BA Japanese: Edinburgh or SOAS or Durham or Sheffield?Watch
I am an international student and want to study Japanese in the UK. I've received all the results of my uni applications: got offers from Edinburgh, Durham, SOAS, and Sheffield; rejected by Oxford. Now I'm wondering which uni I should go to.
Personally I prefer Edinburgh and SOAS. But I've heard that Edinburgh has low student satisfaction, and SOAS is facing some kinds of financial difficulties and many courses are currently not running.
I've also searched for subject rankings from different organizations, but the results are quite different. A ranking says that Durham's oriental studies course is top 3 in the UK, and some say Edinburgh's language courses are better. I don't know which to believe. And there's no much information about Sheffield's Japanese course. Which uni has a better teaching quality?
Oxford - Extremely heavy emphasis on history, literature and classical Japanese language. Might not have the best command of spoken Japanese but knowledge of grammar and ability to read will be great. Furthermore, all students go to the same university during their year abroad (unless they've recently changed it). I understand they might do this to maintain academic standards for their students while abroad, but it completely holes them up in a bubble. There's a high chance the students just end up among themselves and not really speaking Japanese while in the country. Ergo, go here if you want to learn more about the academic field of Japanese studies (and might want to do a PhD in the future), but not necessarily if you want to improve your conversational Japanese. That said, even though I say that Oxford hugely focuses on the academic side of things, that doesn't mean that your spoken Japanese will be bad; in fact, it'll be amazing (and very advanced) but perhaps not as conversationally fluent as those studying at SOAS or Edinburgh.
SOAS - phenomenal for language students. However, extremely, extremely competitive (and, to an extent, toxic) student community. Huge focus on reading, learning kanji and passing tests. Everyone knows everyone's grades and is vying for top place. Every man or woman (or otherwise) for themselves. Speaking will improve (and most likely be better than an Oxford student's) but still a little lacking due to the heavy emphasis on test-taking. My friend who graduated from SOAS in Japanese also mentioned some terrible things about SOAS as far as departmental politics go. I'd recommend going here if you really want an extremely competitive atmosphere and to receive the most rigorous Japanese language tuition (SOAS students always score the highest in written placement tests at Japanese universities).
Durham - extremely new Japanese department made only a few years ago. Don't know anyone who went here but would most certainly not recommend going somewhere where they've literally just begun the course. Even courses which have been going on for decades still haven't perfected the formula, especially for a course as difficult and sinuous as Japanese. Although I realise that I'm being frightfully presumptuous and biased against Durham, I just know (from experience) how painful university bureaucracy is. As a general rule of thumb, avoid new courses/degrees/departments (unless you hear wonderful things) because otherwise you'll just be treated like guinea pigs and set up for failure.
Manchester - Very respectable university with an impressive international brand. That said, the uni itself receives poor ratings for student satisfaction (as most big universities including Edinburgh do) and, surprisingly, its Asian Studies department seems to score rather low as well in contrast to Edinburgh's (which is near perfect). This isn't a great sign, so I'd be cautious... They also have links to some of the most random Japanese partner universities: from the elite of the elite to some of the complete worst and unknown Japanese universities. I, admittedly, don't know too much about the actual course but a few of the guys I met during my YA didn't speak it too well (could be just them). Even so, I imagine their Japanese reading ability was better. In any case, Manchester has access to its interpreting and translating department/s, so I imagine there would be some very useful modules in that. All in all, I'm not too certain about Manchester, but the very little that I have heard has made me unsure of the Japanese degree there. On a positive note, there was a current student of Japanese at Manchester who used to frequent TSR and her experience had generally been a positive one so far (she was in 2nd year at the time).
Edinburgh (long section because I can give my own personal account) - excellent language courses with heavy emphasis on speaking. Reading, although covered in depth throughout the degree, is perhaps not hammered in as much in the first two years as the SOAS or Oxford Japanese programs. Ergo, JLPT test results (which don't examine speaking ability) in the first few years might not be as good as SOAS and Oxford students' but will generally even out during the year abroad. Speaking, on the other hand, will be of a higher standard.
