EMI and Internationalisation

The experiences of Iranian international students in Japanese universities

Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo, Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 3 (Article 9 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2017.


In the context of a shortage of literature related to the language support environments of minority groups of international students in Japan, this study seeks to explore in depth Iranian students’ experiences in Japanese universities; its framework is based on Bradford (2013) and Ishikawa’s (2011) studies. Qualitative and quantitative data from Iranian students and recent Iranian graduates from different Japanese universities were collected. The data show that while most have sufficient English proficiency for their studies, they have insufficient Japanese and this creates problems in their academic lives. As many come with their families, the need for Japanese proficiency is even more urgent. The findings show that the universities are not creating entirely effective support structures for this student body. The implications of the results go beyond this one minority group of students studying in English in Japan.

Keywords: Japan, internationalisation of higher education, international student, Iranian, language support, English-Medium Instruction (EMI).


As a result of the increased pressure of the globalised economy, internationalisation of higher education (HE) is becoming ever more important to countries worldwide (Kellem 2014), and governments in many countries, including Japan, are promoting initiatives to internationalise HE. A significant internationalisation trend is the recruitment of international students (Howe 2009; Ninomiya et al., 2009; Lassegard 2006). This internationalisation trend is being implemented in Japan due to the demographic and economic forces, a low birth rate, and a fall in the university-aged domestic students (Bradford, 2015; Haswell, 2014), as well as securing the position of Japanese research universities in the global rankings (Ishikawa, 2009; Lassegard, 2006; Yonezawa, 2011 cited by Bradford, 2015; Haswell, 2014).

In Japanese HE, economic rationales for the internationalisation of HE and contributing to the market-led globalisation have been the main rationales in recent years (Yonezawa, Y., & Yonezawa, A., 2016). In the hierarchical Japanese HE, international students are viewed as customers for many private universities, which form the majority of Japanese universities. This group of international students are mostly studying at the undergraduate level. However, most research-oriented national universities, and some elite private and public universities, receive mostly graduate international students, and are targeting the graduate international students as contributors to the establishment of a better position of their instructions in the very competitive global rankings (Yonezawa, Y,. & Yonezawa, A, 2016).

In Japan, two government initiatives have been implemented since the 1980s to increase international students (Huang 2006; Kuwamura 2009). The first initiative was the Nakasone Plan introduced in 1983 when the number of international students was 10,428 (Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO), 2015), with the goal of increasing the number to 100,000 by 2000. This goal was reached in 2003. The second ambitious initiative was the Fukuda plan which was introduced in 2008, when the number of international students was 123,829 (JASSO, 2008), with a goal of attracting 300,000 international students to Japan by 2020. The latest data show that as of May 1, 2016, there were 239,287 international students in Japan; a 14.8% increase compared with the result of the previous year (JASSO, 2016a). By increasing the number of international students since the 1980s, the term kokusaika (internationalisation) has become widely used and has gained importance in Japanese society generally and HE more specifically (Eades et al., 2005; Burgess et al., 2010).

To attract international students in the very competitive global market, increasing the use of English as the medium of instruction (EMI) is of great interest globally (Korenov, 2012). In non-Anglophone HE institutions (HEIs), such as those in Europe and Asia, where the first language (L1) of the majority is not English, EMI is growing rapidly (Macaro 2015; Bradford, 2012). Japan is not an exception here. In order to attract more talented international students to Japanese universities, as well as to develop the global skills of Japanese students in order to make them capable to become global jinzai (human resources) and to contribute to the economy in the future (Morizumi, 2015), Japanese universities are offering EMI and full English-Taught Programmes (ETPs) at their institutions.

Japanese HE internationalisation initiatives are mainly top-down and government-led (Yonezawa 2009; Ota 2014; Yonezawa, Y. & Yonezawa, A. 2016). Over the past 15 years, the Japanese government has funded programmes that support the expansion of EMI and ETPs as well as the recruitment of international students (Brown, 2017). The focus of these programmes has been on elite universities. These internationalisation policies are acting as pull factors for increasing the number of international students coming to study in Japan (Yonezawa, Y., & Yonezawa, A, 2016).

With the Japanese government’s focus being largely on quantitative issues (i.e., increasing the number of international students and English-medium programmes/courses), there may be insufficient attention paid to more qualitative issues. For instance, there are reports that with the expansion of degree programmes offered in English, some Japanese universities are facing many new, qualitative challenges. These challenges include finding English-speaking faculty, providing a suitable study and living environment for students who come to Japan with little Japanese language proficiency, and assuring the quality of education (Tsuneyoshi 2005; Kuwamura 2009; Hashimoto 2013; Bradford 2016).

Although many international students in Japanese HE are from Asia (93%) (JASSO, 2016b), with most of these coming from China (41.15%) (JASSO, 2016a), international students from diverse backgrounds are also being attracted to Japan (JASSO, 2016a). With the expansion of EMI/ETPs, more international students are likely to choose Japan as their study destination. For an increased and diversified international student body, providing sufficient support and planning for programme improvements that take into account academic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds are necessary (Andrade, 2009; Kellem, 2014). In addition, there is growing recognition that there is a need for more qualitative research for better programme evaluation metrics in this area (Kellem, 2014; Rakhshandehroo & Yamamoto, 2017).

English Medium Education

A recent joint report from the British Council and Oxford University points out that in non-Anglophone countries worldwide, EMI is widely being used for academic subjects such as the sciences. The report defines EMI as “The use of the English language to teach academic subjects in countries or jurisdictions where the L1 of the majority of the population is not English” (Dearden 2014, p. 4).

