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My Journey To Adulthood Through a Japanese University

In Japan, I felt more freedom to be me, to let my hair down and enjoy each day, each moment as it came.

By 5 min read 14

Studying in Japan as a full time foreign student isn’t the most popular option, especially not for Singaporeans who prefer to head to the US, the UK or Australia. I often get confused as an exchange student or asked why I would choose to pursue my undergraduate degree in Japan. How could you bear to leave your family behind? Does the language barrier affect you? I heard Japan is very stressful, how do you cope?

Initially, having to uproot my life and move to Japan all alone was daunting, but in my final year, as I look back to that decision I made, I would do it all over again without hesitation.

At 18 (going 19), I came to Japan, just a month or two after my A level results. My school aimed to cultivate global minded citizens and by joining their School of International Studies I could learn a wide variety of subjects (which I have, from Financial Accounting, Marketing, International Relations Theory and International Politics to Traditional Japanese Culture and Documentary Films Studies).

In Japan, I felt more freedom to be me, to let my hair down and enjoy each day, each moment as it came.

It thrilled me to be in a new country and following the news that was taking place in that country itself. There was a lot to take in, and I felt like I wasn’t so sheltered like I felt I was in Singapore.

 Contrary to what some may believe, you don’t need to know Japanese to study in a Japanese university. My university, and many others, offer undergraduate and graduate programs in English, an option that is increasingly popular due to the Global30 project.

Japanese language classes are included as mandatory language credit requirements which allow students to gain the mastery of the language and survive everyday life. You may not need Japanese to take university classes but you definitely need it to live in Japan. I was enrolled in Japanese Level 1 when I first arrived, completely clueless about grammar, but after two years of formal lessons, passed the JLPT N2.

Studying is different, too. I was afraid of falling behind, hearing horror stories of cram schools and all the studying students did just to do well. Relatives asked how I was coping, was it stressful? With a smile, I could reply, “No. I learnt that life isn’t all about grades, that the letter on a slip of paper did not define my worth.”

I was enjoying studying, taking part in friendly discussions with my peers. No one asked me what my GPA was, no one wanted to compare grades and I didn’t feel like I was suffocating under the immense pressure to do well. Growing up I was indoctrinated to believe in elitism, that the best was never good enough, that nothing but A’s were acceptable. In Japan, I felt more freedom to be me, to let my hair down and enjoy each day, each moment as it came.

While chatting to my friends, I learnt of their heavy work loads, how busy they were and stressed with school work. Through the computer screen, I felt guilty, then wondered how I would have coped had I stayed. I shudder at the thought. Now, academically and leisurely, I am living life to the fullest.

For day to day life, I never really experienced any big culture shock moments you frequently read about online when coming to Japan for the first time. Taking shoes off when entering the house? We do that back home. Japanese style toilets? Huh, you just squat, what do you mean you don’t know how to? Getting stared at or being pointed out as a foreigner? Nope, doesn’t happen to me. They don’t speak English? It’s okay, I’m learning Japanese.

Having to fend for myself helped me become a lot more independent. I had to do things that I usually just let my Mom handle like paying bills, insurance, cleaning, planning meals, schedules etc. Sure the forms may be confusing and Japan strangely backward but I took it as training for adulthood.


It was difficult being away from my loved ones, though. The first night in Japan I didn’t have the internet connected in my dorm room yet so I couldn’t do anything, and I cried myself to sleep realising the four walls around me were hollow, bare, and I was alone. The next day my dorm manager helped me connect to the net, I took a walk and found spring all around me, and talked to my mom on Skype.

While she cried, worried sick about me, I reassured her I was ok, and somehow I knew thing would get better. Technology now allows us to stay connected, and with Japan a mere one hour time difference from Singapore, it wasn’t too difficult to stay in touch with everyone. Sure, there were some days I still felt lonely. I missed my best friends, I missed my Mom, and sometimes I missed Singapore; Singlish, the food, all the Singaporean-isms that people just don’t quite seem to understand or appreciate. But what I’ve gained from this opportunity is so much more than I could have hoped for.

Three years ago, had you asked me what life would have been like in Japan I would have said “I have no idea, but I think it’ll be great.” and now, three years later, if you asked me the same question I would say the same thing. The experience is different for everyone, and there will definitely be ups and downs along the way, but there is no denying it will be a great eye opener.

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  • Veritas says:

    Hey there, I’m a fellow Singaporean, albeit having lived overseas my entire life Currently in NS, waiting to head over to Japan this autumn and enroll into Sophia University’s FLA. I get a lot of weird looks as well, considering I got accept to several universities in the UK. Glad to know that choice paid off for you and hope it will for me as well.

