Laura Petrescu, MEXT Scholar, update: Bowing out of Japan, reasons why.


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Hi Blog.  Back in December, exchange student Laura Petrescu offered a guest blog entry outlining the problems she had with Japan’s lack of support for NJ scholars coming on scholarships to Japanese universities, in particular Osaka University of Foreign Studies.  It was a very thoughtful essay which sparked a lot of discussion.  Now Laura has decided she’s just plain had enough, after three years here, and is getting out.  Here is an update on her situation and her reasons causing her decision.

This is bad news for Japanese institutes of higher education, which sorely need students due to the declining birthrate, and for Japan’s industrial prowess, which is poorly served by a system that cannot reap the benefits of international students being trained through our tax monies for our job market.  Arudou Debito in Calgary


Dated January 29, 2010

Hello, blog! This is Laura Petrescu again – the MEXT scholarship grantee who shared her studying experience with you all last year.

First of all, for those of you wondering why my story would be worth an update, here’s a little food for thought: what happened to me, and to other foreign students who were too bitter or too afraid to come out in the open, isn’t just a problem of one individual who couldn’t quite get used to living and studying here. It’s an entire system that rounds up gifted high-school graduates from around the world and brings them to Japan, but stops there; there are no follow-ups, no inquiries about students’ problems and general well-being, and everything is left to the universities where said graduates are placed. And, as I tried to point out in my other essay, some of these universities are not prepared to accommodate and deal with foreign students.

Before I go on, I want to thank the posters who offered their sympathy and support after the first article was published. To those who questioned my story or pointed out what I did wrong, that’s your opinion, and I respect it. Maybe my writing wasn’t clear enough… maybe different people perceive the same situation differently. Thank you for taking the time to read my story nonetheless.

On to the point: long story short, I’ve decided to waive my scholarship and return to my home country.

There are two reasons for my decision. Firstly, I’m sure that, at this rate, I wouldn’t be able to graduate. For one thing, I was failed through one of the mandatory courses to advance to the next year – by the teacher that wouldn’t acknowledge sickness as a valid reason to miss a class. Also, the research group I was assigned to for another mandatory class ignored me altogether and then complained that I wasn’t doing anything, so I would’ve likely failed that project, too. (Mind you, I tried to get involved – but being completely ignored when trying to offer a suggestion or improvement, or volunteer for a task, gets tiresome after a while.)

The second reason is that the quality of teaching overall is definitely not what I’d expected. I spent two years at my current university and I only learned a few things that could be considered useful for my field. I learned infinitely more through self-study and an online course.

It took me several months to come to this decision, and in the meantime, I started going to classes less and less. I just couldn’t bring myself to face it anymore. I doubt that my academic adviser or the people at the International Relations office noticed or bother to do anything. Thinking back, I think that by this point, they had already decided I was more trouble than I was worth. After all, I’m not the one to “humbly understand” that “these things happen” (from racist and inappropriate remarks to unjust grades, being excluded by my classmates and even one attempt of ijime that didn’t go down so well for the bully). Anyway, when I told them about my decision, they didn’t seem surprised. Quite the contrary. The International Relations people were very quick to agree that “this is probably the best thing for me” and one of then urged me to leave “as soon as possible” because it must be “so hard” (“tsurai desu ne?”) being someplace I didn’t want to be. Not one word was said about why I want to leave, or about what could be done to solve the problems on their end. I wasn’t asking for a top-to-bottom reform of the way they do things at the university or anything of the sort… just for a bit of help and understanding, and for intervention where it was needed (re: repeated inappropriate comments, etc.). Because sweeping a problem under the rug or pretending it never happened only makes it worse.

I’m off to file my papers on Monday and out of Japan in two weeks. Of course, MEXT won’t pay for my ticket, so that’s another few hundred thousand yen out of my family’s pocket. The only case in which they’d pay would be if I retired due to illness… I guess GAD (see below) doesn’t count as illness in their book, even though I largely suspect all the stress and pressure I’ve had in the last three years is what triggered it in the first place.

“But Laura”, some readers might ask, “why do we need to know all this?”

Prospective MEXT students need to know all this. Having this information can help them decide whether it’s worth to spend five years here, re-learn everything they thought they knew about Japan, struggle to fit in, be treated questionably time and again, and possibly not learn anything beyond the absolute basics of their field, just to get a piece of cardboard that says they graduated from a Japanese university. Not to mention that the allowance is hardly enough to get by once they get kicked out of their dorm – and everyone gets kicked out of their dorm after a year (or two, if they’re lucky), and most of the small university taxes are NOT paid by MEXT (I had to pay roughly 80.000 JPY when I enrolled, no idea what those were for, but there you go). Add that to the cost of moving to another city (which most foreign students have to do after their preparatory year) and later on, the key money, etc., required to move to an apartment or mansion, and it’s obvious that not only the students, but also their families will probably have to make considerable efforts as well.

Of course, I admit I’m biased here. I read the comments for my original story and I’m really happy for the people who actually had a fun and worthwhile experience here. Sadly, I’m not one of them.

I’ve wasted three years of my life here, and struggled every step of the way. I learned the language to the point where I could engage in fluent conversation and read just about anything. Writing was slow and difficult, but the important thing is, I could write (much to the astonishment of some professors). I studied the customs and mannerisms, relevant laws, and even keigo. I tried to make and keep friends, but ultimately got tired of the whole ‘petting zoo’ attitude most of the Japanese showed (“Hey guys, this is my gaijin friend! She can speak Japanese! And she can read, too!” “Wooooow…”). I’m giving up because I feel burned out. There’s only so much crap one can take before finally snapping.

Note: I was talking about GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) before. Back home, I only had a mild social anxiety problem which went away on its own. After I came to Japan (and especially after I moved from Osaka to Tokyo), it got much, much worse. Anyone who has suffered a panic attack knows how debilitating it can be – the bad ones can leave you disabled for a good few hours. Anxiety and panic attacks did me in for the first two years – that’s why my attendance was low to begin with (since it got brought up a lot in the comments of my previous post). The reason I didn’t include this with my original story is that it could probably be used to figure out who I am.