The first non-English universities that offered English-taught programmes were in Europe in the 1980s. By 2008, there were more than 2400 ETPs offered in Europe (Wachter & Maiworm, 2008). The rationale for offering such EMI courses and/or ETPs in non-English countries differs widely and can include the recruitment of international students and building a better profile for their institutions. Many Asian Ministries of Education have encouraged their universities to implement ETPs, as a result of the increased pressure on the Asian universities better to place their HEIs in the rankings, and since English is the working language of the WTO (World Trade Organisation), AESAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SEAMEO (Southeast Asian Minister of Education, Organisation, Innovation and Technology), organisations that support the internationalisation process (Barnard, 2015).

With the expansion of EMI education, learning in English is now available not only in Anglophone countries, but also in non-Anglophone countries. For instance, in Europe, studying in EMI is increasing due to the Bologna process, and EMI is attracting international students from diverse backgrounds to non-Anglophone HEIs (Dearden 2014).

The Japanese government has funded several programmes to increase the number of EMI/ETPs. The Global 30 initiative (G30) was implemented from 2009 to 2013, and funded 13 universities to develop full ETPs at the undergraduate level to support the implementation of the 300,000 International Student Plan (Yonezawa, 2009; Burgess et al., 2010; Hashimoto, 2013; Brown, 2014). In 2012, the Project for the Promotion of Global Human Resource Development (Global 30 Plus) was introduced; it lasted until 2015. This funded 42 universities to develop programmes to send students overseas as well as to provide support for the expansion of EMI courses and English language classes (Brown, 2014). Global 30 Plus aimed to internationalise Japanese university students to develop them as global jinzai or global human resources. A year later, in 2014, the Global University Project (SGU) (later renamed the Top Global University Project) was launched which will last for ten years, until 2023. Thirty-seven universities were selected and classified into Type A (top global universities) and Type B (global traction universities). This funding requires selected institutions to prioritise the hiring of international faculty and establish stronger international relationships (Brown, 2014).

From the 1990s, EMI non-degree exchange programmes and degree programmes were supported through Japanese government funding (Kuwamura, 2009; Huang, 2006). In Japan, in 2006, EMI courses were offered at approximately 1/3 of universities (227 universities), and undergraduate-level EMI courses were offered at approximately 1/4 of all universities. (MEXT 2008, 2009 cited by Brown, 2014). By 2013, largely as a result of the G30, approximately 20 Japanese universities were offering full undergraduate ETPs (Brown, 2014).

Early on, Waseda University (a private university) and Kyushu University (a national university) started to offer EMI. Waseda University started using EMI from 1963, and Kyushu University started to offer EMI from 1994 (Tsuneyoshi, 2005 cited by Kuwamura, 2009). There are also some universities in Japan founded by Christians, such as International Christian University and Sophia University in Tokyo, that have a long history of dual language education dating back to the 1950s.

In the hierarchical structure of Japanese HE, different EMT patterns exist in different universities based on their local settings (Yonezawa et al., 2009 cited by Brown 2015). According to Kudo and Hashimoto (2011), a few research-based elite universities are approaching EMI as a way to attract high-quality international students, especially graduate students, and are seeking better rankings. However, smaller universities (most of the universities) are targeting EMI as an elective component of the students’ degree and/or implementing EMI not university-wide, but through single department/programmes, and focusing on these as a marketing approach. The research-based universities are receiving most of the governments’ funding, and are developing more EMI/ETPs in recent years.

Internationalisation at home via EMI and ETPs is seen as bringing particular challenges. Brown (2015) identified these challenges in the literature as below. These challenges can be mainly categorised under the first two studies, which I will develop in the case study of Iranian students.

  1. Structural, linguistic and cultural (Bradford, 2013 (undergraduate level) based on Tsuneyoshi 2005 (non-degree level)). Bradford points out that “there is overlap among these categories, and many linguistic and cultural challenges lead to structural challenges” (Bradford, 2013: 230).
  2. The support for international students from Japanese universities (Paternalism, global competitiveness) (Ishikawa, 2011), lack of formal support for international students (Brown & Iyobe, 2014),
  3. The internationalisation of the EMI curriculum and concerns about the quality of EMI classes (Kudo and Hashimoto 2011, Chappele, 2014; Takagi, 2013),
  4. Risk of isolation (dejima-sation) which includes the relationships between international students and Japanese students, such as ‘Erasmus bubbles’ in Europe (Chappele, 2014; Heigham, 2014, Burgess et al., 2010),
  5. Concerns about the benefits of EMI among faculty; for instance, lower quality education for domestic Japanese students (Ishikawa, 2011), the lack of basic understanding of international atmospheres among local students and academics (Yonezawa et al., 2009),
  6. English language skills of Japanese professors to teach EMI (Ishikawa, 2011)
  7. English language skills of Japanese students (Mori, 2011).

Although EMI is increasingly being used all around the world, it has been claimed that little empirical research has been conducted about EMI, including the delivery of EMI, and the consequences of using English rather than L1 on learning and teaching (Dearden, 2014). Since 2010, the number of studies on the implementation of EMI in Japan has grown dramatically. However, many important research questions have remained unanswered (Brown, 2017). To date, little research has been done on international student language support, especially for minority groups of students, who come from Non-Chinese-character (non-kanji) backgrounds to study primarily in English. These non-kanji background students may have similar experiences with verbal language, but different experiences in terms of reading and writing Japanese language.

