PhD Study in Japan – A Guide for 2021 |
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PhD Study in Japan – A Guide for 2021

Japan welcomes thousands of international students each year, many of whom are PhD students attracted by the country’s world-class reputation for technology and innovation, as well as its exceptional heritage sites.

A PhD in Japan represents an excellent opportunity to hone your research skills in a safe, stable society that values education very highly.

This page will give you an introduction to everything you should know about studying a PhD in Japan, with information on the Japanese university system, the structure of a doctoral programme and how fees, funding and visas work in Japan.

PhD opportunities in Japan – what’s on offer for 2021?

Futuristic cities, stunning nature and fascinating history. . . Japan has plenty to occupy curious PhD students looking for a truly unique destination in which to pursue a doctoral programme.

The Japanese government has a long-standing commitment to increasing the numbers of international students in the country, setting itself some ambitious targets to meet. This drive goes hand-in-hand with Japan’s excellent universities, many of which are ranked among the best in Asia.

These are a few of the best reasons to study a PhD in Japan this year:

  • World-class universities – There are a clutch of Japanese universities in the top 100 of the various global university rankings, and the country also performs well in regional metrics.
  • Quality of life – Japan is rightfully famous for its high quality of life and it provides a safe, efficient environment for PhD students.
  • International outlook – Along with its ambitious targets for international student numbers, the Japanese government has introduced the Top Global University Project, which gives extra funding to 37 universities to help develop links with other top universities from around the world.
  • Technology – Japan has long embraced technology, making it an ideal place for PhD students who want to innovate in any number of scientific fields.

PhD Study in Japan - Key Details
Universities 777
Nobel Prizes 27
Oldest University Keio University (1858)
International Students 182,748
PhD Length 3-4 years
Representative Fees ¥520,800 (USD $4,735)
Academic Year April to March

Coronavirus updates for international students at Japanese universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in Japan, please check the official Study in Japan website for updates.

PhD life in Japan

Want to know more about what it's like to live and study abroad in Japan during a PhD? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.

Japanese universities

There are currently over 700 universities in Japan, around 75% of which are private institutions. The three main types of universities are:

  • Private universities – Private universities have been established by independent organisations and each have their own unique education and research strengths. Over the years, they have greatly contributed to the development of Japanese higher education.
  • National universities – These have been established in all local prefectures (the equivalent of local councils in the UK) to make sure that each region of Japan has access to quality higher education. Such institutions are an important part of the Japanese government’s Top Global University Project, promoting the globalisation of Japan’s higher education sector.
  • Public universities – Established and managed by local public entities or public university corporations, public universities provide higher education opportunities to local people and act as intellectual and cultural centres.

Graduate schools

Since their introduction to the Japanese higher education system in the mid-20th century, graduate schools have trained doctoral candidates at some of the country’s top universities. As a relatively small percentage of students in Japan become postgraduates, these specialist graduate schools play a significant role in training the next generation of teaching and research staff.

Japanese university rankings

Japanese universities perform strongly in the various global league tables – there are six universities in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings, for example. Japan also features heavily in regional rankings covering the rest of Asia.

Top 10 Japanese Universities in 2021
University THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
The University of Tokyo=362426
Kyoto University=543834
Tohoku University201-25079151-200
Tokyo Institute of Technology301-35056101-150
Nagoya University351-400=11083
University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan351-400--
Osaka Universtiy351-400=72151-200
Kyushu University401-500=72151-200
Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU)401-500=362601-700
University of Tsukuba401-500=265201-300
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

PhD structure

In Japan, PhDs usually take place within a specialist graduate school associated with a university. Much like the rest of the world, a Japanese doctorate is an advanced research qualification.

PhD programmes

PhDs in Japan are often split into two phases – the first phase is aimed at graduates and incorporates a Masters qualification as part of the programme. The second phase is designed for student who already have a Masters. If you study a Masters as part of your PhD, you’ll gain a total of 30 credits.

Programme length

Japan’s academic year begins in April, with the first semester running until September. The second semester begins in October and finishes in March.

For holders of Masters degrees, a PhD lasts a minimum of three years (four years if your research project is in the areas of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry or veterinary science).

At some institutions, students also have the option to study for a PhD directly after their four-year undergraduate degrees, although the duration of a PhD is then five years. There are also additional requirements in the first two years of study which consist of taught courses, a project proposal and an examination.


Before applying for your PhD, you should contact a potential supervisor at a Japanese university in advance, telling them about your research plans and why they’d be the perfect fit. You should also send them a letter of recommendation from your current (or previous) academic advisor.

Professors command a great deal of authority at Japanese university and the supervisor-supervisee relationship is more akin to a master-disciple interaction. If you feel you need to challenge your supervisor, do so with the highest level of diplomacy and respect.

There is also a strict hierarchy within research teams which is determined by age and position, with post-docs commanding more seniority than PhD students who, in turn, are considered as seniors to masters and undergraduate students. As such you may find that discussions within a research teams are generally top down rather than on an equal footing.

