Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne

Students sitting in a tutorial

Joel in front of the bridge which only the Shogun could walk on in Japan.

Student Profiles

Joel Tito

Hitotsubashi University, Japan

Exchange in Semesters 1 and 2, 2010
Bachelors of Law and Arts

Hitotsubashi is a great place to study if you want to live in Tokyo for any period of time. Currently, apart from a somewhat limited exchange arrangement with Tokyo University that only lets you take classes in English, it represents the best option in Tokyo for University of Melbourne students who want to study at a public institution rather than one of the many private universities in Tokyo. If youre the type of person who values state education and the students it attracts, Hitotsubashi is a great option and I recommend it highly (dont overlook Kyoto University though, which is situated in a beautiful part of Kyoto and has a stellar reputation both within Japan and abroad. You also get to live in Kyoto, which in many ways may be a nicer experience than living in Tokyo more on this later). If youre the type of person who wants to extract the most bang for your buck, however, then an exchange at one of the many private universities (like Keio or Waseda) might be a better choice for you because while your Japanese classmates have mortgaged a few houses for the privilege of studying at a university with a rowing team and blazers (actually, Hitotsubashi has a rowing team as well, but theyre not very good so it doesnt count) you get the privilege of paying your usual Melbourne tuition fees. Bargain.

In this guide Ill try and give you an idea of what its like to study at Hitotsubashi and live in Tokyo. Of course, every exchange is different, experiences are about people not places, humans are all unique, this guide shouldnt be taken as gospel, the world is a small place, postage and handling not included blah blah blah etc.

The main Hitotsubashi campus for the approximately 5000 local undergraduate students is located in Kunitachi and is about a half-hour train ride west of Shinjuku on the Chuo Line, which is the main line that runs through the centre of Tokyo. Although its not as close to central Tokyo as other major universities (many of which have campuses around the Takadanobaba area a nice town a few stops out of Shinjuku) Kunitachi is beautiful city that is built around the University. Because of this, local regulations restrict the types of businesses that are allowed to operate in close proximity to the University and you wont find any Pachinko Parlours or Maid Cafes within a short stroll of class. What you will find, though, are a number of great restaurants and convenient services that are aimed at the large student population that come through here every day. Sta-don a gyudon restaurant that offers a great alternative to the big three gyudon stores (Im not naming them here because they get more media coverage than their thinly sliced and hurriedly prepared beef deserves) began its now national business in Kunitachi (the original store is still going) and is very popular with students. There are three Sta-don restaurants within a five minute walk of the campus and although the prices and menu are identical, the west and the east stores are currently locked in a bitter battle for custom, the outcome of which nobody can predict. Personally, my guess is the easts penchant for splashing around high amounts of garlic paste (for free, I might add) when frying up its beef slices will prove to be a crucial factor in determining this bout. Take from that what you will.

There are a number of supermarkets (of differing degrees of pomposity), Izakayas (of differing degrees of respectability), baseball batting centres, clothes stores and hairdressers on the main Daigaku-dori strip that cuts through the middle of the town and leads from the train station to the University. There are also a number of guys who walk around the town making sure youve parked your bike sufficiently close to the neighbouring bike to allow for another bike to subsequently park alongside your bike. Thats pretty much what they do all day. Walk around, spot a poorly parked bike, pick it up by its rear wheel, move it a few centimetres either to the left or the right (depending on what the circumstance demands some days you park too far to the left and some days you park too far to the right) and then reposition their hat, stare detachedly into the distance and hum a quiet song of pride knowing that they have, in some small way, made Japanese society function a little bit more efficiently. I think I once saw one of them shed a silent tear of joy.

In all, Kunitachi is a nice place to spend time, but remember a few things:

  1. Youre a bit far from central Tokyo, so if youre the type that likes going out to bangin clubs and sampling the best the vacuous haunts of Roppongi have to offer, maybe consider somewhere a bit closer because youll be battling last trains (about midnight on most lines) or crowded peak hour crushes to make it to morning classes.
  2. Its probably one of the most sought after areas in Tokyo in terms of rental properties (apart from Kichioji and Mitaka) as it represents a happy medium between the chaotic over population of the city centre and the ignominious inconvenience of the outskirts of Tokyo. Because of this, finding cheap private property is almost impossible so youre banking on being accepted into the Universitys subsidised dormitories.