As previously mentioned, some Japanese universities have a longer history of offering some forms of EMI (especially as short-term or exchange programmes). However, the full degree ETPs have been introduced fairly recently, mostly after the G30 programme in 2008 (Brown, 2017). Many EMI or ETPs in Japanese universities have been implemented recently; however, little research has been done to address the real practices of these EMI/ETPs. Furthermore, there is no specific focus on the EMI international students’ experiences, especially minority groups; and the focus to date has been largely on the policy level (See for example Bradford, 2015; Brown, 2015). This study seeks to address this gap in the research and to investigate concerns regarding the practices of English-medium courses/programmes of one specific group of international students—Iranians—through an exploratory mixed-methods investigation of their experiences. The focus of this study is limited to the detailed on-campus experiences of these students and off-campus experiences of them. A comparison between this group and other groups of international students needs further investigations in future research.

Although this group of international students comprises a minority group, from the point of view of the author, who has lived and studied in Japan for some years, Japan is receiving more recognition among Iranians; more Iranian international students are likely to choose Japan as their study destinations. This particular group has been chosen as the researcher herself is an Iranian international student, which can facilitate accessing participants and understanding underlying cultural issues. In addition, it is assumed that being able to discuss issues concerned with language support in the L1 of the chosen minority group could be advantageous to the research overall, and allow for more in-depth insights to emerge. This project employs, in detail, a case study with a mixed-method approach to examine the best practices as well as the areas that may need improvement, through the lenses of Iranian international students. The results of this study are expected to lead to concrete recommendations to reduce challenges faced by all stakeholders and enhance the learning environment for Iranian international students in Japan, and aim to open the research for more exploration of other groups of international students in future studies.

Iranian international students

While there are a few studies regarding support for Iranian international students in non-English speaking countries, their focus has generally been on issues regarding adjustment problems and support (see for example Khodabandelou et al., 2015; Pandian, 2008). However, this research does not provide any explicit focus on language support.

Iranian students are among the most mobile students worldwide. As of 2016, Iran was ranked as the 11th sending country worldwide with 1.2% of the total mobile students (Institute of International Education, 2016). Their top ten destination countries in 2014/15 were: United States (10,587), Turkey (4,343), Canada (4,254), Italy (3,866), Germany (3,791), Malaysia (3,293), Australia (2,529), United Arab Emirates (2,383), United Kingdom (2,082) and France (1,653); Japan was ranked as the 27th study destination for Iranian students (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 2016). Although the native languages of some of the top study destinations are not English (for instance Turkey, Italy, and Germany), opportunities to study in English are widespread. It appears that Iranian students are seeking English speaking countries and/or countries that offer EMI education.

The US is the first study destination of Iranian students. In the US, in 2014, 82% of Iranian international students were studying at the graduate level (mostly doctoral students), 75% were studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects, with 56% studying engineering, 55% received full tuition funding through scholarship, etc., and 89% preferred to stay in the US after graduation (Ditto & Baste, 2014).

Iranian university students go overseas for their education for a number of diverse reasons including the “shortage and lack of scientific and technological resources, lack of job security, shortage of income, restriction of freedom, limitation to choose jobs” (Pars times, 2000), and underutilisation of expertise. In addition, considerable competition for limited state sponsored university places may play a significant role in Iranian students’ choice to seek overseas educational opportunities, with “only about 11 percent of approximately 1.5 million exam takers are accepted into a university each year, and competition for graduate programmes is even tighter” (Frontline—Tehran Bureau, 2011).

Furthermore, some Iranian students consider study abroad as an explicit “pathway to immigration” (ICEF Monitor—Market intelligence for international student recruitment, 2012). In sum, Iranian students study abroad for better job opportunities, more freedom in terms of religious practice (i.e., constraints on practice imposed by state-sanctioned Islamic rules), and to secure better educational and other opportunities for the their families and children.

Table 1 illustrates the recent trends in the number of Iranian international students in Japan and their financial types.

Table 1: Trends in the Number of Iranian International Students from 2012 to 2016, by Financed Type (As of each May 1). (Unit: person)
Institutional Type 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016


PFS total MEXT PFS total MEXT PFS total MEXT PFS total MEXT PFS total
Graduate 75 101 176 67 106 173 59 87 146 82 80 162 82 86 168
Undergraduate 5 20 25 8 19 27 6 20 26 4 15 19 6 15 21
Junior college 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
College of technology 2 0 2 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1
Professional training college 0 8 8 1 5 6 1 5 6 1 6 7 1 6 7
University preparatory course 0 2 2 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1
Japanese language institute 0 9 9 0 7 7 0 11 11 0 14 14 0 14 14
Total 82 140 222 77 138 215 67 124 191 88 115 203 90 122 212

Source: JASSO (direct communication)

* MEXT: (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology), Japanese government scholarship students

** PFS: privately financed student

Similar to the US case, the majority of Iranian international students in Japan are studying at the graduate level. Although in 2012 Iranian international students in Japan were mostly privately funded, recently the number of Iranian MEXT students has increased. Other Iranian students are receiving different types of scholarship for instance the scholarship from Iran’s government or scholarships from private organisations in Japan.

The table below (Table 2) shows that the majority of Iranian students are studying engineering which is in accordance with the US case.

Table 2: Number of Iranian International Students in 2016 by Field of Study (Unit: person)
Field of study Number of Students
Humanities 38
Social science 17
Science 13
Engineering 90
Agriculture 11
Health care 17
Education 3
Arts 3
Others 20
Total 212

Source: JASSO (direct communication)

The MEXT scholarship students, who come with low-level Japanese abilities, usually take Japanese intensive courses for one semester (6 months) which support them to learn some basic Japanese skills, but not advanced-level Japanese for academic purposes. A few others pursue Japanese language studies and come to Japan to study Japanese language and/or literature.