  • maulinator says:

    I wonder how much of these feelings of independence and freedom come from actually just going to college/university than being in Japan. Besides the language barrier experiences, the feelings of liberation and finally coming into yourself are experiences I had in college as well amd I did not leave my home country at the time. Going to college is not just about the grades. While you do learn that grades are not the only thing that defines you, they are still important when you go out to the real world and try to get a job (a real job that is, not some menial labor thing). But living away from home, making new friends and networks, learning to live for yourself, are all importnat parts of growing up and a lot of that happens in college. I think you would have had a similar realization at any other fine institution of learning. But good for you to leave your comfort zone and enjoy life! Just think about the additional challenges that will materialize once you are a proper tax paying member of society without any safety net of parents to support you! That is when you truly learn who you are! College starts you off on the journey…..

    • Bernie Low says:

      That is true! Personally I think the experience would have been vastly different had I stayed in my home country because I would still be living at home with my parents, and honestly all of the pressure to do well stems from their expectations of me. They still do expect me to do well, but I enjoy studying more than I ever used to.

      So maybe for me it’s a combination of both haha

  • SiawEe says:

    So proud of you! This sounds like so much fun. I’m sure your years to come will also be full of colour as well 😀

  • Siti says:

    Hello there, this was a great post! I’m a Singaporean too and I just graduated from polytechnic and obtained a diploma. My grades are seriously mediocre, they’re good but nowhere fantastic. I’ve applied for several of the universities here and have not receive a reply from any of them so far but it’s okay. I was wondering which university did you attend in Japan? And was it difficult for you to enter the course that you studied? Thanks alot! 🙂

    • Bernie Low says:

      Hi Siti!

      I’m studying at Kwansei Gakuin University’s School of International Studies, if you’re interested. They will accept the local equivalent in place of entrance exams so your GPA and academic transcripts should suffice. If you want to find out scholarships to Japanese universities/application forms etc, check out JUGAS http://web.jugas.org.sg/ that lists some specifically for Singaporeans 🙂

      I hope that helps! If you have more questions you can always email me at bernadette.lyf@gmail.com

      • Siti says:

        Oh my goodness, thank you so much Bernie! You’re a great help and I’m really grateful. I hope everything goes well for you even after your studies. 🙂

  • Boey Kwan says:

    Thanks for this story! I’m inspired (and frankly RELIEVED) to hear that your studying was significantly more relaxing than everyone expected. I’m interested about the elitist ideology in Singapore. I live in Canada but I’m Cantonese, and my Asian friends seem to be undergoing a stressful period of self-or-parent-or-peer-inflicted pressure, to get good grades. The atmosphere of competition is astounding (and nerve-wracking).
    But that’s slightly off topic. Pertaining to university in Japan – third-year high school students study ferociously to get into a university. This includes cram schools that you mentioned, tutoring, all the Japanese/Asian stereotypical pathways to success. But after university, the load lightens, and young people have time to karaoke and party and drink. I don’t endorse that behaviour but it’s how they express their relative lack of stress or pressure, so I’m happy for them.
    Question: is the above info accurate? And when job-hunting period comes about, what did you find was the best way to cope with it (shuukatsu)?

    • Bernie Low says:

      It is true that there is the stereotype of cramming just to get into a good school and relaxing once entering it. And while it is true some do have a lot of fun partying and devoting their time to say, club activities etc. my peers do study hard as well! Perhaps it’s not as stressful because the entrance exams are a “do-or-die” situation and university has more flexibility with modules (eg retaking next semester, planning your own schedules).

      Personally I was able to do well without the same level of hardcore mugging I did for my A levels but perhaps I learnt to study smart or all the years of cramming/analytical essay writing prepared me for uni better.

      I can’t say from my own experience of shuukatsu but what I find the best way to cope with it is to not have any classes interfere with interviews (aka complete all graduation credits/mods by the start of 4th year) because the biggest problem is having companies hold interviews in the middle of the day (sometimes in another prefecture) which means having to skip class to attend it. And of course learning the supposed “right way” to do things aka handwriting/personalizing each resume, the suit and makeup/hair do, the proper keigo/greetings etc

  • HaripriyaRamkrishnan says:

    this was so beautiful! Thank you so much for writing this! I had wanted to study my Undergraduate course in Japan but could not do so owing to financial problems. Now, I am biding my time while working hard towards my goal of wanting to study my Master’s in Japan. Right now, I was in the middle of composing an email to a Japanese teacher and was..tired out because composing an email in Japanese and a long one at that is quite exhausting. And this article gave me such an indescribable boost! Oh I could only keep saying a thousand thanks–so thank you! Good luck with all your ventures in Japan!

    • Bernie Low says:

      Thank you for your heartwarming comment! I’m glad the article had such a good effect on you ^_^b it makes my day to know someone enjoyed what I wrote. Best of luck to you too!

  • thisismikodee says:




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