There is a message in my inbox about once or twice a week asking for advice on how to study architecture in Japan. Many of the people who followed through and ended up studying here have ended up becoming friends so I am genuinely happy to get those messages. Still, I notice I am becoming repetitive in my response so to indulge my laziness I wrote the major points down here. If you have any questions not covered in the text below, feel free to drop a line.
Every mail I get has three big questions. I try to answer these and add a point or two more that nobody asks about because its kind of unexpected. Based only on my experience this is what I know about studying architecture in Japan...
sure, you bet. no problem. You can study in Japan in English if you want to. Among the top universities I imagine all of the professors can speak in English by now. The students on the other hand may not, and that is where it gets complicated and the point of view of the professor changes the outcome. In some classes professors will summarize discussions in both Japanese and English. In others the language is set and only a bit of translation is offered - that can go in either direction. Its tedious to sit for an hour listening to a group talk in a language you can't understand, but I see it all the time. In my own classes I teach one undergrad course on sustainable design entirely in English and its fine, but in a master's course I need to say the same thing twice, once for each language. When it comes to one on one time with a professor, for studio or thesis then its no problem at all. English is more than enough. In the major schools you can do your thesis in English as well, no problem at all.
Outside of school is another thing altogether. Japanese education includes 6 years of English in elementary school and more in high school, and its part of all the entrance exams for university. This seems to be symbolic. If you go to a restaurant English is only common in the tourist areas. Trains and buses are at least labeled in English now, and Tokyo is getting ready for the olympics so there is more and more of it. So you can survive here no without any Japanese if you want. I absolutely recommend taking trips to places where there is no English though. That's where all the interesting things happen.
If you really want to study only in English the most hard core place recently is at the University of Tokyo, under the guidance of Yusuke Obuchi. He keeps it all English all the time. He also is doing some kick-ass work with computational design and fabrication.
There are many scholarships depending on where you come from, but the one that always comes up, and the one that I used to study here is called the monbukagakusho. It needs to be applied to from your own country, takes about a year to get through, and is pretty competitive. But it pays full tuition plus a living stipend that is enough to live in Tokyo on. This is the fund I used to pay for my PhD at U of Tokyo. It was not quite enough for me because I had a family, but was awesome just the same. Definitely recommend it.
Architecture is popular in Japan and there are quite a few universities with an architecture program. The best ones are the University of Tokyo, Keio University, Waseda University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture (Y-GSA).
For the connections, U of Tokyo is the best, and if you are into computational design its also awesome. Very similar to the AA, and getting better (Kuma is also a professor there, a great way to get into his office if that is an ambition). Keio at SFC is based on project-based learning. Shigeru Ban is here, so you can imagine the students travel around building in disaster areas a lot. He is just one professor though and other profs do different things, like building zero energy houses, etc. This is the most relaxed school I have taught at so far in Japan. Waseda is more conventional in the sense that it feels more like a Western university to me, with more or less regular studios, etc. I dont know the others so well except by reputation, so I rely on google to fill in the gaps.
THE QUESTIONS NOT ASKED
Nobody ever asks me what a laboratory is. I'm not sure if it is unique to Japan or not, but it has huge consequences to the education experience. Basically when you apply to a university the person who decides your life for the duration of your study is the head of a lab, which you have to apply to when you apply to the school. This means you have to contact the professor as soon as possible in the process. If you have an idea for research it should match what your professor is interested in or s/he will likely push to change it. What it comes down to is that students in a lab are all working on one big project that the professor is guiding over the long term. Students come and go, but the work is constant and usually ambitious and interesting. The professors kind of need your work to fit in to their big idea in some way for it to make sense for them. When you apply it is useful to keep this in mind.
Labs rule the Japanese world the way studio does in the North American system. The reality of what this means is that while there are studio courses nobody really cares about them. Sometimes there are a few students who take it seriously, but the real work is whatever the lab is doing. At Keio this is exaggerated because our students are building and that takes a lot of time and planning and travel. It means there are no summer breaks (we build overseas during breaks, usually), and that a lot of time spent in the lab is focused on production. Our graduates are great at project management and adapting to surprises. They are not as strong at design though, because they don't really get to practice much. They will have to develop those skills in an office.
The big upshot of all this is that the professors are leading the show. If there is going to be a cutting edge it will be on them, not the students or the school as a whole to find the way forward.
Closely related to this is that Japanese architecture schools are mostly all founded on engineering and science. That means the master thesis is not a design but actual research. With data. Data! Architects are not normally trained to do research so its kind of hit or miss in my experience but if you are creative it is an amazing opportunity. If the lab you are in is a good fit you might even get to do work on the cutting edge.
If you really want to focus on design I hear that the University of Tokyo allows students to do a design project instead of a paper. Apparently Keio has the same deal, but I've never seen a student go that route in the last 5 years here.
Acclimatizing to the research led approach to architecture study is something I see students from overseas struggle with a lot. When they get it sorted its pretty cool. When it goes well its because the student has a clear idea and/or talked to their lab professor as much as possible before applying.
keio university's architecture program is probably the best kept secret in the country. Hidden away on a campus an hour from tokyo the curriculum is wide open and connected to a campus-wide project aimed at community-driven innovation. students of economics can take courses in architecture and vice versa but we all are expected to take part in real projects somewhere in the world. there are a few starchitects on the faculty but mostly we are hoping to make a difference.