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.


    • kristinagartalia

      Hello! I was having these questions in mind:

      1. Do I need to thoroughly learn how to read and write in Kanji if I am to be an Architect in Japan?

      2. Do they hire people from other countries (Im from the Philippines) for apprenticeship?

      I would be so glad if you could answer my inquiries. Im sorry if these questions seem stupid. Thank you so much.

      Apr 8, 19 9:49 pm  · 

      if you want to be an architect in any firm that is primarily working in japan than yes you need to be able to read and write in japanese. Nobody speaks english here. For internships, yes you can get a position, but it's usually without pay. Don't expect it to lead to anything either. Many people are in any case turned away even for free work. There are too many candidates with exceptional skills willing to work for free in exchange for the opportunity to live in japan for a few months and to work with a starchitect.


      First of all i just want to thank you for giving your time to answer the questions 

      I'm an architecture student i'm going to graduate this summer, i'm considering applying for Japanese scholarship, and i'm working  currently on my research proposal for master's degree, but i kind find my self lost because i'm not sure if it's the relevant topic that could interests japan, Would you please give me some glances about what kind of perspectives should i undertake or focus on to meet the interests of Japanese architecture schools. 

      note: I'm thinking about vernacular architecture!!

      May 23, 19 1:38 pm  · 

      you are applying for MEXT?


      damn, i wrote an answer but it was apparently lost in the ether. My basic advice is to try to be as specific as possible. vernacular architecture is very broad. If you mean old buildings, there are probably professors interested in them, but not explicitly for their own sake. Population is crashing here, so there is a likely chance old buildings will be connected to that social issue. As far as it goes, the old vernacular houses are cold in winter and sweltering in the summer, often not well built, and dangerous in earthquakes, so there are probably labs you can join that will consider those issues. If you mean current vernacular I guess the entry point could be something like robotic factory production and mass customization. Or the effect of zoning and choices in urban form, etc. Best advice is to find a professor and contact them if you can, and if not then read as much about their work as possible in order to put together a proposal that will fit their lab work. Your ideas will probably change once you actually get started on it, but you should have a reasonable start in mind...


      Thank you so much for your post. I'm very interested in studying architecture in Japan( for PhD). My thesis in master degree is research-based, it's about kinetic facade and its effect on energy consumption, also i wrote an article about kinetic facade. Now, I'm writing another article for an international conference, also I have IELTS band 6(in all skills).

      ( also i can do energy modeling by Honeybee and Ladybug)

      Do you know which uni is more appropriate for me?

      and, Do I have a chance to get a scholarship?

      Mar 13, 20 10:58 am  · 

      The comments above answer your questions a few times. Good grades will help with the scholarship. Monbusho is competitive, so try to be one of the top students in your country (not joking). Find a professor who is doing similar work to what you are interested in and contact them. PhD is a serious commitment so you should spend some time finding a prof who can guide you in your field. I know nothing about your topic so you will need to find it with google on your own I am afraid. Still, it is likely that someone is doing similar work. Only catch is that it may not appear in English as most technical research in Japan is conducted by those with less interest in communicating in English. Engineers are particularly focused that way. You may get lucky. I suppose it is a good rule of thumb that if you cannot find what you want to study in English that you will need to learn some Japanese to do the research in Japan. Luckily google is so easy to use, you will probably find out what you need to know in less time than it took for me to write this post. Good luck.


      Good day Dr. Galloway, 

      Your posts and responses to the previous comments were full of great information, and would help a lot of people who are interested in studying Architecture in Japan. 

      I'm an incoming third year undergraduate student from the Philippines and I've always wanted to study Architecture in Japan. I would like to ask how Japanese universities teach the course. Are they heavy on the research paper output or models? Do they conduct field trips or any activity similar to it? 

      I also want to ask if there are universities that accept international transfer students for the Architecture course or do they have to go back to freshman year? The university sites that I've been through do not have any transfer student admissions section so it's very difficult to know anything about that topic. 

      Thank you so much in advance.

      Apr 27, 20 12:07 pm  · 

      There is not much to add to the previous posts. In simplest form, depends on the professor. In general physical models are the norm, though there is a recent slow migration towards 3d modeling.

      The lab structure dominates graduate school, and to some extent undergrad education in the latter half of the program. You will do field-trips yes, but it's Japan so lets be honest, everyday life is a field-trip in itself. In Tokyo there are world class buildings seemingly at every corner. Like any world city, really.

      Transferring is not something I have seen or heard of. It may exist, but I am not the person to answer this, sadly. Perhaps you will get some credit for a course or two, but I kind of doubt it. Architecture school would be hard to start in the middle of since so much of the output is connected to the work of the lab, and that means you start as a junior member and then become senior member in the year before graduation; it would be hard to lead a group project in the lab without having done it as a junior member.

      As far as output goes, some classes have essays, sure, like history, etc. There is not so much theory since it was killed by modernism and only peeks its head out from the ground every once in a while. As a result theory is mostly learned by osmosis rather than by coursework. Nice if you don't want to write a lot.