Professors are often busy with administrative, pastoral and other activities, delegating their day-to-day supervisory role to junior academics, post-docs or even final year PhD students. As a PhD student, you will be expected to be an independent researcher and the support you receive is likely to be minimal. In this context, your graduate school will provide the training structure you need.

Assessment and examination

PhDs in Japan are typically assessed based in the quality of the doctoral thesis, as well as a public oral examination similar to the viva. Sometimes you may also have to make a formal presentation about your thesis.

Fees and funding

PhD study in Japan is relatively affordable and there are plenty of funding options for international doctoral students.

PhD fees

In national universities, the PhD tuition fees for pursuing a doctoral programme in Japan are fixed by the Ministry or by local authorities for public universities. They are currently:

  • National universities: ¥535,800 (USD $5,115.79) per year + ¥282,000 (USD $2,692) for admission fees
  • Local public universities: ¥537,878 (USD $5,135) per year + ¥384,727 (USD $3,673) for admission fees

In private universities, annual tuition fees range from ¥699,422 (USD $6,678) for medicine and medicine-related PhDs to ¥1,218,547 (USD (USD $11,6345) for PhDs in the Arts. A one-off university admission fee is around ¥220,000 (USD $2,000) in addition to the tuition fee.

Additional expenses

All international PhD students are required to enrol in the National Health Insurance system. This is done through the office which has processed your residence registration. The annual premium varies depending on where in Japan you live, but is around ¥20,000 (USD $180) per year.

Optional expenses include:

  • University student health insurance
  • Personal accident insurance
  • Personal liability insurance

PhD scholarships

There are several scholarships available to international PhD students. Some of these you’ll apply for before you arrive in Japan, while you can apply for others once you’ve arrived (with, however, no guarantee of securing the funding). The most prestigious research scholarships are those awarded by MEXT.

Living costs

The Japanese government estimates that the average monthly living costs of an international student in Japan amount to ¥138,000 (USD $1,255).

For more information, check out our guide to living in Japan as a PhD student.

Applying for a PhD in Japan

PhD students are normally referred to as ‘PhD students’ (no surprise there!) but the term ‘research students’ will normally mean visiting PhD students (i.e. for six to 18 months) so be aware of this when you apply for admissions.

Entry requirements

You should have a Masters degree or an international equivalent. Alternatively, if your university offers the option, you may be able to enter a five-year PhD programme directly after a four-year undergraduate programme such as a Bachelors.

You might have to sit an entrance examination in your subject area or provide a graduate entry test score such as GRE, so check what the practice is at your chosen university.

Some universities apply a minimum age policy. However, if you believe you have the necessary qualifications but are too young then it is worth speaking to the international office or the body responsible for admissions at your university.

Language requirements

Unless your PhD requires you to demonstrate Japanese proficiency, you are most likely to be asked to provide evidence of proficiency in the English language through an English language test, such as TOEFL or IELTS.

If you studied your Bachelors or Masters in English, this will usually be considered proof of English proficiency.

Even if your programme isn’t taught in Japanese, it’s worth learning some Japanese so you can communicate with your peers, at least informally. If your level of Japanese is only basic, then use English to talk about your research.

Application process

Visit your prospective university’s website and, if available, submit an admission inquiry form, along with your CV. Alternatively, if an email address is available (it might not), then contact individual supervisors to discuss your preliminary research plans. Once you are sure this is the right programme for you, submit the application form.

An admission panel will review your application based on your qualifications, documents supplied and test scores (such as GRE and language proficiency, if applicable). Some departments operate a two-stage selection process so you may be invited to an interview (face-to-face or by telephone) if selected at this stage.

These are some of the documents you’re likely to supply as part of your PhD application:

  • Official diplomas of your previous degrees
  • Official transcripts (you may also be asked for a copy of your Bachelor or Masters dissertation)
  • Graduate entry test score and language proficiency certificates (if applicable)
  • At least two letters of recommendation (generally from a senior member of staff such as a department head or academic advisor)
  • An up-to-date CV
  • A research proposal
  • A medical certificate
  • Three passport-style photos
  • A photocopy of your valid passport
  • A certificate of non-Japanese Registration, if you already live in Japan

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in Japan will follow a fairly standard format (even if the actual process takes place online). Our guides explain what happens at a PhD interview and look at some of the questions you might be asked.

Student visas

If you live outside Japan, you’ll need to apply for a “College Student Visa” (ryugaku visa) once you have your PhD offer.

You can apply for this visa at your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate. There are a few documents you’ll need to supply as part of your application:

  • A letter of admission from your university
  • A valid passport
  • A completed visa application form

You might also be required to show proof that you have enough money to support yourself while living in Japan.

Registering with the local authorities

All foreign nationals must register with the municipal authorities in their local area within 14 days of arrival, regardless of their nationality and visa requirements.

Next steps

Studying a PhD in Japan represents a fantastic opportunity to produce research in one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. What’s more, Japan has the third biggest economy in the world, meaning that there are plenty of exciting career possibilities for talented postgraduates – like you!

If you want to work in Japan after your studies, you’ll need to apply for a suitable employment visa that fits your skills and plans. You can find out more on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan’s website.

Find a PhD in Japan

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Japan? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 23/10/2020

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