Iranian international students and academics from different universities are mostly members of the Academic Society of Iranians in Japan (ASIJ) (http://asij.ir/fa/page/english) which is a “multi-disciplinary non-governmental independent and friendly group” that organises conferences and events for Iranian academics and supports them.

Although the latest data from JASSO (direct communication) shows that Iranian students tend to stay in Japan after graduation (Table 3), from the point of view of the researcher, Iranian international students usually leave Japan a few years after graduation. Obstacles to remaining permanently in Japan may include the difficulty of obtaining Japanese permanent residency, difficulties with the Japanese language, and cultural differences.

Table 3: Survey of Iranian International Students’ Career in 2015 by Institutional Type (Unit: person)
Institutional Type In Japan In Iran In the Other Countries Unknown Total
A B C Total A B C Total A B C Total
Doctor 1 0 7 8 3 0 7 10 0 0 2 2 1 21
Master 3 5 1 9 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 9
Undergraduate 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
Professional training college 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Japanese language institute 2 2 1 5 0 0 3 3 0 0 0 0 1 9
Total 8 7 9 24 3 0 11 14 0 0 2 2 2 42

Source: JASSO (direct communication)

(A: Start to work, B: Advance to next level of study, C: Other)

Iran’s youth population is relatively young. In 2009, about 60 percent of the population was under 30 (Berson, 2009), and the young population is still increasing with a 1.06% growth rate (World population review, 2017). The youth of Iran are often highly motivated to learn English, and learning English is not limited to English as a school subject. In recent years, the number of English language institutions in Iran has increased dramatically alongside a great increase in the interest of children and their parents in learning English. Many children start learning English at 6 years old or sooner at one of the language schools (Sheibani, 2012). In addition to English as a school subject, they take English classes twice a week, and usually continue studying English until they get their diploma from their language institutions.

In both Japan and Iran, English is not the L1, and is being studied as a second language (L2). Both countries are similar in terms of the mean English score, with Iran ranked a little higher. The TOEFL (The Test of English as a Foreign Language) iBT (Internet-based test) total score mean of Iran in 2010 was 79 and Japan scored 70 (TOEFL, 2010). Although both teaching styles in the two countries are still largely grammar-based and the speaking opportunities are limited, from the point of view of the author, in terms of mobility and also sociocultural issues they vary greatly. Socio-linguistically, Iranians are often very interested in talking in English to foreign tourists and visitors. They are culturally often very open to foreigners. Even if they are not fluent in English, they often try to speak in English to foreigners and to answer their questions (Sadeghi & Richards, 2015). However, Japanese L1 speakers tend to be less open and embarrassed to speak in English (hazukashigaru), even if they are fluent in English. The second point is related to mobility. As mentioned before, many Iranian students are very interested in acquiring English and are planning to study abroad; also many study STEM subjects which require dealing with English as the language of science and technology. Also in Iran English is the means of having access to information and technology, so that Iranians have to learn to use English for these purposes; for instance, for using a computer (Sheibani, 2012), whereas in Japan, the language of technology is not always English and much information and technology are available in Japanese. Many English institutions offer one English class per week, and as mentioned above, the hazukashigaru concept makes the speaking opportunities much more limited.

Conceptual framework

In order to conceptualise possible language support issues of Iranian students who are undertaking EMI in Japanese universities, a framework is proposed based on two important studies. As previously mentioned, these two cover most of the different areas in the literature that can pose challenges in the development of EMI in Japanese universities. The first is Bradford’s (2013, pp. 230-235) typology of challenges in implementing EMI, which itself was derived from Tsuneyoshi’s 2005 study. Bradford identified three types of challenges—linguistic, cultural and structural—that programme implementers may face in adopting EMI in Japan. She points out that the common challenges for EMI often discussed in studies are linguistic challenges related to students and faculties’ linguistic limitations. Structural challenges are related to the administration and management of the EMI. These challenges “lie in finding international education professionals who can cope with the pressures of adopting English and working with a diverse population” (Tsuneyoshi 2005 cited by Bradford 2013, p. 233). Cultural challenges are associated with the fact that by implementing EMI, universities are receiving students and professors from diverse backgrounds with different cultures. “This presents challenges for educators accustomed to teaching a fairly homogenous body of students as they may lack the intercultural knowledge important for developing internationalised curricula, adopting more inclusive practices and promoting reciprocal cultural understanding” (Whitsed & Volet 2011 cited by Bradford 2013, p. 233). Whitsed & Volet (2010) point out that in Japanese HE, there is a lack of intercultural development. In/out (uchi/soto) metaphors make international students and international faculty feel like outsiders (soto) and the chance of intercultural understanding is limited. They suggested that for this problem, new metaphors should be invented to promote intercultural understanding in light of changing the definition of kokusaika (internationalisation).

The second study used here is Ishikawa’s study of support systems for international students in Japanese universities (2011, pp. 207-209). Ishikawa points out that from the late 1980s to 2000s, in Asian countries, policies concerning the support of international students underwent a shift from paternalism (traditional aid approach) to global competitiveness (trade approach). However, she points that Japanese universities’ support system continue guiding students like parents instead of providing efficient and suitable support for autonomous students. The conceptual framework is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework

Rakhshandehroo, Figure 1

The study reported in this paper sets out to identify the various challenges occurring in the implementation of EMI in Japanese universities from the point of view of a minority group of international students—Iranians. At that same time, it seeks to discern the extent to which a shift to a trade approach support model, as outlined by Ishikawa, may be emerging based on the subjective accounts of Iranian international students. Based on the results, the paper presents recommendations for improvements in language support for these students who are studying in the English-medium in Japanese universities where English and Japanese are both L2.