42 comments on “Laura Petrescu, MEXT Scholar, update: Bowing out of Japan, reasons why.

  • Did your university agree to make allowance for your GAD? If so, how? If not, why not?

    By the way pardon me for saying so, but learning keigo is standard fare for all first-year Japanese studies majors around the world, so stating that you learned ‘even’ keigo is a bit unambitious for a self-described ‘gifted high-school graduate’.

  • >>Laura

    Hi, this is Jeffrey, I posted some comments on your first essay. Sorry that things did not work out for you in Japan, and good luck in the future. I too suffer from mild anxiety attacks from time to time, so I can somewhat relate to what you must have went through. Japan can be a cold and lonely place at times, and its education system is definetly far from its potential. Hopefully your experiences can serve others.

  • Hope Laura has better luck in the future, but the first step is admitting at least SOME of the fault for her predicament is her own. Yes, a lot seems to be a bad program, unsympathetic people, illness, etc. But if this is going to be a positive learning experience, then I hope the only lesson she chooses to learn isn’t that Japan sucks.

    But she is young, and we were all young once, many of us made bad decisions or got into bad situations, and ended up failing.

    As we grow older, we can look back at our younger, foolish selves and laugh, or look back and blame our sad lives on everyone else, get a job at the US Postal Service and develop an interest in firearms. 😉

    As for GAD, well, this isn’t the place to discuss the DSM IV, but it’s a bit surprising that someone who admits a history of anxiety problems would choose to commit to 5 years in another country and study in a foreign language. But again, she’s young, and I guess MEXT had flashy brochures and promises that everything would be fine.

    On another issue, for those who get Monbusho scholarships, is it still on the condition that you LEAVE JAPAN when you graduate? I mean, what’s the point of that?

  • André Oliveira says:

    Here in Portugal, Universities all work from a point where you practically only learn through self-study. All you’re given are references.

    One of the reasons I haven’t gone to Japan (yet) is due to over-priced education. Minimum wage here is what you’d get in Japan working a 20 hours-a-week part-time in MacDonalds (65000yen / 450,00€ roughly).

    Also, tho I don’t suffer from anything like GAD, I have had a few anxiety problems in the past which made me resort to psychiatry, anxiolytics and anti-depressants, tho that was quite a few years back during my un-confident early teenager years. I wonder how I’d handle Japan, mainly Tokyo? I do have a bigger interest in Osaka tho.

  • Laura Petrescu says:

    For Marc S.,
    I signed a paper to waive my “free trip” home because I had a ticket already purchased since last year. From what I heard around the office, MEXT will “definitely” give a free ticket home if the reason for retiring is a physical illness, and “might” give one if it’s a mental condition, depending on the severity. I think an assessment from a Japanese physician is needed, too.

    For Jeffrey,
    Thank you.

    For Level3,
    I already admitted that some of this is my fault. I know it, and I learned from my mistakes. This whole experience made me stronger (something like, “If I made it on my own in Tokyo, I can surely make it on my own in another, friendlier place, right?”).

    My GAD was manageable back home. I only had a few panic attacks and once I learned what they were and that there was no serious risk of having heart attack or stroke, things got a little more bearable. On the other hand, the stress and pressure here made it much, much worse. I overestimated my own limits, it seems… Heh. I was young and stupid back then.

    Also… Postal was an awesome game back in the day. Maybe I should take it up again just for kicks. (If you weren’t referring to the game, my bad ^^;)

  • I am sorry that it didn’t work out for Laura.

    I think I have said this before, but again, so many people come to Japan to study and do just fine. They learn Japanese, get jobs there, and are quite happy. I am one of those people- I have several friends who are others. Of course it wasn’t easy. Along the way some of my best friends have left the country somewhat disheartened. And yes, there is a lot of room for improvement. But many others love it.

    I wouldn’t advocate any program that doesn’t let you pick your school. Picking which university you go to is probably one of the most important things you’ll do in your life. Personally I would recommend any students coming to Japan to pick an international school like Waseda, Ritsumeikan APU or Sophia. You will still get the Japan experience and opportunities that go with it, but you will likely avoid some of the problems Laura speaks of that result form institutions not used to handling international students.

  • Wow, I wanted to feel some sympathy for you in your previous post but you’ve just blown that out of the water. If you think the University in Japan is tough wait until you get into the real world where attendance and results are required or you don’t just fail you lose your job.

    When you originally said you missed a significant amount of time due to “illness” I was thinking ok, she’s got mono or some sort of infection and is under a doctors care. Nothing personal but if you missed a significant amount of time in any University in the world and claimed “illness” but weren’t under a doctors care you’d fail. If you were under a doctors care you probably wouldn’t fail but you certainly wouldn’t get credit – you’d have to repeat the class for a grade later.

    As for your treatment in your group projects – you’ve proven yourself unreliable. You missed too much class. Word gets around fast about who’s reliable and who isn’t and in a group situation you don’t give significant responsibility or take significant input from someone who’s very likely to suddenly become “unavailable”. After all your grade depends on that person and if that person isn’t around…

    The litmus test of discrimination isn’t “are they treating me badly” it’s “are they treating me any differently than they would treat a Japanese in the same situation”. The answer to that certainly seems to be a resounding no. You’re problem isn’t that you’re being discriminated against it’s that you want to be treated differently than your peers.

  • José Muñoz says:

    I own to MEXT the most intense (and maybe the best) experience of my life. However, I will not miss the teaching system at the university were I studied.

    I spent 4 nice years in Tokyo. I did a preparatory year, a MSc and I started a PhD but, after a while I could see clearly what I suspected since the 2nd year, that Tokyo University was not what I could call a stimulating and challenging environment. I was feeling so stagnated that I quit the PhD in Japan (even if I had funding and VISA until 2011) and started another in Europe. Now I’m with better pay (even after paying taxes!), with a fluid communication between colleagues and with lots of opportunities for self-development. Here I’m treated as a researcher (with rights and responsibilities) and I strongly feel that I’m building a future and an auspicious career. I even re-discovered the excitement of doing research.

