There are over 400 registered language schools throughout Japan, and they differ significantly in terms of size, purpose, student mix, and teaching methods. Some aim solely to prepare foreign students for higher education in Japan; others focus on providing short-term comprehensive courses. Many offer both.
Short term courses often have a specific focus (daily conversation, business Japanese) and can be taken on a tourist visa. The summer courses are especially popular and usually include activities (calligraphy, tea ceremonies, firework events, etc.) organised by the schools so that the students can immerse themselves in both the culture and the language of Japan.
Long term courses (one year or longer) are either comprehensive classes that focus on all aspects of the language with the final objective of attaining a pass in the JLPT N1 or N2 examinations, or they are preparatory courses that focus on getting the student into a higher education institution in Japan. Entrance to these courses will require a long-term visa.
While understanding your objectives and the period you wish to study—or need to study—will help you narrow down your language school search, many of the key questions such as where to study and factors to be aware of when choosing a language school concern both short-term and long-term students alike.
Where should I study?
The question is partly rhetorical because it depends on your own personal preferences and budget. Approximately 40% of the Japanese language schools in the country are located in the capital, Tokyo, and the immediate thought of many students is that they definitely want to study there. And that’s understandable: Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis of 13 million people, offering world-class museums, galleries, nightlife, and there is always something going on. Indeed, it is better to think of it as a cluster of cities all merged into one. But Japan is a country of 125 million people and Tokyo isn’t the only option if you are looking for excitement.
There are several advantages to studying in smaller cities. Firstly, the language courses are typically cheaper than those in Tokyo, and once you factor in the difference in living costs then the idea of studying outside of the capital becomes more enticing.
It is also easier to immerse yourself in the culture and make Japanese friends. In Tokyo, it is all too easy to get into a social bubble of English-speaking Japanese friends and folks from your own country—and forcing yourself to use the language (especially when you’re just a beginner—is obviously paramount.
What about tuition costs?
Comparing costs across language schools on an apples-to-apples basis is actually quite difficult. One school might offer a one month course that includes 3 hours of classroom time per day; another may offer 4 hours. Some may include the cost of extra-curricular cultural activities; others may put these as an additional cost or offer none at all. It is also important to look at accommodation arrangements because many schools offer cheap dormitories to students while others may ask that students make their own arrangements (and the standard rental agreements in Japan are not conducive to those staying short-term). But with all those caveats said the below is a rough guide to tuition fees in Tokyo.
A 1-month course that consists of 3 hours of class time every weekday generally costs ¥900,000-120,000. On a per month basis, this is considerably more expensive than long-term courses partly because many of the language schools offering short term courses are located in central Tokyo. Schools located in Shibuya and Shinjuku, for example, market their summer schools to students from developed countries, and are well staffed with English, Korean, and Chinese-speaking staff that make the enrollment process much easier and mean that they’ll be someone to help out if you have any issues in daily life or otherwise. For this, they charge a good premium.
Tuition fees for long-term courses vary less compared with short-term courses on a per month basis. 3 hours per day of language tuition is typical, but not standard across all schools.
As mentioned above, comparing and trying to find the best language school requires time and patience. Below are some factors you might want to consider once you’ve got your short-list.
- Number of Students Per Class. The fewer the better. Most schools will limit class room numbers to a maximum of 20 students, but others may restrict numbers to less.
- Mix of Students. The reality is that students from Asia make up the clear majority of those studying in language schools (Chinese students alone account for over 40% of all students in language schools). For Western students who want to be in classrooms with other English speakers, language schools in the major cities are the best bets.
- Course Objective. Especially important for students with prior knowledge of Japanese and long-term students. If you’re a complete beginner studying for the summer, whether it’s a conversation course or a general course make no difference (despite how the schools market themselves).
- Extracurricular Activities. Some schools offer homestay programs and/or cultural excursions. The language schools don’t always make it clear from their websites whether or not such activities are part of the course so it’s worth inquiring directly.
- Classroom Times. Number of hours of classroom-based study per day (excluding breaks) and whether you have the option for morning or afternoon classes.
- Accommodation. Many schools own dormitories for (long-term) students, offering them affordable accommodation. Renting in Japan is expensive and difficult if you don’t speak the language.
- Total Number of Students. While smaller schools can offer a more homely and personal feel, the low pool of students can mean that the individual Japanese level of students in each class varies—and it’s not good when you’re feeling left behind or not challenged.
- Support. Does the school have staff who speak your language? If have any questions or concerns about daily life or the course then it’s important to know you have someone to whom you can turn