Learning by doing in Japan

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    studying architecture in japan

    will galloway
    Jun 13, '16 11:20 AM EST

    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.



    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.


    • gooma

      Thank you very much for posting this! It is really a great help as I am totally lost in Japanese website...

      I got my bachelor degree in UK, I guess its education system is quite different from Japan, but I am really interested in Japanese culture and architecture and planning to study in a  master course in Japan.

      I still have few questions after reading your post ...

      Most of unis courses require N1 level, is it still possible to get into a lab without Japanese test?

      I also saw Meiji University has an English programme for graduates. Do you know anything about it?


      Thanks in advance!

      Aug 10, 16 11:19 pm

      I dont know anything about Meiji except that I know a few of the professors in passing. It is a well regarded university.

      About English and Japanese, short answer is you can probably get into the lab without a Japanese test. You might need to take an exam to enter the university, and that is often offered in English as well as in Japanese, but that depends on the university.

      If the school is internationally oriented you should be able to do your thesis in English, so I would assume that not speaking Japanese at all is OK if you really want to. That said, the monbukagakusho scholarship has a 6 month intensive Japanese course that students are expected to take before they go into the proper program. It is not really enough to do more than get by though, so its purpose is a bit of an open question. In my case when I did PhD at U of Tokyo my professor waived the language requirement and I spent the 6 months preparing for the entrance exam and doing some work on my actual research. In the lab very few students spoke English at any level of proficiency, but that is not what I see around me so much anymore. Professors will definitely speak in English and if they are interested in you they will work out a way to have you in their lab.

      English is becoming more common, and as I mentioned above in the lab of Yusuke Obuchi you work entirely in English. I would guess that if the program is advertised as an English program then it actually will be, or mostly so (sometimes its hard to do it 100% in English). That said, at Keio I teach studio in Japanese and English; a sustainable design and architectural history entirely in English for undergrad; and a course on design thinking and business only in English as well. The only difference is that there are few masters students who want to study in English, while undergrad courses have more students, which is probably a problem in terms of making it worthwhile for the university. Universities will respond to that kind of demand issue in their own way and that is where you will see a difference.

      hope this helps

      Aug 15, 16 11:16 pm

      Thank you so much for your post, it has clarified a lot. 

      Unfortunately though as soon as I start my research I get stuck again. I finished high school in May 2016 and want to apply for an undergraduate course in Architecture in Japan, in English. I have gone through all the universities you had mentioned, and was able to find out a lot about their programs, but have been able to find only one English undergraduate program at Kyoto Seika University, which also requires a Japanese language test. As soon as I go to any of the admission for any of the universities architecture always disappears under the english programs offered.

      I would be very grateful if you could give me any tips of universities where you know of that they offer English undergraduate programs. 

      Thanks in advance! 

      Oct 28, 16 7:56 pm

      Do you know if any of the schools you mentioned accept payment from the US Veterans Affair aka GIBill? Also, I did some search on the schools that you mentioned but it seems like only M.Arch is offered and not B.Arch. I am interested in pursuing a career in architecture and looking to possibly study in Japan. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

      Jan 26, 17 2:21 am

      Dr. Will Galloway, I am currently trying to apply through monbukagakusho scholarship for master's degree, and i was wondering if you know a reference in which i can study from for the entrance exam at any Japanese university or past exam samples. Because I just want to get to know about how hard are the entrance exams at Japanese universities.

      Feb 10, 17 8:44 pm

      About undergrad architecture schools I have not heard of any that run in English. Usually it is masters level where that becomes common. This does not mean they dont exist, I just dont know about them. Keio SFC offers a course called GIGA, which is all in English and you can take architecture courses, but if you want a professional degree in the end you need to study in Japanese (makes sense, the laws are in Japanese, so are contracts, etc). 

      Japanese websites are horrible. This is my opinion but I think its grounded in fact. Somehow they are still more for show than as places where things are expected to happen. Its a frustration for many I am sure. In general most of the information you need to enter a university is also in Japanese not English.

      About GI bill, I have no idea, but seems unlikely on the face of it.

      About exams to enter universities, once you are accepted you will have 6 months as a research student to prepare for the entrance exam. You should go to the university library and take out previous exams to study with once you arrive. The exams are not easy. In my case it was similar to the test for licensure, but much simpler. Expect some structures/math questions, a bit of history, some site planning problems. If you have practiced architecture in an office it is easier. Having said that, the exam is likely different at every university, and at UofTokyo if you take the global COE program I hear there is no exam at all. You only need to get into the program itself...

      Feb 12, 17 6:19 pm

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About this Blog

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.

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