    I lively recommend studying 1 or 2 years in Japan for the knowledgeable and amazing experience(s) that you will get. However for something more serious like a PhD I would recommend US or Europe instead. The following is some Pros and Cons for studying Engineering at Tokyo University:

    – Lots of resources (money for conferences, books, databases, experiments, etc);
    – You can finish PhD in 3 years (in other countries it takes 4 or more);
    – As a MEXT Scholarship Recipient, many times you will be treated as a VIP and granted many privileges and opportunities;
    – You may have a life-changing experience;
    – The staff at the faculty treat you extremely well;
    – You can learn an exotic language.
    – etc.

    – The academic environment lacks critical analysis;
    – In some labs, the status quo and hierarchy is too visible;
    – The philosophy of being able to sleep or use laptop at many classes/meetings, “the mind is absent but nobody cares”;
    – Scholarship recipients are seen as students and not as workers that can contribute to the Japanese society;
    – Quite often you do research alone. Don’t expect too much inspiration of interaction with “the environment”.
    – Scientific collaboration is too much centered in Japanese territory and in Japanese language. Thus, when you move out, you have to start building your network of collaborators and connections (but maybe it’s too late);
    – The MEXT scholarship is great for the first 2 years (when you can stay at a student dormitory) but, as soon as you move out, your lifestyle in Tokyo will become very spartan (this is what usually happens all over the world for PhD Candidates but some of us deserve and desire more than that…). However, If you stay at a student dormitory, the income (155 thousand a month) will be enough for a decent life;
    – It’s nice to have the label of Tokyo/Japan for your studies’ title but the “quality of its contents” may be inferior with respect to the quality that you can obtain in other countries. However, people possess a positive stereotype about Japan and this may play at your favor for the MSc BUT NOT FOR the PhD (here world class publications is used to measure your value).

    Each experience is different and the above items may not apply for other people that studied at Tokyo University.

    Perhaps I’m forgetting some things and I want to emphasize that this is a mere personal vision/interpretation, doesn’t intend to be a generalization and is based on the fact that lived and studied in Tokyo as a post-graduate. I had a great time there and only moved out by professional reasons.

    People were always very friendly with me and, contrary to Laura, at the University they were extremely polite and helpful with me (professors, staff, students, lab mates, etc), the same at the immigration and so on. Even the policeman were polite all the times that they asked my Alien Card during their “random” Security Checks (on my departure I got asked twice at Narita.).

    I miss the energy, some friends and acquaintances, the safety, the customer service, the Autumn foliage and the exoticism of living in Asia/Tokyo but I will never miss the racial discriminative governmental policies, the claustrophobic concrete-based urbanity, the education system and some other minor things.

    I hope that my text sounds objective. As I wrote above, I own a lot to Japan, to MEXT and to Japanese people and I had a GREAT time there. I just found that I after 4 years I wanted something that I could not get in Japan, I decided to move out and I found what I was searching for 🙂

    Laura’s experience and mine are similar in our disillusionment regarding the teaching system and apparently different in the way as we were treated. I hope that my text can contribute to the discussion. After all, we all have Japan inside us!

  • Yes, I know about GAD. In Japanese, it’s called 全般性不安障害.
    I was diagnosed with it at age 16 when I was having constant panic attacks. I tried different meds and unfortunately I am now on no medications except Klonopin for the panic attacks and that too, will have to be stopped because I’m getting addicted to it.
    At my job (I live in the US), I kind of explained to my supervisor that I have this mental issue and he understood it and when I started to miss a lot of work because of it I did get in trouble anyway. In fact, today I had taken the day off because I’m withdrawing from a nighmare-ish drug called Paxil.
    I know the exact feeling of the panic attack though-you think you are going to die, like you’re going through a heart attack, people don’t realize how traumatic and terrifying it really is. I’ve done a bit of research on this and for all of Japan’s glory with their great cell phones (I just stupidly spent lots of money on the new F-01B phone) their mental health area is not so good. A lot of drugs we have in the States are not out in Japan and you’ll find people who think you are just trying to get sympathy (amae) from them,etc.
    I think one of the reasons I never dared to go overseas is (first of all, the cost!), second of all it is my mental health issues. I have to live my life in a very simple manner because any and all stress triggers GAD symptoms in me. It’s sad, but that’s how it is. Maybe I could go to Japan on a vacation… but for now I’ll just study the language as much as I can and enjoy that.

    Laura, Please do not let the comments hurt your feelings, when people question why you went to Japan anyway because of the GAD issues. I appreciate your insights into your student life in Japan and can see from that and just my own life experiences that I would not be comfortable in such a situation. Your input really has been helpful. And now when you go back, you can go read Japanese manga without problems and maybe that’s some comfort? Heh, I’m not much of an otaku just a big fan of the language and some aspects of the culture.

  • Just as in the first post she made…

    Seriously, how can you say it is her fault!? This is someone who decided to learn a new language and culture. She even decided to take it a step further by graduating from an institute in that foreign country.

    I am sorry level3, I respect your opinion, but holy *blank* man! It is easy to say your young, but going to college is an important step for most people into jobhood. To say, oh sorry you had a bad experience, tough luck! is rediculous! Not everyone has parents who can support them so they can go to a different institution. Essentially because this program was so miss managed a guest to this foreign country felt so unwelcome, abused if you will, from a program that couldn’t careless. But I am digressing…

    The initial objective of MEXT is to create a cross cultural understanding. To fail this, to create a hostile environment for any of the students is unforgivable. If a program like MEXT doesn’t work they can always go home, right? That does sound reasonable, but they are not your typical exchange student. They are enrolled in the Japanese school. If they basically quit college and go home they are basically F’ed. They do not have a home institute to return to. They don’t have a degree, just wasted time. It might transfer to a different college, it might not. The reason most people enter college is to get some future job. Meaning they probably don’t have a job.So when you have a program like MEXT and it ultimately fails it’s responsibility to the student. That program just f’ed up that student’s entire life.