Hitotsubashi Living
Kunitachi is great, but it can be expensive to rent anything there. Expect to be paying at least $1,000 a month for a tiny studio with no room to do much. Although there are technically three options for housing (private rental, International House, International Village) I can only really offer advice on the latter two. I have never heard of anybody being accepted into the University and not being offered a place in one of the University subsidised accommodation options so I think its a fairly safe bet that if Hitotsubashi accepts you as an exchange student theyre also likely to find you a spot in one of their housing arrangements.

There are two types of university subsidised housing arrangements International House, which is located on campus and International Village, which is located about 15 to 20 minutes away by bike or train in a town called Kodaira. As there are only 40 on-campus places available, the official position is that entry to International House is determined purely by random ballot and the remaining students are allocated to International Village. But I happen to have a friend on the inside who has informed me that the reality is that country balance and a general sense of what seems right actually determines who goes where. This process is about as unpredictable as a random number generator anyway, so you may as well just regard it as pure chance as to whether you end up living on campus or not.

As I lived in Kodaira, I can only offer limited secondary impressions from friends who lived in the on-campus accommodation. In general, at 20,000 yen a month, it certainly represents the best value around as you dont have to pay to commute to class or consider buying a bike to get around. The rooms are small but comfortable. There are, however, a higher number of people sharing showers than in Kodaira so lines in the morning can apparently be a pain. That said, you are living on the Chuo line and are one train away from the centre of Tokyo (as opposed to two trains in Kodaira) so this is another benefit if you intend to get out and about in Tokyo. One point I would note is that International House is a very small community (at most there are 40 students living on-campus, occasionally there are less) and if you are only doing classes with a small group of other exchange students, it can be difficult to meet many new people especially Japanese students as you will always be surrounded by the exchange students staying at International House. By contrast, Kodaira has about 800 people living there and over half are Japanese students so there are more opportunities to meet people and make friends.

With regards to the living arrangements at Kodaira, the rooms are like most places in Japan small but comfortable. You get a bed, a desk and a fridge in your room and most students have about 4 or 5 people sharing a large kitchen, two toilets and two showers. The monthly rent is cheaper than on-campus (about 10,000 yen a month) but dont forget to factor in train tickets if you intend to travel to class this way. I found that the train took the same amount of time as riding to uni (generally 15 to 20 minutes) so I tended to ride as it provided more flexibility and was also cheaper. You also get some mighty tree-trunk legs as a by-product, which I found pleasing.

One issue I had with the dorms at Kodaira is the current policy that can only really be described as segregationist. When I was studying at Hitotsubashi, the University was not shy of the fact that they had actively tried to separate foreign students from Japanese students at International Village. The rationale was that the different living styles could present problems and that by keeping us separate the University was seeking to create a more harmonious atmosphere. The problem is, most of us dont travel thousands of kilometres to hear some dude from Adelaide tell us why he chose to pack his belongings into a backpack rather than a standard zip-up and carry suitcase (it was for portability). Really, I think most students are going to Japan to learn about the Japanese and their way of life and simply removing us from contact with the Japanese students for fear of avoiding wars with the foreign ogres undermines the most important aspect of our exchange learning to understand, appreciate and alter our cultural prejudices to live with people from backgrounds different to our own.

A number of exchange students were very vocal in their opposition during our time at International Village and the University has begun to alter their approach. Accordingly, this year for the first time ever, I think, the University is trialling a mix of exchange students and Japanese students on the same floor in one of the buildings at the dorm. If it goes ok (that is, if the whole fabric of Japanese society doesnt implode under the weight of the hairy aliens influence), then I understand that this will be gradually rolled out over time for all incoming students. Accordingly, if you do choose to study at Hitotsubashi and you do want to share your accommodation with Japanese students as well as other exchange students, I would advise you to make this known to the University throughout the application process.

Although there are a few classes in English, most classes at Hitotsubashi are taught in Japanese and I dont think there would be enough English classes to get the minimum required points to go on exchange if you intend to take only these subjects. Accordingly, Hitotsubashi is best suited to students who have at the very least studied Japanese in the past and preferably are currently studying it as part of their degree. The Japanese Language Program is excellent and the classes arent too big. There are classes to cover all aspects of the language and they generally start at an intermediate level and go all the way up to classes that are part of the Social Science faculty that can also be taken by local students (speed reading etc).