This study is a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) investigation of the case study of Iranian international students in Japan. The focus is on the students’ own perceptions and narrated experiences. The research instruments were designed to encourage Iranian students to identify both the positive and negative aspects of studying in English at Japanese universities. In this way, it was hoped that the study could address the shortage of literature related to the experiences of minority groups of international students in Japan. The study was designed to address the following questions: How well prepared are Iranian students who come to Japan to study as regular degree students in English? Are they being sufficiently supported by the Japanese university system in terms of language and how can they best be supported? What are the positive and negative aspects of studying in English in a non-English speaking country like Japan?

The study was broken into two phases. The first phase explored possible language problems that Iranian international students are facing at a single Japanese university. The second phase examined whether the findings in the pilot university had relevance for Iranian students at other universities in Japan.

In the first phase, qualitative data were collected using semi-structured in-depth interviews with participants enrolled at one Japanese university (all Iranian international students (9) and some recent Iranian graduates (9), in total 18 participants). In the second phase, both quantitative and qualitative (open-ended questions) data were collected through the use of an online survey (developed by the researcher). A total of 73 participants responded, including Iranian international students and some recent graduates from different Japanese universities (national and private). The questionnaire was utilised in order to gain greater access to Iranian international students in Japan. The quantitative part of the online survey involved collection of data on students’ age, gender, marital status (living with or without family), Japanese ability, English ability, and faculty affiliation. Qualitative data were also collected in the form of responses to open-ended questions provided at the end of the survey. These questions were mainly related to participants’ opinions about evaluating Japanese universities’ support systems based on their own experiences. In addition, the survey provided participants the opportunity to comment on any possible recommendations for improvements.

For the qualitative data, a form of thematic analysis was employed to analyse both questionnaire data and semi-structured interview data. Broadly conceived thematic analysis involves the systematic identification of themes within qualitative data and is often employed when data is collected through unstructured or semi-structured interviews. For the current study, the themes that were derived from interviews and open-ended survey questions can be understood as collections representing recurring words or phrases, expressions, or other discursive elements that were clearly related to the research questions. For the data analysis, a thematic strategy was chosen in order to utilise all of the interview and survey data. Two general broad themes (areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction by the overall Japanese universities’ support system) were found in the data, and next, sub-themes were defined based on the data.


The participants of the interviews and survey mentioned that they chose Japan as their study destination for the following reasons: Firstly, obtaining a scholarship was easier compared to some other countries, including the US. Many of them came to Japan with a MEXT (Japanese government) scholarship. Secondly, they chose Japan for the high quality of the research here, especially for the engineering field, which is the major of the largest percentage of Iranian international students in Japan. Thirdly, many stated that they already had a connection in Japan before they applied (spouse, sibling etc.) who helped them with visa procedures and relocation. A final reason for choosing Japan as a study destination was the perception that the culture is interesting and attractive.

Therefore, many choose Japan instead of English-speaking countries for financial reasons, and secondly for the high quality of engineering education in Japan. Those who apply for MEXT scholarships are not required to have any Japanese language skills, except in some fields of studies, such as Japanese studies, that need Japanese language ability. When they have a connection in Japan, they usually have a better understanding of the language and cultural environment of their Japanese universities before arrival compared to those who are completely new in Japan. Although some have an image that they can study in an all-English-environment on-campus based on communication with their supervisors before arriving, only when they arrive do they realise that in some of the labs and situations, they still need to use Japanese language on-campus. This usage of Japanese on-campus may be much more than they expected.

The results from the interviews and survey from each phase can be seen in Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4: Demographics of the participants based on the majority
Variables The majority were Phase 1 (n=18) Phase 2 (n=73)
Sex Male 61% 63%
Marital status Married 78% 53%
Living with family Yes 100% 77%
Age at the time they came to Japan Average age 26-30 26-30
Degree PhD 50% 62%
Faculty Engineering 61% 58%
The usage of English in their studies Just use English 78% 55%
Self-perception of English proficiency Sufficient 89% 83%
The usage of Japanese in their studies Use little or no Japanese 78% 56%
Self-perception of Japanese proficiency Not sufficient 89% 56%
The time they finished studying English Finished before coming to Japan 89% 84%
The time they started learning Japanese Started after coming to Japan 78% 64%
Table 5: Participants’ opinion about the overall language support difficulties in Japan
Variable Categories Phase 1 (n=18) Phase 2 (n=73)
Language support difficulties Basically no difficulties 33% 21%
Some difficulties 56% 37%
A lot of difficulties 11% 42%

There are some differences in the responses between the two groups. The students in phase 1 evaluated their Japanese proficiency as lower than those in study 2. This may reflect the fact that they were more likely to use only English in their studies. Additionally they were more likely to be married and live with their families, which they thought was helpful to avoid feeling lonely. In general, these students were more satisfied with the language support from their Japanese university. This university is one of the top Japanese universities, and is one of the G30 universities, with different budgets for internationalisation projects including TGU type A. By contrast, in phase 2 the participants were recruited from different private and public universities (although the majority were still from leading research universities), and they were overall more dissatisfied with the language support provided by their respective university support systems.