    The reason we have schools is not only to teach, but to ensure the future of tomorrow can have a better future by bettering themselves through a proper education.

    Whenever a educational institution fails in this it is always a problem.Surely it wasn’t entirely the schools fault, but after repeated problems with a student. Who repeatedly goes as far as to publically voice their concerns that they are having problems and for no one to take notice is abhorrent!

    Why should she even have to post something like this on just to be heard? For all of those who think she is not me tough luck, what if you were her? Japanese and many foreigners love to say shikata ga nai, but if everyone says whatever and bury their heads in the sand, then what?
    Well then, the world would be a real crummy place. By helping others you help yourself, by helping no one you condemn yourself to a very lonely and sad existence. :/

  • To Jeffrey in his comments in post 8, I found it to be quite refreshing and to strangely be rather appropriate criticism. However, at the same time to play the devil’s advocate…[…] .Even if you understand something a person with OCD or [aspergers] may try to adhere to the advice best they can, but it is psychological problem whether they like it or not and more often than not there isn’t anything they can do about it. 🙁 I am sure on the whole her condition didn’t cause all her stated problems. I am sure however that it did aggravate the situation.

    I do reserve on making comments of what ever she did to cause her situation, but I also think the program should have tried to understand her situation. Humans are not numbers and it think it is all to easy for big organizations to forget this.

  • This part struck a chord with me: “After all, I’m not the one to “humbly understand” that “these things happen” (from racist and inappropriate remarks to unjust grades, being excluded by my classmates and even one attempt of ijime that didn’t go down so well for the bully).”

    When I first came to Japan in 1990 as a 22yr old and worked in an art project with a quite bohemian group of Japanese older people, I was expected to be humble (but I wasn’t), was bullied physically by one stressed out guy for appearing to be enjoying myself a bit too much on the tour and not appearing “serious” enough (no smiling allowed), was expected to stay with the group 24 hours a day including overnight in the same hotel room as them and not go off by myself (which I did because I d just been threatened by the guy). I bailed on the second day and I was regarded as not having the gaman spirit and was called “so selfish”. Never mind that a certain other individual took credit for my work.

    That was a bitter learning experience for me and it wasn’t the last one, but it turned out I could “gaman” actually, and I m still here.

    I m siding with Laura, actually. I m saying that how hard it can be for a young westerner to just come here and be expected to completely surrender herself to the group, and change his/her personality to that of “humble kohai”, or clueless gaijin.How are we supposed to know that?

    The universities should hold cultural orientation courses to teach this and Keigo, before the semester begins. They shouldnt just expect students to automatically get along or work it out by themselves.

  • I’ve been working at the same school for 22 years and have constantly been the focus of blame whenever anything goes awry. When in doubt, blame the NJ seems to be modus operandi around here. I have had to shoulder significant blame, swallow whatever pride I still had remaining, and knuckle under like never before over and over again. This kind of unwanted undeserved punishment has caused me innumerable anxiety attacks and considerable mental and emotional anguish over the years. I earned my MEd here but upon graduating found out pay does not increase with advanced degrees so I wasted three years and 2 mill for nothing. I used to try and change things for the better what with new curriculum ideas, better ways of doing things, but everything gets rejected eventually so I have given up trying to improve anything. Best way to survive in an all Japanese working environment ? Keep your head down, mouth shut, and nose to the grindstone.

  • So many people seem to have had similar experiences with Japanese universities. The govt. invites the foreign students, they provide the scholarships and then you are left to sink or swim. My university (I was there for a year and a half) was fine as long as you did not have any problems or complaints, but if something did happen the university really did not want to know. The pervasive impression I had was that they did not like you asking questions. So many thing were just “this is the way it is” and I had no idea why. Why was I categorized as a “kenkyusei” and paid double the tuition of the Asian students, who were “kenshuusei”? Who decided this? It certainly wasn’t me. But the university was not admitting anything either. I had this same impression when I later worked for a Japanese company. Why should I open an account with this bank? No-one knew why, but everyone else had to open an account there, so why was I making a fuss? I soon learned to just shut my trap and trust that if I hung around long enough I might find out the answer.

    As for the petting zoo experience – yeah you find those people everywhere. It takes time and effort but you CAN find those rare people who are fun to hang out with and you can have normal conversations with, and they don’t even seem to notice that you are not Japanese, because its just not that important to them. I never found those people in my university – but I encountered them later on in my life in Japan. One big clue is that the first question they ask you is NOT “what country are you from?”.

  • Laura Petrescu says:

    For André Oliveira,
    I didn’t take any kind of medicine that had the risk of becoming addictive, but tried to cope with breathing techniques, simple yoga and self-suggestion (“mind over matter”, right?). Depending on the time and place, these might work a lot, a little, or not at all (especially if it’s a crowded or particularly stressful place).
    I think Osaka is a lot more relaxing and laid-back than Tokyo, so if you decided to come to Japan, I would definitely recommend it.

    For Jerry,
    I see your point.
    I was under therapy for my GAD for more than 3/4 of the time I spent at my Tokyo university, and most of my teachers knew about it (I know for a fact my academic adviser knew, for one). So I think we can say “I was under the care of a doctor”.
    One of the group projects, where I was a “ghost” from the beginning, had most work done over the Internet (mailing lists, etc.) after the first few weeks, where I attended all group meetings but one. At the very first meeting, when someone asked about ways to keep in touch, I suggested a mailing list (FreeML and the like), loud enough for everybody to hear… in Japanese. Nobody replied. Less than a minute later, the girl next to me made the same suggestion and everyone went, “Aaa, narudoho!! We should totally do that!” Sigh.

