: 3 quizzes, 2 multiple choice exams
  • LANGUAGE #2: 2 multiple choice exams

*All classes are 2 credits each and meet once per week, in-class time = 12 hours per week.

My Opinion:

Now, don’t get the wrong idea and think that Keio classes are really easy and that the Japanese don’t work hard at university because they do! But in my opinion, I think that although the class materials aren’t easy, the outside of class workload is significantly less than what I usually end up with in the States. It doesn’t mean that I’m not learning anything, it just means that most of my learning happens in the classroom instead of outside of it. (With the exception of language, because you really can’t escape learning Japanese when you’re in Tokyo – go figure.)

Before I came to Keio I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up academically since Keio is one of the top universities in Japan (think Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc.), THAT is the sort of level that Keio is on. Which would probably freak most people out. But it made me really happy to know that I could still keep up with the people around me and manage to enjoy my time in Tokyo (instead of studying all the time). Of course this doesn’t mean that Keio is worse of a school or Allegheny is better, it’s just a difference of values.

And just so this goes on the record, Keio is an AMAZING school! It’s not only full of smart, funny, talented, FANTASTIC students. There’s a huge diversity of programs (from the best sport ever, ultimate frisbee, to learning the traditional Japanese tea ceremony), with a huge range of people to suit your personal interests. Not to mention the location is right in downtown Tokyo – I mean, you can literally see Tokyo Tower from the buildings. I’m still baffled that no one before me has ever decided to come here…but I really hope that I can convince someone new to come and make their own life-changing experiences here as well!

Hope that helps!