The most scary part of the application to the MEXT scholarship is probably the interview. Because you’ll have to speak to real humans (😱), of the relative scarcity of information around it and the high variability of the event itself.
As said, this is the step for which there is the most variations between countries, domain of study (science or humanities) and even between people. The information provided here are drawn mostly from my own experience and from talk to a friend and a girl I met at the exam step.
Before the interview
Waiting before being called for the interview was the most stressful moment. Because there is a precise schedule for each applicant and because it is strictly applied in true Japanese fashion, there was only one people waiting with me in the consular section of the embassy. The dude was wearing a t-shirt and a jean (or something like that); anyway it was casual outfit. People on the web advice to get dressed formally. Not that this sole criterion will decide if you’re passing or not, but it can’t arm to show that you can dress well for a day as a way to display your motivation.
Retrospectively I’m glad I didn’t came in startup dress-code (jean/t-shirt) because the first question that was asked to me was « why do you want to pursue a PhD instead of founding a startup? » and I had to defend my will to join academia.
Before entering in the interview room, one has to let its bag and cellphone in a locker. So no way to record the interview. The first question of the Japanese staff will most likely be « can you speak Japanese? ». No problem if you don’t but I doesn’t hurt if you can chitchat with the staff instead of stressing over the life changing interview you’ll have in a few minutes.
Format of the interview
The interview was supposed to last 15 minutes. The first 5 min was dedicated to a PowerPoint presentation in English. Actually it was in the language you intended to use in your studies in Japanese. So if you’re a Japanese major it might be Japanese. The remaining part was questions in French & Japanese. Of course they’ll ask you question in Japanese only if you can speak it. However, a friend with some proficiency didn’t get ask any. À la tête du client comme on dit.😛
The panel was made of both French and Japanese people. In my case, two French males, one Japanese male and one female. Two female staff from the embassy were also taking notes but were not part of the jury per se. The two French were scientific advisors and asked most of the question. Given their way of speaking and behaving it seems there were quite established professors in their fields. Actually the whole interview was lead by one of the French.
The academics asked me question such as :
– what your research would contribute to science? (subtext: is it real science)
– you are doing research spawning multiple fields, isn’t that a weakness?
Overall the questions was quite « offensive ». I guess they were trying to gauge my ability to come up somewhat convincing argumentation. All in all you have to show confidence in what you’re doing. Do no let them destabilize you. Proper preparation beforehand helps a lot.
The Japanese women asked me :
– what do you want to do after graduation?
– something about the concrete application of my research
– a question in Japanese I don’t remember (but I was able to reply easily)
Question in Japanese :
– how did you found that professor? and the other one?
– are you applying to another scholarship at the same time? (didn’t understand the question, was translated for me in French)
The trap question
If you carefully read other blog posts about the MEXT scholarship (and you should) you already know that « what will you do after graduation » is a trap question. The Japanese expect you to come back in your country and foster relationship between the two countries. Not only it is a general attitude for the Japanese to only tolerate foreigners on their holy land for a limited period of time but the scholarship actually pay for the plane ticket to return to your home country when its end.
We are not sure if it related or not, but between three people only me friend didn’t get the recommendation and he say he wanted to stay and work in Japan. To add insult to the injury he was already doing research in Japan (he came for a few weeks for the exam & interview) after finishing his year of study in the Chūbu area. So that may have actually played against him by giving the image of someone who wanted to stay for too long.
Questions in Japanese
Like I said earlier you might not have any Japanese question at all. As I spend an exchange year in Japan, hold a N2 JLPT and a master degree in Japanese studies I was expecting at least half of the interview in Japanese. And I prepared for it with Franco-Japanese friends. I was expecting the kind of challenging questions I got from the scientific side in Japanese language. But it didn’t happen which is cool anyway.
The key point is that Japanese people of my panel spoked with very low voice, like half louder than French and they were placed somewhat far. So I had to concentrated to be sure to hear them. Also, there were satisfied with very simple answers.
The awkward moments
First, I was asked if I was me. Like « you don’t really looks like the picture, so we’re asking just to be sure ». I made my photos with a few-weeks-beard and before going to the haircutter. Of course I shave properly and cut my hair too before the interview and that was different enough from the photography to warrant a check from an interviewer.
Second weird moment was when I started the presentation and tried to pass to slide with the laser. Didn’t worked. Didn’t worked. Didn’t worked. Then a staff embassy explained me I had to use to the computer to pass slides. So far so good, Mr Computer Science PhD wannabe.
And finally when I was explaining my will to become an academic in France, the main academic advisor started to give me a career advise. « Keep care PhD in Japan is different than in France, it typically doesn’t include teaching to undergrads. And you’ll need at least xx hours of teaching to get a job in a French university ». And this goes for few minutes. I thanked him for the advise but he kept going. I was thinking « is it an interview or a career counselling event? ». Anyway after seeing that a jury member took time to give me advice, I relaxed a bit and thought they might like me.