    For Amaenbou,
    Thank you! With GAD, it’s important to know your triggers; sadly, I found mine are things that would otherwise be considered a part of daily Japanese life: narrow, crowded spaces (trains, train platforms, lines in a shop or supermarket, small classrooms at university etc.)
    I’ve long since given up on the thought that medicine can help long-term and trying to find the root of the problem while coping with alternative methods (breathing techniques, self-suggestion, yoga…), so I have no idea what withdrawal from medication feels like. If it’s anything like nicotine withdrawal though, I don’t want to chance it 🙂

    For Kevin,
    That’s another thing I’m really unhappy about. I spent three years here and have nothing to show for it but a diploma that says I graduated a short-term program from Osaka University and is useless if I want a job. As you pointed out, college is an essential part of getting a job. Former classmates of mine from high-school have already graduated or are graduating this year; I, on the other hand, have to start with a blank slate somewhere else (either EU or US, haven’t decided yet) along with all the fresh-outta-highschool kiddies. I see “fun” times ahead.
    As for my GAD, it’s a vicious circle. It wasn’t so bad until I came to Japan. Then, because of the problems I had in the first year, I started having more problems than ever before. I moved to Tokyo and began therapy, but the stress also got stronger, so in the end my anxiety problem got nearly out of hand over the course of two years. It’s something like: problem – anxiety – new problems because of anxiety – increased anxiety – even more problems, etc.

    For Jonholmes,
    That’s terrible! When you were bullied physically, did you take a stand for yourself? I did. I may be a reasonable person most of the time, but I’m not a doormat.
    The group mentality was something I could never fully go with. All is nice and well until you have to change a large part of who you are to “fit in” with the group and “gaman” all sorts of things that are either uncomfortable or just… boring.

  • @Kevin,

    I have been a gaijin student in a Japanese university for the past 3 years. There are good points and bad points, clearly my experience has been better than Laura’s, at least so far. Sometimes I have bad days, but I still drag my ass into the lab every day. I vent about negative bureaucatic bullshit regarding J uni life right on this site.

    But I’m also a cynical 30-something. I’ve fucked up in the past, some things were the result of a bad, unyielding system, and other things were my own. But mostly a combination of the two.
    It’s the whole square peg, round hole problem. Which should change? Should the peg round itself off? Should the round hole square itself off? Or some middle ground? It’s pretty sure that if one side chooses not to adjust, and the other wants special accomodation, the chances of success are much worse. Though one could also say it’s foolish to even try in the first place.

    I can really sympathize with Laura, but I can’t really see this as 100% the school’s fault, partly due to a pattern of language choices in her kindly submitted posts (remind me of younger days when I wanted to deflect blame from myself), but mainly due to the admitted history of mental health issues, I assumed that her not-so-wise choice (study aborad in another language for 5 years) could charitably be attributed to youth or rashness. What do you want me to do Kev, just call her stupid?

    Still, I don’t many of us here would accuse Japan having a very progressive take on mental health.

  • @Level3

    Your attitude regarding Ms. Petrescu’s decision to study abroad is quite scary, I do hope I misunderstood. Bad decision or not, it doesn’t excuse MEXT’s failures, many of which were actually unrelated to her illness. Your stance is akin to saying that someone getting mugged in a notoriously bad neighborhood shouldn’t complain because they should have known better than to go there, when really the issue is the presence of an insecure neighborhood in the first place.

    Even if you think they are at fault, it’s only the case if they are aware of any dangers beforehand. Studying abroad isn’t meant to be excessively stressful. Go to any college’s international student page. Do you see any of them not smiling? I cannot make a comment on MEXT here because I haven’t seen their advertising materials (other than a local press release here that was totally devoid of any real information, but that’s getting off topic), but it would seem to me that if stress is to be expected, they failed to inform Ms. Petrescu.

    @Ms. Petrescu

    Thanks for sharing your experiences once more. I do hope you have better luck wherever you go, and here’s hoping MEXT will fix their issues for future NJ students.

  • Laura,

    “That’s another thing I’m really unhappy about. I spent three years here and have nothing to show for it but a diploma that says I graduated a short-term program from Osaka University and is useless if I want a job. As you pointed out, college is an essential part of getting a job. Former classmates of mine from high-school have already graduated or are graduating this year; I, on the other hand, have to start with a blank slate somewhere else (either EU or US, haven’t decided yet) along with all the fresh-outta-highschool kiddies. I see “fun” times ahead.”

    It is a difficult time now and easy to get down but try to stay positive. Even though you have made the decision to leave without having finished your degree not all is lost. If you haven’t already, find out if the university has links with any university overseas, you may be able to get credit at the next university for the subjects you have already passed.

    Also a degree is not essential to getting a job (but can be very helpful). From your time here you have some extra skills in your language ability and your experience. These don’t go as easily on your resume as a degree but could be a real advantage in future positions.

    — I agree. In a few years, you’ll see this experience in the right perspective and realize it was not wasted time.

  • It is always sad to hear of tales from Mext scholars, where for one reason or another things do not work out.

    I was a scholar from 92 through 97 and for me, it was an experience which was a tremendously positive experience. I have also attended universities in both New Zealand and the UK and found the quality of teaching no less than in other countries. Some university professors are simply going through the motions, particularly when it comes to undergraduate courses, and the quality can be patchy. Working out which classes are likely to be beneficial and which professors are likely to give the most rewarding experiences is simply a matter of diligence. In one respect, with the ingrained sempai-kohai system, it is mush easier to get information on prospective classes than in other countries. I found the pastorial care second to none, my supervising professor was world class and took a keen interest in my development and since graduating he has taken a keen interest in my career progress.

    To have had this experience supported fully by the Japanese tax payer is something that I am extremely grateful. Although there are some expected costs, such as the costs of moving into apartments etc., other than fellow MEXT scholars, I know of very few people that have come out of university level education in any country without a significant amount of debt hanging over their head.