      For a MArch degree it is expected that you do research, not a design. In case you are thinking about undergrad I believe students do a design for final year (I only teach graduate school for studio so again I've reached my limit of knowledge of the system). Undergrad would also be in Japanese most likely, in which case I dont know how it would work.

      You may consider looking for a school that takes in exchange students, and go back for grad school if you like it. Perhaps your school is connected somehow to a school in Japan? I would start there if you are thinking about this seriously.

      Apr 30, 20 5:46 pm  · 

      Thank you for this post it was helpful.

      Im studying my third year of interior architecture in EMU university in northern Cyprus but im planning to start my master in japan and lately i was searching a lot about it, but while i was reading I didn’t see anything about interior architecture,is there just architecture or they have interior courses too? Like is it included in architecture?to be honest i don’t know about how they teach here has architecture faculty which includes architecture and interior architecture i will be so thankful if you help me with this ,I really want to see that are there any chances for me are is 

      Jun 22, 20 3:34 pm  · 

      there any good scope for interior architecture or not?

      Thank you again 

      Jun 22, 20 3:35 pm  · 

      there are interior design schools yes. Google will answer the details. They may not be in English. If you cannot find any then I would assume it is not common at the very least. I sadly do not teach interior design and do not know any interior designers. Our office does interiors, but we are all architects...

      best of luck to you.

      Jun 22, 20 10:03 pm  · 

      adding to the previous post, if you are interested in interior design simply as a profession you may find better luck searching for technical schools, or senmon-gakko. These are not universities and have a very different approach to what I have described previously as far as the way the schools are set up. I dont believe you can get a scholarship to study at these since they are not recognized academically so it would maybe be better to find a university that has an interior design program than to go to the tech school, but this will depend on your aspirations. 

      As I said, I don't know if universities teach interior design.  But the senmon gakko do, and there are several with English landing pages even with a quick search on google.

      I cannot add anything more than that since it is well out of my experience.

      Jun 23, 20 8:12 am  · 

      Greetings Dr. Will

      first of all thank you for this blog, it made things clear for me.

      I just completed my bachelor of architecture degree and want to do masters in urban planning, university of Tokyo have such course in English. So, i wanted to ask what are the exams do i have to give for studying in japan? 

      Jun 29, 20 1:35 pm  · 

      I am uncertain of the exact exam for this. Although my PhD is in Urban Planning I did it with a professor of architecture who was just moving to a newly formed faculty, so my exam would be different. The answer is that it depends on what you mean. If you are going in on MEX Monbusho scholarship then you usually will be there for 6 months as a researcher, where you will be expected to study the old exams they have in the library. If they are anything like my entry exam you will find it challenging but mostly familiar. If you mean how do you start the process of getting into the U of Tokyo, I would say the first thing you should do is contact a professor, and ask him or her. I am not sure how U of Tokyo runs exams for people from overseas who are not going there as MEXT students, if that is your plan. But they will be able to answer you. I should point out that urban planning at U of Tokyo is very much focused on a very specific view of urbanism and tends to lean quite a lot on Machizukuri. It literally means town-building, and is rather a broad approach to the city that is entirely about communicating with local residents to understand their needs and then helping them to get those needs met. Very low-scale, low-key, and in the big scheme of themes perhaps low-impact as well. Some of the projects taken on will have a big effect and much of it is very interesting and important work. However it is not design in the sense that you would see in the west, from offices such as West 8. It is also nothing like the technocratic policy-heavy work of urban planners in north america.It is worth learning and I think fascinating, however it is quite a leap into a more sociological view of the world than is the norm in the west, at least in my opinion.

      1  · 

      Thank you for the reply sir. yesterday i submitted my research preliminary application form to embassy of japan in my country


      first preference was UTokyo under prof. Chiba Manabu and second preference Tohoku university under prof. Harda Eiji. Could you please give me some advice for first screening and interview, how difficult are the questions and what they ask in interview?


      i dont know Harada. Manabu Chiba is a relatively famous architect in Japan, previously working as assistant to Tadao Ando when he taught at U of Tokyo and since then has developed his own research lab. Some of my classmates were in his lab, working on basic urban analysis. Since he is in architecture faculty the tests for entry to the faculty will be more about architecture than planning. As far as interview questions go, so you mean the interview at the embassy? In my case they asked why I believed my plan fit the research field of the professor I was studying with, what I would bring to the school, and what I expected to do in my time there. If your application is the same as mine was (in 2004, so it may not be comparable) that should all be in the research proposal you submitted, in which case it will be about deepening your explanation and your motivations/ambition. I found the interview to be straightforward. I already spoke Japanese and my professor at U of T had already agreed to be my advisor me so I had the luxury of being relaxed. I understand that aspect of things is not the same anymore. Even so, try to keep it as honest and clear as possible and not be too stressed over things. In my experience I always do better when I am relaxed. YMMV.

      1  · 

      Thank you sir i would do some more study on my topic and be well prepared for the interview and about Japanese language i have learned hiragana and katakana, can speak some sentences and read Japanese writings.


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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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