Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blog X (10): Getting a Japanese Ph.D.

The tenth entry in this blog is the last that explores the option of doing some or all of your post-graduate education in a foreign country. Robert D. Eldridge, an associate professor of international public policy at Osaka University, discusses his experiences being both a student and professor in Japan. The Director, U.S.-Japan Alliance Affairs Division, Center for International Security Studies and Policy, Eldridge writes in both English and Japanese. His first book was published in English as The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan relations, 1945-1952 (2001) and in Japanese as Okinawa Mondai no kigen: Sengo Nichi-Bei Kankei ni Okeru Okinawa 1945-1952 (2003). The Japanese-language version of his first book, won the 15th Asia-Pacific Award, sponsored by the Asia Research Institute of the Mainichi Shimbun. His second book is available in Japanese as Amami Henkan to Nichibei Kankei (2003) and in English as The Return of the Amami Islands: The Reversion Movement and U.S.-Japan Relations (2004). In 2008, he published a book in Japanese Iōjima to Ogasawara o Meguru Nichibei Kankei (2008) and edited another one in English Japanese Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism (2008). Here is his guest blog:

If you asked me 20 years ago when I was finishing college if I thought I would be teaching and writing about Japanese political and diplomatic history, and U.S.-Japan relations, I probably would have called you baka, or “crazy” in Japanese, if I even knew the word then. Similarly, although I had always loved “history,” I don’t think I ever considered in my younger days that I would have made a career out of history.

I cringe with embarrassment as I write this, but as someone with an A-Type personality, I like to plan. No, I mean I really like to plan—everything. Yet, as this essay will show, my life and career turned out to be as unplanned as heavenly possible. What I discovered—in part when writing this essay—is that while it may be important to have a strategy, it is probably more important to make the right choices along the way. I can say with confidence that I am happy with the choices I have made, and thus I think they have been the right choices.

This essay explores the above twin and interrelated journeys to pursuing a successful career in history which happens to be in Japan in the hope that it may be reference for others. Specifically, I will talk about the challenges of studying and entering graduate school in Japan.

I have always been interested in history, and while attending Lynchburg College in Virginia, had been fortunate enough in my freshman year to have a freshman advisor who happened to belong to the History Department as well as to do a work-study there to help pay for tuition. I was also lucky when the new chair of the department, who happened to be a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, and doubled as the head of the newly created International Relations major, became my advisor. He broadened my interest in history to include “international history” and international affairs. I ended up doing my graduation honors paper on the evolution of common security and foreign policies within the European Community.

Toward the end of a studying abroad semester in Paris in my junior year in the spring and summer of 1989 (a great time to be in Europe), I realized that if I wanted to be relevant in the State Department, which I planned to join, I would need another area of expertise or experience outside of “just” Europe. I decided to go to Japan for one year upon graduation, on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. After that, I would return to the U.S., take the foreign service exam, and hopefully become a diplomat.

Well, one year on the JET Program became two years, and almost three (I turned down a request to extend for a third year). Instead of continuing on the JET program, I decided to study the language full time thinking I would be an even better asset to the State Department if I mastered Japanese on my own and brought that skill with me.

After 15 months of intensive study, and passing the highest level of the proficiency exam in December 1993, I was faced with another serious choice. Should I enter an MBA program I had been accepted into in the United States for the 1994 academic year, and using my precious and new found Japanese fluency, proceed to get disgustingly rich in the business world, or try to get into a Japanese graduate school to study what I loved: history, international relations, and politics? To make a short story even shorter, I chose the latter course.

I was blessed to have found Dr. Iokibe Makoto, Japan’s leading diplomatic historian and a specialist on U.S.-Japan relations, who was willing to take me under his wing for the master’s program at the Graduate School of Law at Kobe University beginning in April 1994. Less than a year later, we all experienced the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and lost 39 members of our school, including two close classmates. The survivors in our group rallied and we helped each other graduate. We all entered the doctorate program together too.

I initially had not planned to go on for my Ph.D. I felt I was more policy-oriented, and frankly disdained ivory-tower academics. But my own professor was not like that--he had one foot in policy and the other in research/teaching—and I saw that a healthy balance did exist. (Today, Dr. Iokibe serves as President of the National Defense Academy of Japan.) Eventually, I earned my doctorate (in Political Science, with a specialty in Japanese Political and Diplomatic History) in the spring of 1999 (one week before my daughter was born), and after a couple of outstanding post-doctoral fellowships, joined the faculty of Osaka University in the summer of 2001 as a tenured associate professor.