Partner universities are also being cut down to about 6. Even though they're all elite universities, you'll have fewer options than the previous lineup of 12+ (that I had when I studied abroad).
Edinburgh is also heavy on academic Japanese studies (but not as much as Oxford), so you'll spend 50% of your degree studying Japanese/East Asian history, politics etc while the other 50% will be spent studying the language. The academic side can be dense at times and some lecturers are somewhat dull. The department is definitely carried by its exceptional language classes and tutors. I'd say that the language staff are the heart of the department as the environment is extremely tight-knit and you'll be friends with everyone up to 4th year, the language tutors/lecturers as well as all the previous senpais who've already graduated.
The Asian Studies department (including Japanese and Chinese) always gets exceptional reviews and ratings even when the university as a whole struggles (as most big universities do). I've actually heard nothing but rave reviews about the Chinese Studies department. What's more, every single academic lecturer for Chinese Studies is amazing. I was very pleasantly surprised and hooked in all my lectures of modern Chinese history!
As an aside, in your first two years, you can also take an outside subject. So, you would generally do: Japanese language + East Asian history etc + 1 more subject (in practically anything, as long as there are no timetable clashes and you meet the requirements like having A level Maths for a 1st year Maths course). You can also change your degree to your outside course if you want. In other words, if you did Japanese language + East Asian history + Economics in your first year, you could switch to an Economics degree!
Cambridge - no idea whatsoever.
Leeds - have heard nothing but great things about here and their Asian Studies department (which is very well established). Leeds is also a lovely student city. Potential major con (or pro) to studying Japanese at Leeds is that they send their students to Japan in 2nd year. I'm not convinced that sending students to Japan at a post-beginner's level (the level you'd attain after 1st year) would see them reach advanced stages of the language after a year. In other words, sending students in 2nd year lowers the skill ceiling that students can reach. Generally, everyone improves their language abilities the most during their YA, so sending them at a higher level means that they can become all the better; but, sending them at a lower level, although helps them improves rapidly, lowers the ceiling. They'll probably come back post-intermediate whereas students going in 3rd year go as either intermediate or post-intermediate and come back advanced.
This is either good or bad depending on how you view this.
Sheffield - have heard quite decent stuff about here. A friend who graduated from here in 2016 said that some of the courses weren't too intensive as she had hoped, but I've also heard from a student on TSR recently how the courses are intensive. In other words, I'm not really sure but since the student on TSR graduated from Sheffield recently, I imagine the Japanese degree at Sheff has probably changed a little over the past few years and has improved quite a bit.
Oxford Brookes - 2 Master's students at Edinburgh who had done their undergraduate Japanese degrees at Brookes praised the university but did admit that they felt some of the content was a little too easy to pass at times (which doesn't sound too bad to me...).
UCLAN - In all honesty, don't know a single thing about here since I don't know anyone who's studied here or any member of staff teaching here (unless they've recently acquired someone I know).
Think carefully about what you want from your Japanese degree. Whether you might want to go into academia in the future, want a well-rounded education or just want to stroll by. Moreover, look into the academic Japanese studies modules offered at each university because 1) every Japanese studies department has a completely different focus and 2) at ancient universities like Oxford and Edinburgh, you'll be taking half of your courses in this. While Edinburgh's focus is more on contemporary societal issues, Oxford's is classical, and SOAS is more general history (and, perhaps, linguistics?). Finally, consider the location as London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Durham, Leeds, Sheffield etc are all very, very different. The year abroad options offered by each department are also equally different.
All universities have their pros and cons. In all honesty, you can't go wrong with any of the universities. You just need to be aware of what you'll be getting yourself into as every department has its own focus and way of doing things (like Leeds sending their students abroad in 2nd year while all other universities do this in 3rd year).
If you want more information regarding a Japanese degree, here's another thread I've posted on:
I now work as a seasonal exam proctor for the JLPT (twice a year) in Edinburgh and have worked as an interpreter and social programme assistant for a group of 30 Japanese high school students from Kyoto at Edinburgh college last summer. I went around Scotland with them for a whole month and acted as their interpreter and supervisor. Aside from that, I worked in Japan for a year after graduating. Now I'm currently doing a full time Master's in Diplomacy and International Relations.