    Notwithstanding this, the MEXT scholarship is not for the faint hearted. Completing university education in a second language is difficult and Japan at times can be a challenging country. From my intake, a number of people dropped out for various reasons. I do find this of concern and makes me question whether there needs to be greater effort placed on the selection process, to ensure that not only the brightest candidates come through, but also that such candidates are capable of the stress and hard work that the MEXT scholarship does entail. There may be an image that Japanese universities can be a holiday, but this is certainly not the case if someone is expecting to keep up in a foreign language and not having the benefit of a Japanese education.

    The sad thing is that for each dropout, there was potentially a better suited candidate that failed to get accepted. I know that whilst in the thick of things, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, and I certainly at times questioned what I was doing studying in Japan, but I would strongly recommend that anyone thinking of giving up the scholarship to seriously consider what a chance they are letting go. In this respect, make use of your senpai network, which no doubt have had similar concerns and fustrations in the past.

    Is the MEXT scholarship perfect – probably not. Is it one of the best opportunities that any young person is likely to have – definitely yes.

  • Amro could not have summed it up more for me – I cant help but wonder (AGAIN with your story) at the mentality of people who blame the messenger for the message.
    Amro and David B (and Debito of course) are right on the money. You had an experience Laura, and only you can choose to make it a bad one. IMHO it wont be. Don’t let the level3’s tell you its your fault, you looked for support and found none. That wont always be the case.

  • I think to make statements that it was a “wrong decision” on her part and such is really quite ignorant. If you have no idea about the nature of GAD and how crippling it can be to even one’s basic existence, then why are you passing such harsh judgments? (this is just directed in general at the people who are wagging their finger at her in disapproval).

    Listen, GAD has kept me in a bubble for years and years and I am just now trying to regain myself and regain contact with society. I don’t know if you have an account at, Ms.Petrescu, but I would suggest signing up and there are many support groups there in Japanese and it is a great place to just vent your feelings regarding GAD. I think in all my times I ever posted in a mental-health related support group on mixi, maybe once I got a “nihongo jouzu desu ne,” most people really looked past that which really made me happy and allowed me to talk to them about mine and their feelings, how to deal with panic attacks, etc.

    Basically, my suggestion Ms. P is if you do go to Europe, I would go to France. You DO speak Japanese, no matter what degree/certificate you got or didn’t. You speak it well enough I am sure to get some kind of job, maybe like a teaching assistant which pays quite well. I know the French are obsessed with Japanese culture, manga, anime and there are many students at their universities and maybe even lower levels who would love to know even the basics of what you know. The other reason I mention France is because they have great health care (not so for the US-last time I had a severe panic attack I couldn’t go to the emergency room-my “health insurance” doesn’t cover it-so it would have been over a $1000.00 for that night alone just to get some meds). In France you can take as many sick days as you need, I think the gov’t regulates days off and everyone gets 5 weeks a year off and extra days too. So maybe France would be a good place for you.

    If you are planning on the US, I would suggest the West Coast. It is more easy-going, relaxed and less face-paced and hectic than NYC. NYC is a lot like Tokyo in that way, I guess. Working in the US is a tough thing in a way because it is a work-focused culture like Japan with very few days off, little vacation in most Jobs and you MUST have a job to have health care and if you don’t , you have to pay for it out of pocket which is not cheap. Not to mention that any counselor session with a psychotherapist you might have would run you at least a hundred dollars or more per session and usually not covered by many insurance companies.

    I think if I were in Japan, too, I would do better in Kansai only because Tokyo is so crowded and here where I live when I go into a Kinokuniya bookstore alone, I already have heart palpitations and want to live ASAP. Also Kansai has a lot of people that is true, but I’ve had so many people tell me it’s way more relaxed than Tokyo.

    But bottom line is, I think there is a bit of a silver lining in this and that is that you learned a language which is incredibly difficult and few of us Westerners know it. Believe me, that does make you in high demand in many fields. Don’t give up and don’t feel like it was ALL for nothing because at least you got that language skill that many of us don’t. I know some 帰国子女 work as translators, some even from home 在宅ビジネス。 Maybe you could do something like that? I myself work at an office and am having to take a few days off here and there now b/c of the Paxil withdrawal but after that it’s back to my 40 hour routine.

    In any case, please take care and don’t let negative/scolding comments bother you. Most people will not even have a clue as to what it is you went through and believe me, for what it’s worth, you are way braver than me to have even tried this-I would have been too anxious to try it.

  • “That’s another thing I’m really unhappy about. I spent three years here and have nothing to show for it but a diploma that says I graduated a short-term program from Osaka University and is useless if I want a job. As you pointed out, college is an essential part of getting a job. Former classmates of mine from high-school have already graduated or are graduating this year; I, on the other hand, have to start with a blank slate somewhere else (either EU or US, haven’t decided yet) along with all the fresh-outta-highschool kiddies. I see “fun” times ahead.”

    One of my profs here dropped out of University half way through to go to university abroad. Now, he is teaching at the same university he left! He said it was not the easiest choice, but in the end it all worked out. I`m sure you will find what you want to do in life, this just wasn`t the right path.

    I`m sure gonna miss ya.

  • Regarding GAD:

    I just wanted to reaffirm that it’s in fact the university’s fault if they don’t provide proper support. In other words, a professor failing Laura for missing classes even though she had a documentable condition is something that just should not happen.

    At my college in the U.S., we have an office called “Disability and Support Services” that manages academic accommodations for exactly those kinds of cases.

  • Japanese universities of the middle and even lower tiers have expanded graduate programs, including ‘professional’ ones such as law, business/MBA, accounting, rapidly over the past two decades. This has led to a lot of questionable programs in a lot of places, most likely.

    [digression deleted]

    Asian students here in Japan tend to (1) come from China and (2) tend to do things together. Americans and Europeans are often limited to a few friendships and stick out. It’s a lonely road to choose to be a foreigner like that in Japan, regardless of where you work or study. Some people like it because they like sticking out. Many obviously don’t.

  • Laura Petrescu says:

    I apologize for the late reply, everyone.