In terms of the basic similarities between two phases, the majority of respondents were male, married at the time they came to Japan as international students, living with their families, between the ages of 26 and 30 at the time they started their studies in Japan, and were PhD students. They were mostly studying engineering, using only English in their studies, and thinking that their English level was sufficient. In contrast, participants indicated that they mostly used very little Japanese in their studies, yet thought that a certain level of proficiency was required, and judged that their own Japanese level was not sufficient overall to support their studies. While the majority of participants indicated they had started studying the Japanese language after they came to Japan, they reported that they had already completed their English language education before arrival.

A smaller percentage of students (7% in both phases) majoring in linguistics or Japanese studies indicated that they had studied the Japanese language in Iran before coming to Japan and reported that they mostly used the Japanese language in their studies. This smaller group of Iranian international students self-evaluated their Japanese proficiency as good, although some said that they wished they could improve their English. They indicated that due to having high-level Japanese skills, they were not routinely confronted by any language barriers. The following extracts provide some examples of these self-assessments. (The extracts are from semi-structured interview transcripts and open-ended survey questions, translated from Farsi (Persian) to English by the author).

Many resources are just available in English. I wish I had studied English more, before coming to Japan.
(Kyoto University—Linguistics)

Until now, I have had almost no language related problems.
(Osaka University—Studies in Language and Culture)

My supervisor’s English is not very good. But my Japanese is good enough and I have no problem in communication.
(Sophia University—Linguistics)

I have no specific problem.
(Chiba University—Social linguistics)

In phase 2, the participants were asked whether they want to live in Japan after graduation (some had already graduated and were asked to comment retrospectively on their plans at the time they completed their studies), about half pointed out they did not want to stay in Japan, while about 30 percent were interested in living in Japan.

Table 6: Students’ opinion about living in Japan after graduation (Phase 2)
I want to live in Japan after graduation. 34%
Maybe I will live in Japan after graduation. 15%
I do not want to live in Japan after graduation. 49%
I have not decided yet. 1%

The positive and negative aspects of studying in EMI

Analysis of the data indicated two broad themes and associated sub-themes:

Figure 2. Overview of the key themes

Rakhshandehroo, Figure 2

Areas of satisfaction (positive aspects)

Areas of satisfaction can be understood as comprising two main themes: support received from supervisors, and support received from assigned student tutors.

1. The English language support they were receiving or received from their supervisors was the first common positive point, although this is mostly related to the informal efforts of the supervisors, and such support was not integrated into the universities’ support system. In many cases, students said that only because of the language support from their supervisors, they could confront the language challenges and problems they are faced with. The majority said that the English level of their supervisors is very good, as can be seen in the following extracts:

My supervisor’s English is so great and that helps me a lot.
(Kobe University—Human Development and Environment)

In our department, all of the staff and professors are fluent in English and I have no problem with that.’
(Waseda University—Medical Bioscience)

I have no problem in communication with my supervisor because my supervisor’s English level is so high.
(Osaka Institute of Technology—Information Science and Technology)

The English level of my supervisor was so high and I could write my reports in English and this helped me a lot.
(Shinshu University—Innovation Management)

Well, I am okay with my supervisor since he knows English very well.
(Tokyo University—Information science and Technology)

In addition, the support of supervisors in academic writing was also evaluated as a positive point. Especially when writing in Japanese, help with academic writing is needed for international students, as can be seen in the following extract:

Although my English and Japanese proficiency is quite high, I had some problems in academic writing. However, my supervisor has always tried to support me.
(Kyoto University—Electronics Engineering)

Moreover, the support from supervisors and their efforts are evaluated very well in different aspects, not just language related support, as can be seen in the following extract:

My supervisor has supported me a lot, in everything.
(Chiba University—Department of architecture)

However, even with language support from the supervisors, a few participants referred to the difficulties in consulting in English with their supervisors or professors, although written communication was less of a problem. For example, consider the following extracts from two participants from engineering backgrounds who express difficulties in speaking:

I have to speak English very slowly, so that the professors can understand my English.
(Kyoto University—Civil engineering)

I have almost no problem with the emails in English from my supervisor. However, in talking, we have problems. I have to use a mixture of Japanese and English for communication.
(Osaka University—Engineering)

2. The other main theme that was related to positive aspects which emerged from the data, was the support participants were able to obtain from their assigned student tutors (domestic students paid to support international students). Importantly, this support appeared to be limited as many students indicated only having access to a tutor for one semester (and that they wished for additional support). This can be seen clearly in the following extracts:

One good point is the help of tutors. They help a lot with translation from Japanese to English.
(Kobe University—Engineering)

My tutor was a great help but it was just for one semester.
(Kyoto University—Urban Management)

One positive point in my university was introducing me to one graduate student as my tutor. In many of the cases he solved my problems, or notified me about announcements at the right time.
(Osaka City University—Science)

However, it is important to note that such positive assessments were not universal among the participants. A few participants indicated they were unhappy with support provided due to the perceived inadequate level of English of their tutors. For example, consider the following participant extract:

My tutor’s English level is not good and I have to use google translate for translating the forms and announcements.
(Osaka University—Science)

Areas of dissatisfaction (Negative aspects)

With regard to the areas of dissatisfaction, there were three subthemes that involved meetings/seminars and classes, communication with peers, and administrative infrastructure.

1. Participants often commented that meetings/seminars and classes were conducted mostly in Japanese and that this was of significant concern. The illustrative extracts below reveal the difficulties and concerns experienced by participants across a range of institutions and disciplines.