It would be a shame, however, to go to Hitotsubashi and only study as part of the Japanese Language Program. Whilst these classes are great for improving your Japanese in a structured environment, you tend to only interact with other exchange students and risk not meeting any local students (the classes are even held in a building that is largely detached from the rest of the Uni, so you can very easily come in to a language class for a day and not speak to anybody other than your teacher and a few exchange students). It is far more beneficial for your language (and, frankly, enjoyment) if you can take some normal classes related to your field of study in Australia. Often, if you approach a professor and inform them that you are an exchange student they are happy to assist with flexible arrangements in relation to assessment (for example, some professors let you submit typed essays instead of sitting exams so you can avoid the time-pressure of writing in Japanese while other professors will let you write your final exam answers in English if you prefer). Naturally, you should check with the individual professor before taking the class, but the benefits of taking ordinary classes is that you get a truer feel for what uni in Japan is like and you also get to interact with students who have similar interests to you.

The other important aspect of Hitotsubashis university life is the Zemi system, whereby you are allocated to a small class that is overseen by a single professor. These will often be related closely to your particular study interest in Australia (for example, I was in a Comparative Law Zemi) and they are without doubt the class that you spend the most amount of time in during your time at Hitotsubashi. There is a level of responsibility that a professor assumes when they accept you into their Zemi and they become concerned with all aspects of your university life (such as enrolment, study load, even helping you find a job) rather than just teaching you the subject matter. Given the small class sizes (usually fewer than 10 students) and the fact that you remain in the same Zemi during your entire time at the University, it also is the group of students you are closest with throughout your time in Japan. Most Zemis go out drinking and eating together after class finishes in the evening and almost all go on trips together during the university breaks. Accordingly, it pays to ask around about what Zemis are on offer and find out which may interest you.

Tokyo Life
Theres lots written in lots of places about living in Tokyo, so I wont waste your time here rehashing it all. One thing I wanted to note though was just how overwhelming the overcrowding was. I had lived in Japan a few times before going on exchange but hadnt spent longer than a week or so in Tokyo before arriving for the year. The number of people in such a small space lives up to everything you have read. Shinjuku station is a mess of people rushing to and fro and its stressful enough just watching it, let alone being swept up in it. Given the sheer volume of people, I found it somewhat surprising that Tokyo can actually be a quite isolating environment. A lot of Japanese people see Tokyo as a place to start a new life as you truly can be an anonymous face among a never-ending sea of anonymous faces. It therefore becomes increasingly important as an exchange student to develop your own sense of community and one of the easiest ways to do this is through friends you make at uni. I feel that university clubs and circles (which are like clubs, but usually meet less frequently and are more relaxed) are the best way to do this at Hitotsubashi University. There are all sorts of clubs and circles (including an alarmingly high number of faux hip hop dance groups) so have a look around when you first get to Hitotsubashi. Also, most circles have free drinks and food for the first month or so to try and attract new members so going to heaps of circles is a cheap way to exist for the first month of your exchange.

Generally, I think Tokyo is a beautiful place but Im not sure that you need to live there for a year to appreciate it. I think you can adequately do Tokyo justice without necessarily living there and its somewhere you could easily visit during a break while studying elsewhere. Thats not to say there isnt heaps to do, its just that its an extremely expensive place to live and travel in and given that the University of Melbourne has such an extensive exchange network in Japan that I think its worth considering all of your options before committing to a stint in Tokyo. I met a lot of students who had decided very early on that Toyko was where they had to be and hadnt even looked into universities that were outside of the capital. As I alluded to earlier, I have a particular soft spot for Kyoto University, both because of the institution itself and its location. Kyoto is large enough to keep you always occupied but also of a size that you could conceivably get a handle on within a year. The same cant really be said of Tokyo as it is so big and densely populated and its very difficult to describe a single, unifying principle of the nations capital. That said, nothing beats Tokyo for its convenience and sheer variety of activities and people so it really does come down to the type of experience youre looking for from an exchange. Above all else you should choose an institution that caters for what you want to study.

Finally, I wanted to note that none of my experiences in Japan would have been possible without the generous assistance of the Walter Mangold Trust Fund and I am extremely grateful for their support. There are a number of programs that offer similar support to prospective exchange students and I encourage you to investigate your options once you have decided to undertake an exchange.