    For the commenters who have offered encouragement and understanding,
    Thank you kindly. Your comments really mean a lot to me, especially right now. (Erin, I’ll miss you too!)

    For debiddo1,
    I see you’ve had a lot of difficulties here in Japan. What kept (keeps) you going through all that? If I were in your place, I would have left as soon as I’d found out that “When in doubt, blame the NJ seems to be modus operandi around here.”

    For Level3,
    “I’ve fucked up in the past, some things were the result of a bad, unyielding system, and other things were my own. But mostly a combination of the two.” That’s exactly my situation. I’m not trying to make this 100% the fault of MEXT, the scholarship system, or my university. I think I’ve grown up past that phase.

    “mainly due to the admitted history of mental health issues, I assumed that her not-so-wise choice (study aborad in another language for 5 years) could charitably be attributed to youth or rashness.” Let me re-iterate: my anxiety problem was well under control before I came here. Meaning it did not impair my everyday life or study in any way, and the few episodes I had were taken care of. I’ve studied abroad before (in Italy) and had zero anxiety problems there. Arguably, Japan is a lot more stressful than Italy or any other European country for a European student. It’s just that the stress, etc. had effects way beyond anything I thought it would.

    For Nick,
    I agree with you. Some people have the diligence and strong stomach it takes to graduate from their MEXT-chosen university, others don’t. I find it strange that several of my ryuugakusei friends from Osaka Gaidai have either given up or are facing a growing number of problems and thinking of giving up. These people made it through the screenings in their home country and managed to pass the training year, only to give up once they passed that.
    I think the feelings of isolation and helplessness play a large part in this, and maybe weigh more than the language barrier or difficulty of the classes. Particularly for those ryuugakusei who are sent to second-tier universities or remote places, where there are hardly any senpais and the “point-and-stare” attitude towards foreigners in general is much more prominent than, say, Tokyo or Osaka.

    For Amaenbo,
    I joined a support forum for people with anxiety problems at Uncommon Forum ( It’s a great place to socialize with people from all around the world, share my experience, and give and receive advice on coping techniques, etc. I used to have a Mixi but lost my password, and frankly I don’t care to find it out since there are a few people in my “friends list” there that I don’t want to hear from ever again (long story).
    On my list of possible countries to go to, I have France, Belgium and the US (Texas or Wisconsin, I have friends or family in both places). I still have to decide if I’m prepared for another “study abroad” experience though… first, I have to deal with the consequences of this one. Or I might actually finish a short-term program in my home country and then find work abroad. Lots of things to consider here.
    Once again, thank you. I hope you’ll manage to get over the withdrawal from Paxil soon, and that you bring your anxiety under control so you can enjoy everything that life has to give. If you’d like to keep in touch, my e-mail address is 🙂

    For Charles Jannuzi,
    “Americans and Europeans are often limited to a few friendships and stick out. It’s a lonely road to choose to be a foreigner like that in Japan, regardless of where you work or study. Some people like it because they like sticking out. Many obviously don’t.” Very well put. I used to think I like sticking out, but it really gets tiresome after a while. Especially when you live next to an elementary school and kiddies point and stare at you on a daily basis. Literally.

  • @Laura,

    I wish you well. You really seem to be looking a this as a learning experience already. The whole thing should leave you as a stonger person.


    “I must be cruel only to be kind;
    Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.” – a famous playwright

    Those who say “Everything is fine, nothing is your fault.” aren’t really the kind of friends I want. They certainly don’t help you grow as a person. Cotton candy friends are not a basis of nourishment.

    There’s a big differnce between tough love and cruel mockery. Some see no difference, I suppose.
    I appreciate people who tell me I’ve fucked up, or at least tell me the truth. And I’ve found that many people appreciate that treatment as well. If others choose to criticize, I really don’t care.

  • Is there nobody with anything good to say about the very generous scholarship program? (except for Nick)

    -an undergraduate scholar starting this year.

  • Of course there is good things about it! I`ve had a great experience here. It`s just something you have to go into with your eyes open. Good luck!

  • Laura Petrescu says:

    For Level3,
    “There’s a big differnce between tough love and cruel mockery. Some see no difference, I suppose. I appreciate people who tell me I’ve fucked up, or at least tell me the truth. And I’ve found that many people appreciate that treatment as well. If others choose to criticize, I really don’t care.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    For Eugene,
    It may look generous now, but just you wait until you’re out of the university dorm. It’s not impossible to survive on what you get, of course, but it’s a lot more difficult when you have a 50.000-60.000 rent to worry about, especially if you’re in a big city.

  • Jean-Christophe says:

    Hello Laura,

    I know you’ve had a hard time here in Japan, especially in view of the fact that you have GAD, but not all is lost. You have acquired a precious life experience.
    I have GAD myself, have had it since I finished my Ph.D. in physics 16 years ago in Canada, and I have been living in Japan for 15 years now, where I have worked in high-level research institutes, and am now an associate professor at a national institute of technology. Was it hard for me too, even if I lived most of the time in Kansai 🙂 ? you bet. But I survived and I thrived, because I fought, mainly against myself, my own demons, GAD being the worst one. Yes, I still take 1.5 mgs of Depas (a generic anxyolitic here in Japan) every day, which is not much actually, and I have not increased the dosage in the last 15 years. It helps me go through the day. Without it, I would be bedridden, as I was for months after finishing my Ph.D., before taking the plane to go to Japan while I was still sick. Obviously, I was not a MEXT student, I came to Japan with an STA scholarship to do a post-doc (I did not see any future for myself in Canada at the time). My advice to students who are eager to come to Japan to study/conduct research would be to first get your Ph.D. *outside* of Japan, and *only then* come to Japan for a post-doc. That would look much better in a resume, I believe, especially if you have studied in a good European or North American university beforehand. You will also be treated better here because you already have a Ph.D.!
    I have a Japanese wife and a 10-year old daughter. Do I send my daughter to a Japanese school? No, and I don’t intend to. Even though it is very expensive, and her school has many problems, I send her to an international school where she studies in English. Her mother tongue is Japanese, so she is in fact bilingual. The biggest problem with the Japanese educational system is probably the lack of teaching of critical thinking skills and an overemphasis on memorization. Believe me, I teach a course in critical thinking in my institute, it’s a new type of course for people here (I would have been expelled from this country for this had it been 70 years ago…), and the students who have the most difficulty in passing the course are the Japanese students (my -take-home- exams all consist in only open-ended questions. No multiple choice questions whatsoever!). I forgot to mention that my institute is in fact a graduate university, where only the Master’s and Ph.D. programs are offered. The lack of critical thinking skills in those young (and not so young) Japanese graduate students is appalling. In fact, on average, other Asian students such as Vietnamese, Chinese or Malaysian students are doing much better. And let’s not mention the Westerners, in particular the Europeans, who have been used to critical thinking since they were children. The gap in critical thinking abilities between not only many Japanese and many Westerners, but also between many Japanese and many other Asians, is often simply abysmal.
    In conclusion, I think that maybe the most important benefit you have acquired in living in Japan for a few years is acquiring Japanese language ability. Couple that with English and yet another language such as French, Spanish or German, and I believe you will be OK.
    My best wishes for the future,