All meetings and classes are in Japanese and I have to participate in all of them. I cannot understand Japanese and I am wasting a lot of time.
(Kobe University—Chemical Science)

The biggest problem is about the seminars that are in Japanese.
(Kyoto University—Chemistry)

All of my classes were held in Japanese and I could not really learn in the classes.
(Shinshu University—Innovation Management)

I have many problems with seminars that are in Japanese and I do not understand anything during the seminars.
(Osaka University—Engineering)

All of the seminars are being held in Japanese and I cannot learn from them.
(Osaka University—Science)

All classes and seminars are in Japanese.
(Osaka City University—Medicine)

2. Communication with peers was another problematic area. Communicating with lab mates in meetings and/or in seminars was reported as taking place mostly in the Japanese language. Participants indicate that the majority of their lab mates are Japanese and it is necessary to try to communicate in the Japanese language even though they are international students studying mostly in English. When interactions are undertaken in English, they are likely to be problematic due to the Japanese students’ low level of English language ability. This can be also related to the sociolinguistic fact discussed above, and some may be embarrassed to speak in English (hazukashigaru), even though they can really speak English fluently. The following extracts show this matter.

Japanese students’ English proficiency is not good, and this is problematic.
(Kyoto University—Information Technology)

The English level of Japanese Students is not that high.
(Kyoto University—Chemistry)

Language is a social and scientific barrier at Japanese universities. I had problems in communication with Japanese students due to their low-level English skills, and my low-level Japanese skills. I did all my seminar presentations in English, but I am sure that my Japanese lab mates did not understand at least 50 percent of my presentations.
(Shinshu University—Electrical Engineering)

I have problems in communication with Japanese students due to their weak English skills.
(Kyoto University—Urban Management)

Interestingly, when participants discuss their interactions with other international students they tend to indicate a lack of problems or issues as other international students routinely utilise English as a lingua franca.

3. The final subtheme relating to negative supports identified was administrative infrastructure. Importantly, this is considered as the greatest difficulty that the participants of this study face during their study time in Japan. Most forms, emails, information, and announcements are available only in the Japanese language. Although usually there is one person in the Educational Affairs Office with adequate English ability, this leaves students in a position of always having to ask for help. This can be seen clearly in the following extracts.

I have many different problems but the biggest one is the administrative infrastructure
(Kobe University—Civil Engineering)

Although the administrative office staffs are so patient and they try to help me, most of them cannot communicate well in English and they could not help me actually. Even the emails from the university system are mainly in Japanese.
(Kanazawa University—Science and Technology)

I think that the administrative infrastructure related to language support is so weak, although the language support in other areas is acceptable.
(Yokohama National University—Engineering)

In addition, some of the participants mentioned two or more of the above problems in single assessments; for instance, consider the following extracts in which participants provide clear lists of relevant problems and concerns.

My problems are with the administrative infrastructure, communication with Japanese students, communication with university staff, and seminars that are mostly in Japanese language.
(Tokyo Institute of Technology—Civil Engineering)

Many classes, documents, books and information are just available in Japanese language.
(Osaka University—Mechanical Engineering)

Most of the emails from the university are just in Japanese. Many classes and many forms are just available in Japanese.
(Chiba University—Engineering)

Recommendations for improvement

The study participants made some suggestions that could help in language support strategies. The results are in line with the pre-existing literature.

  1. Creating forms and making announcements and emails in both Japanese and English. In particular, the information on university Websites is sometimes available in only the Japanese language, and international students with poor Japanese language proficiency will miss important information.
  2. Organising classes, seminars, and lab-based meetings, or at least Q&A parts, in English, so that international students can actively interact in discussions and know about other students’ research.
  3. Organising more English-learning classes and environments for Japanese students. This will help Japanese students to become more motivated and this will lead them to improve their English language skills, so that they can communicate better with international students.
  4. Organising more classes for Japanese students for developing intercultural competency in order to make the interactions with international students easier.
  5. Organising more international student offices and recruiting more staff with good English language skills to support the language problems that international students with low-level Japanese skills might be facing inside and outside Japanese universities.


Although a few Iranian participants were majoring in Japanese studies, Japanese literature and other majors that need Japanese proficiency, many are majoring in STEM subjects, especially engineering, and are coming to Japan to study in English, with little if any Japanese knowledge. They choose Japan firstly because they receive MEXT scholarship and secondly because of the high quality of their fields of study here. When they apply for MEXT scholarships through Japan’s embassy in Iran they are not required to have any Japanese language abilities except for those fields of study mentioned above such as Japanese literature. These graduate participants were mostly studying at Japanese research universities that are targeting international graduate students as the contributors to the establishment of a better profile for their universities in the very competitive global rankings. The rationale for the usage of EMI and/or ETPs in these institutions is better to position themselves in the global rankings by recruiting high quality graduate international students who are potential contributors to the production of papers in English and are potential, highly-skilled labourers for Japan after their graduation.

This study shows that EMI as an internationalisation strategy in Japanese universities is successfully attracting Iranian students with low-level Japanese proficiency, who may otherwise choose English-speaking countries. In addition, other pull factors are supporting this attraction. Japan’s culture is viewed as interesting. Various scholarship opportunities and the high quality of research, especially for engineering field that is the major of many Iranian students, are also playing important roles in attracting the international students.