You might want to write this down for future reference. When you go on your year abroad, whatever you do, do not choose Kyoto University. It has one of the absolute worst exchange programmes and you'll find that your level of Japanese actually gets worse.
For exchange, the best are Seikei University > Sophia University > Doshisha University > International Christian University = Waseda University = Kyushu University > Hokkaido University = Keio University = Yokohama National University = Ritsumeikan University > all others.
I have no idea about Tokyo University, admittedly. Kyoto University is the absolute worst. 100% would not recommend.
The problem is that even though certain Japanese universities might have an excellent reputation in Japan, their exchange programme could be very bad. In other words, although Kyoto University is considered the second best, if not the best, university in all of Japan, it has one of the absolute worst exchange programmes. It's so bad that Edinburgh doesn't allow its students to do exchange there unless they're already fluent in the language. So many bright Edinburgh students were going to Kyoto and coming back worse than when they went. Kyoto, for some bizarre reason, forces its students to take simple courses in English...
To add more detail I can say that Seikei is the best of the best due to its exceptional accomodation and intensive one-on-one courses. You'll literally be studying intensive Japanese with a tutor all to yourself. Needless to say, all those that go to Seikei come back extremely, extremely competent in Japanese. First con is that the university itself is super east of Tokyo and would take 30+ mins by train to get to central locations like Shinjuku and Shibuya (unlike Sophia which is in the heart of the city). Second con is that Seikei's domestic rankings are sub-par.
Second would be either Sophia or Doshisha. Both have exceptional pastoral care (Sophia offers one-on-one mental health counselling every single week), exceptional language courses and equally exceptional locations. Both also have some of the best domestic rankings. For some people, a con would be that unlike Seikei (which barely has any exchange students), both have many international students. Not thaaat much though and it definitely doesn't take away from the 'authentic' Japanese university experience. Many small universities with low numbers of international students heavily struggle with extremely important things like pastoral care which both Sophia and Doshisha excel at.
Moving on, I've heard good things about Kyushu but only know 1 person who went there. Hokkaido is a great university with an excellent location in central Sapporo; but, the drawback is that although the university is famous, its exchange programme is OK / average and Hokkaido has a very, very long winter. Waseda's exchange programme is OK but nothing spectacular. Keio's is average and its location isn't great in Tokyo... Ritsumeikan's exchange programme is fine but location isn't ideal unless you like the countryside and don't mind not being close to the city centre.
Again, I can't stress how important it is to choose a university with a good exchange programme. Wherever you go, you want to feel that your Japanese is improving, that you're receiving support and that you're making a good investment. Your main priorities are improving your Japanese, enjoying life and taking care of your health.
As for myself, I went to Sophia University in Tokyo by recommendation of a close senpai. When I was there I undertook extremely intensive 3 hour-long Japanese language classes from 9.15am to 12.30pm with tests and homework everyday 5 days a week for 1 semester. In my 2nd semester, I was in regular classes with Japanese students for lectures and tutorials on courses like modern Japanese literature or American Victorian literature, politics and philosophy all of which were conducted in Japanese. Each lecture/tutorial was 1 hour 30 minutes long of just constant non-stop extremely advanced Japanese and all of the course material/secondary reading (on Darwinism, for example) was in Japanese and most of the novels I read for my Modern Japanese Lit class had never been translated before so I was reading around 2 dense novels on a weekly basis. I also had to write weekly essays for each subject in Japanese of about 1500 words long, never mind the end of term essay for each course that was triple the length. Even all of my exams were in Japanese where I had to write essays on Social Darwinism or discuss how examples of some modern Japanese texts were political critiques of the Second World War and the Japanese regime at the time.
I studied Japanese at Edinburgh. Here's my input on universities offering Japanese in the UK (from what I've experienced or heard and witnessed from friends who've studied Japanese at each institution).
Oxford - rather poor conversational Japanese due to extremely heavy emphasis on history and classical Japanese. Knowledge of grammar and ability to read will be great but speaking will be pretty bad. Also, all students go to the same university during their YA. I understand they might do this to maintain standards for their students while abroad, but it completely holes them up in a bubble. Ergo, go here if you want to learn more about the academic field of Japanese studies but not if you want to improve your conversational Japanese.