  • Hi folks. Firstly, I beg your pardon for not having sufficient prowess at the English language as it is not my native language. Now on the topic, I am a having an accept for MEXT scholarship, I am planning to join the University of Tokyo as a research student and may be a Phd scholar in subsequent years. However I have yet not given in the formal acceptance of the scholarship. After reading Laura’s experience, I must say I am deeply moved and may be disillusioned to a certain extent. My conditions however are a bit different, I am having postgraduate engineering degrees from the topmost institutes in India and I am currently working with one of the topmost corporate in my field. My goal of going to Japan is more to experience a different prospective in my field rather than to earn a degree and a job in Japan. To be frank, I want to come back to my home country and work for my current employer, once my study in Japan is finished. That said, do you people think that I am making a mistake? It will be great if you can provide me some comments on my decision as many of you are having the first hand experience of working and living in Japan. Thanks for your consideration.

  • Dear Laura,

    You have enough material to publish a book. I think that you are doing a real favor to those who may be considering a MEXT scholarship by speaking out. Keep your chin up. Never believe for a moment that what happened to you was your own fault, because that is how bullying gets inside your head and causes the victim to feel they are to blame. Go on and post everything or write a book and then go on a tour of Japan with it! Good luck to you, Laura.

  • As someone who has studied in Japan at 3 universities for approximately 8 years in the past, all of these postings have been of interest to me. It is no secret that people with psychological problems find that they get worse going abroad. It has also been apparent that the state of mental health care, counseling, etc. in Japan is quite behind the rest of the developed world, although it is probably improving somewhat in the last decade.

    Knowing these things, having reasonable expectations and firm objectives for studying abroad are essential, no matter what country you decide to sojourn to. Sure, it also helps to like Japan and have friends here. It is because I had these things in place prior to my arrive that I was able to complete my Ph.D. at a national university here. It was difficult and took me 6 years, but the obstacles were not insurmountable.

    That said, P.M. Fukuda’s announcement of having 300,000 foreign students in Japan by around 2020 is a bit scary, when in fact many Japanese universities are not prepared to adequately support the students they already have. I think in fact many Japanese working in international education also see this figure as somewhat unachievable. Rather than focusing simply on getting more students numbers here, J. universities must make efforts toward building quality into their programs. Without this, students are likely to forgo Japan for other newly expanding study abroad opportunities in China, Korea, etc.

  • Laura,

    Though I realize that I am 5 years too late, I hope that by some miracle you can still see this.

    I am a MEXT scholar too, I have been in Japan for almost 5 years, and 4 months ago I started caving under the pressure of trying to find a job here and to graduate. I am enrolled in a PhD course now and I should be graduating in March 2016, but I have no results to publish. My professor did not push me to do more, and I didn’t try my best either… Now I don’t know how to get back on the track. My father, my sister and all my friends have been trying to convince me to finish the PhD, but, same as you, I started having panic attacks. I have been taking medication, and I thought that things got a little better, but I still can’t seem to make any progress with my research.

    I would like to discuss more details with you, like it is possible to waive the MEXT scholarship without paying back the money you got so far? I really can’t afford to…

    P.S. I think we have the same nationality. Please, if you see this message, it would really help if you could reply. Thank you! I hope you are doing well now.

    • Diana,
      (Laura too)

      I found this article while searching for stories about monbusho students who quit their study. I feel frustrated and need to talk and share with those who understand this kind of problem. Diana, your message was not replied yet and I wonder mine might end the same. But hope someone read this and willing to talk with me, please.


      • a cynical NJ says:

        Hi, former monbusho student here.. although I didn’t quit and managed to last till the end, I know two people who did quit.
        What do you want to know exactly?
        Quitting the whole thing of course is an option – like mentioned before, I know two people who did exactly that: they did not need to pay anything back.

        • Hi cynical NJ,

          I am considering to quit my masters under MEXT from one of the universities in Tokyo. My academic advisor is mentally abusive. I can’t stand it. But I don’t know to whom I should talk to. If I quit, do I need to payback the scholarship money? Honestly I just want to run away from my lab.

          • cynical.nj says:

            Sorry for the late reply.
            I am sorry to say that I do not have any concrete idea whom you could talk to.. Perhaps there is some kind of counselor at your university?
            Outside, Google-sensei suggests this as one of the options:

            About the scholarship, I can’t tell whether the rules have changed since back then, but assuming they haven’t, you will not be required to pay anything back.

            Regardless whether you decide to leave or stay and fight, good luck!

          • Hi Han.

            May I ask you about this matter? Are you quit the master’s program?
            I am currently in a similar situation and I am just really worried about what kind of consequence I will get if I quit.

            Thank you

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