For personal and professional reasons, I chose to physically stay in Osaka (Western Japan) rather than being lured to the higher-paced Tokyo area. I still go to Tokyo a few times a month for research, meetings, and other activities, and to Okinawa for the same reasons, but living in between these two places allows me to keep a certain level of balance and objectivity.

Currently, I am faced with a new choice—whether to return to the United States or not. After almost twenty years here, I am ready to head back, but my connection with Japan will not end, I am sure. My wife of almost 15 years laughs when I talk about the different plans I am making and strategies I have, because she knows the difficulty of seeing too far ahead. I agree—it is more important to make the right choices than to have a strategy that might not be applicable to the situation at hand. Yet the planner inside of me likes to at least keep jotting down a few ideas anyway. Good luck on your plans—or choices—in the future.

Below are some suggestions and information about graduate study in Japan. While the reputations of the schools vary, much of your education will depend on your academic advisor and your relationship with him/her. Know what you want to study, and whom you wish to study with.

The quality of the libraries at each school vary, and inter-library loans are not free. Because of this, some students visit other schools to use their libraries. In a compact area like Tokyo, this may be fine, but in other parts of Japan, I would not recommend this approach. Moreover, schools in the Tokyo area are able to benefit from being in the country’s capital with its various conferences and lectures. In short, to get the most out of your time and money in Japan, schools in the Tokyo area might be better.

Requirements for graduate schools vary, but in most cases you will be required to physically sit for an entrance examination. As such, while very inconvenient, you will either have to already be in Japan, or plan to visit Japan around the time of the entrance exam.

Exams are usually held in the early fall (September), and again in the late Winter (February-March), for entrance in April (the beginning of the academic year in Japan). While several schools offer September/October admission for the doctoral program (in addition to April admission), few do so for the master’s program (i.e., the master’s program tends to begin in April). Each school’s entrance exam system is different, so you should check the details of the school you wish to study at on your own. Currently, I do not know of any schools here that use the GRE, but that does not mean that in the future they won’t. In any case, make sure you are aware of what the school you are interested in requires.

Japanese universities’ websites tend to be undeveloped or underdeveloped in general, and this is especially true for their English-language websites. More often than not, forms are not downloadable and applications can not be submitted electronically. You may have to do things by snail mail, so leave enough time for this type of correspondence.

Some schools require competency in Japanese, while others do not. The exam that is the standard test to ascertain competency is the Japanese Language Proficiency Text, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Level 1, the most difficult, or Level 2, are the benchmarks. In my own case, Level 1 was necessary to enter Kobe University’s program.

At Osaka University’s School of International Public Policy, we do not require Japanese language proficiency but nevertheless hope the applicants have it or become proficient during their studies. If you wish to get the most out of your studies, and especially if you are intending to study and conduct research about Japanese history, politics, and foreign policy, then the greater your ability to read Japanese, the greater your understanding of the subject matter will be. I love doing research in Japanese and know with confidence I am adding value to the field due to my unique capabilities and insights acquired.

A final note on the costs of higher education in Japan. The graduate schools tend to be relatively cheap compared to schools in the U.S. Tuition per semester is about 3000 dollars, with a one-time entrance fee about the same amount. There are some private scholarships available, but most international students study in Japan on a Japanese Ministry of Education and Science scholarship, which they apply for from their home countries. In addition to a tuition waiver, the scholarship provides travel money to and from Japan and a monthly stipend of about 1700 dollars per month. Information on these scholarships can be found on the Japanese Embassy’s website, in Washington, D.C., or at the websites for one of the Japanese consulate around the U.S. You will need approximately 9-18 months preparation time with these scholarships due to the complexities and timing of the application process. As an international student, you will be allowed to work part-time (up to about 28 hours per week). As a self-financed student, I found it necessary to work part-time, while balancing study and other activities. If you can come on a government scholarship, I would highly recommend it, so that you can better concentrate on your studies, but it is not impossible to do it on your own like I did.


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