Nevertheless, the results also suggest that insufficient attention has been given to providing a well-suited language environment for students who not only arrive with low levels of Japanese, but due to busy research schedules are not able to improve this situation during their study time in Japan. The students in this study were all L2 speakers of both English and Japanese and many felt they were not supported sufficiently given this situation. While many students evaluated their own English proficiency and that of their supervisors’ to be sufficient, which was enabling in the lab environment, most reported difficulties once they were outside this particular academic space. The wider university language environment was reported to be almost totally monolingual, especially the administrative structures. This point gains more importance considering the fact that before their arrival, many had heard from their supervisors that they could study fully in English. However, in reality, when they arrive they need to deal with many emails, forms, and even sometimes seminars and classes in the Japanese language from their university systems, even if they can study in a lab that provides an all-English environment for them. A possible recommendation would be providing enough information for applicants when they apply through MEXT, so that they can prepare themselves better in advance.

Although many of the students received an intensive semester course of Japanese when they arrived, this only provided them with sufficient proficiency to engage in relatively simple daily life activities. In the majority of cases, it did not provide Japanese literacy to a level sufficient to understand administrative procedures, information, and forms that are a key part of student life. Unlike the majority of international students in Japan who come from Chinese-character(kanji) backgrounds, the Iranian students were not able to gain reading and writing skills in the short time provided for them upon arrival, although speaking was less of a problem. As most are engineering students studying at the PhD level, much of their time was taken up with research in the lab and after the intensive course period it was reported to be near impossible to make time to study Japanese.

In addition, Iranian students reported even more limited opportunities to improve their Japanese language skills compared to other student cohorts given that many were married and living with their families in Japan. Motivation to invest large amounts of time to language learning was also rather weak given that most planned to leave once they completed their studies. For these EMI students, there is a need for more language support compared to those international students with more opportunities to study the language and/or more motivation to do so. This challenge can be similar to the situation of the other international students who are married, may live in Japan with their families, and come to study at the PhD level. However, with the limited focus of this study on one specific group, further investigation will be needed to explore the similarities and differences of this group with the other groups from diverse backgrounds.

While this research highlights the informal support from supervisors and tutors as good practices, it also illustrates the lack of formal support at the structural level, specifically with the information and forms that are mostly monolingual. Although informal support is often provided with the translation of some information, the strategy clearly fits into Ishiakwa’s paternalism model. This informal support deprives students of autonomy and results in their reliance on the goodwill of supervisors and tutors.

Cultural obstacles also appear to be creating some challenges. In this research, it was reported that some students feel like outsiders. They report feeling that the dynamics of interaction serve to reinforce their identity as foreigners in relation to their Japanese peers. Classes and seminars related to multiculturalism and intercultural communication may ameliorate the more alienating aspects of the cultural environment. There is a need to provide more opportunities for both domestic and international students to interact with each other and to share cultural, linguistic, and other values though workshops, seminars, and so on.

This research makes clear that there is a need for more formal and structural support in line with Ishikawa’s global competitiveness support model where the independence and autonomy of the student are emphasised. Expanding the delivery of EMI, perhaps in the form of full ETPs, may help create a critical base for both international and Japanese students’ interactions. From the point of view of the author, this matter is on both international students and Japanese universities. When an ETP advertises that the students in this programme do not need any Japanese knowledge, the real usage of Japanese for at least some administrative infrastructure should be also advertised. When enough information for the international students is provided, they will be sufficiently autonomous and will be responsible for their own integration into their Japanese universities. In this case, the integration and becoming an ‘insider’ will be on the international students. However, when the main support provided is informal with largely relying on the supervisors and student tutors to help with the translations and such, the burden will be on the institutions. Providing sufficient formal support will lead to having more autonomous students who are responsible for their own integrations into the context of their Japanese universities, and a better learning and studying environment for them, and outcomes for their institutions.


In the context of the shortage of literature related to minority groups of EMI international students in Japanese HE, this study highlights the experiences of one group—Iranians. There has been no previous research about this group in Japan. This study, therefore, contributes to the existing literature in detailing the experiences of Iranian students studying in English in Japanese universities.

Several limitations arise with this study that offer possibilities for further research. This study focuses on a specific minority group and is not necessarily representative of all minority groups studying in Japan. Furthermore, there were limitations in terms of having access to all Iranian international students in Japan. Although the online survey was sent to as many participants as possible through the researcher’s network and ASIJ’s mailing list, only about half of the Iranian international students in Japan answered the survey. Furthermore, the data were analysed with a special focus on the language problems the students have and their suggestions. Therefore, the data were analysed against a set of designated variables, and some other possible variables (for instance, their family life in Japan) should be taken into consideration for the future research.

Within the limitations of this study, the results cannot be generalised. However, it was highlighted that for international students who come to Japan to study in English with little Japanese knowledge and limited time to study the Japanese language, providing more formal and structural support may lead to better learning and studying outcomes, positioning international students as both autonomous and insiders, and in less need of informal support. Furthermore, it emphasises the importance of organising seminars or other opportunities for both domestic and international students to interact with each other, enabling them to share their linguistic, cultural, and other backgrounds and values. This will have a great impact on the integration of international students as insiders and can lead to development of the intercultural skills of the domestic students.

It is hoped that this research will lead to more qualitative research in the field of language support for international students in the future, especially studying issues related to minority groups and those who come to Japan from non-kanji backgrounds with limited Japanese language proficiency and to study in English. With the rapid increase in the number of EMI/ETPs and the number of international students in Japanese HE, more qualitative research is needed to support the needs of these programmes and international students.


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About the Author

Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo obtained her Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University in 2016. She is currently a PhD student at the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University under the supervision of Professor Beverley Yamamoto. Her current research focuses on graduate international student English-Medium Instruction (EMI) support at Japanese universities.

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