SOAS - phenomenal for language and you will skyrocket. However, extremely, extremely competitive, stifling and, to an extent, toxic student community. Everyone knows everyone's grades and is vying for top place. Every man for himself, so might be difficult to make close friends. Also, huge focus on reading, learning kanji and passing tests. Speaking will improve (and most likely be better than an Oxford student's) but still a little lacking due to the heavy emphasis on test-taking. Again, have heard some terrible things about SOAS as far as departmental politics go. Location is depends on the individual and whether or not you want to or can afford to live in London.
Durham - extremely new Japanese department made only a few years ago. Don't know anyone who went here but would most certainly not recommend going somewhere where they've literally just begun the course. Even courses which have been going on for decades still haven't perfected the formula, especially for a course as difficult and sinuous as Japanese.
Manchester - The uni itself gets extremely poor ratings for student satisfaction (as most big universities including Edinburgh do) but its Asian Studies department seems to be rather low as well in contrast to Edinburgh's which is near perfect. They also have links to some of the most random Japanese partner universities: from the elite of the elite to some of the complete worst and unknown Japanese universities. Don't know too much about the actual course but a few of the guys I met during my YA didn't really speak it too well. I imagine their reading was better. In any case, Manchester has access to its interpreting and translating department, so I imagine there would be some very useful modules in that!
Edinburgh - excellent language courses with heavy emphasis on speaking. Reading and writing, although covered in great depth, might not be as intensive as the SOAS and Oxford departments both of which hammer in reading/writing. Ergo, JLPT test results (which don't examine speaking ability) in the first few years might not be as good as SOAS and Oxford students' but will definitely catch up by the end of the year abroad. Speaking, however, will be way better. Partner universities are also being cut down to about 6. They're all elite universities but much fewer options than the previous 12+. Edinburgh is also somewhat heavy on academic Japanese studies (but not as much as Oxford) all the while focusing on the language aspects. The academic side can be rather dense at times. In any case, the Asian Studies department (including Japanese and Chinese) always get exceptional reviews and ratings even when the university as a whole struggles due to how large it is without much organisation of administration. The Japanese department is extremely tight-knit and you'll be friends with everyone up to 4th year, the staff as well as all the previous senpais (like me) who've already graduated. Low general university ratings are mostly due to administration.
Leeds - have heard nothing but great things about here. That said, I only knew a handful of people, so there could've been bias. Still pretty good though. Potentially major con is that they send their students to Japan in 2nd year. I'm not convinced that sending students to Japan at a post-beginner's level would see them reach advanced stages of the language after a year. Ergo, sending students in 2nd year lowers the skill ceiling that students can reach. Generally, everyone improves their language abilities the most during their YA, so sending them at a higher level means that they can become all the better; but, sending them at a lower level, although helps them improves rapidly, lowers the ceiling. They'll probably come back post-intermediate whereas students going in 3rd year go as either intermediate or post-intermediate and come back advanced.
Sheffield - have heard quite decent stuff about here but their language courses don't seem to be nearly as intensive as the other universities I've discussed.
In any case, language degrees do, to a certain extent, depend on the student and how far they get independently. But, you need a good teacher to guide you and you can't expect to be magically fluent in spoken Japanese if all you're being taught is to read classical stuff. Think carefully about what you want from your Japanese degree. Whether you want to be an academic or well-rounded etc. Also, look into the academic Japanese studies modules because at ancient universities like Oxford and Edinburgh, you'll be taking half of your stuff in these things. Edinburgh's focus is more contemporary while Oxford's is classical. SOAS does more history etc.
All universities have their pros and cons. In all honesty, in terms of becoming a complete God at Japanese, I'd recommend SOAS. The only drawback is the atmosphere and the fact that their spoken Japanese might not be as good as their phenomenal reading and writing. That's not to say their speaking is bad, by no means! It's probably one of the best, actually. Most likely up there but just behind Edinburgh. It probably beats all other universities for reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary though.