Although Japanese universities are much like universities anywhere, differences also exist.
This site explores some of these, from the superficial to the deep. My perspective is based on 12 years as an American at the University of Tokyo, as an exchange student, as a post-doc, and as a professor.
The aim is to help more people understand Japanese universities better.
Your first impressions of a Japanese university will probably come from its web site, where you will doubtless notice some oddities. This page explains some underlying reasons.
Faculty pages are often frustrating. Many fail to convey such basic information as research content or course content, emphasizing instead grants, prizes, press releases, and society memberships.
(Sometimes you're lucky to find a personal page at all. In the olden days, a faculty member's role was fixed for life, and stated in the name of his Koza (chair); for example "Harbor Engineering" or "Heat Transfer Engineering", and even today there are departments which publish no more information on faculty research than a list of the Koza names.)
The focus on grants can be explained by the fact that, in a centralized society, a researcher's worth depends on validation from the Authorities, which can take the form of grants awarded, memberships on national committees, or a role in a long-term National Project.
Pride in prizes can be seen as an effect of the strong egalitarian tradition in Japan, where one man's opinion is as good as anyone else's. For academia this means that no one can ignore the opinions of the masses, as reflected by media attention. Even many reputable-sounding awards are in fact also reflections of popular acclaim, because most academic prizes are awarded, not by committee of the elite, but by a casual vote of all society members, or even of all conference attendees.
It is also common to see long lists of publication titles with no links to content, or even just counts of publications. In Japan there is an emphasis on evaluation that is "fair" in the sense of being objective, which implies that someone with 8 journal articles is presumed better than someone with 7. This is of course convenient for bureaucrats making funding decisions without technical expertise, but also for university administrators, who are sometimes too weak and too busy to use evaluation criteria different than those which Joe Taxpayer would understand and agree too.
The prominence given to society memberships can perhaps be explained by cultural factors, but their practical importance also is significant. In particular, grant reviewing is often done via academic societies. The Ministry of Education, for one, traditionally sends off grant proposals to the mostly plausibly relevant academic society, from which they are forwarded in massive packets to various senior members for review, with little or no regard for expertise or load. As a corollary of the importance of societies, interdisciplinary research tends to be scarce and thin.
On the other hand, laboratory home pages are often quite rich. It is not uncommon to find a site where all the expertise, interests, and achievements of the members are pooled, rather than being associated with individuals. This is in part a relic of the old system, where the Koza was an administrative unit comprising a full professor, a junior professor, a technician, a part-time secretary, and a collection of students at all levels. Even today, in traditional-minded institutions and in disciplines where it makes sense, this structure is common.
Japanese universities have many departments with names that are awkward or implausibly narrow, such as Mechano-Aerospace Engineering, Knowledge Engineering, and Intelligent Mechanical Systems Engineering. While this is sometimes due to poor translation, often the Japanese name is equally odd. This is generally deliberate. Department names are chosen to appeal to two special constituencies: the Ministry of Education and potential students. In many Japanese universities, freshmen are accepted to a specific department, meaning that they need to make a choice of major while still in high school, when most are idealistic but ill-informed. Departments appeal with names that pose a bold juxtaposition or suggest an exciting future. This is often carried through into a curriculum whose main feature is a collection of course titles which are inspiring or intriguing rather than informative.
The bizarre names may also reflect a more general fascination with novelty, in a country where fashions come and go much faster than elsewhere.
They may also reflect a general concern for image: in a country where advertising is twice as important as elsewhere (measured as a fraction of GNP), universities are not immune from the need for aggressive positioning and branding.
Finding class information on the web is typically hard: many universities have no centralized list of course offerings or schedules. Departmental class schedules, on the other hand, are often visible and tightly structured. In Japan, from first grade up through graduate school, the day is divided into periods, with something in every time slot, filling each school day. Thus all juniors in Electrical Engineering, say, take the same courses in lockstep.
It's rare to find a syllabus on the web; they usually don't exist at all. Providing a syllabus is a way to give the student a handle on what he is supposed to learn, thereby empowering him to read ahead, budget his time, and generally be an active learner. This is not especially valued in the traditional model of Japanese education.
If you visit a Japanese university it will feel different. This page discusses the reasons.
Most campuses are surrounded by walls, with the gates closed at night, and manned for ID check on entrance-exam days. It's easy to see a metaphor for the traditional relation between the university and society.
Most campuses are crowded of course, but beyond that, the buildings are cluttered. Campus planning, along with other responsibilities of the central administration, tends to be weak. This is in part due to the fact that deans and even presidents tend to be rotated every few years (presumably for fear that longer terms would allow them to amass power at the expense of the faculty, and of the Ministry). As a result an entrepreneurial professor who has conjured up some building funds will probably get the green light to start construction.
A contributing problem at national universities is the "supplemental budgets" designed to pump money into the economy in the final months of the fiscal year. Whereas planning in general is glacial, easily held up by any vested interest, supplemental budgets are cobbled together in a rush of excitement and time pressure, and university administrations are in no position to do anything but say yes to whatever manna the Ministry and the politicians chose to provide. This takes the form of a politically appropriate amount, based only loosely on any real need, which then translates fairly rigidly into a square footage, with the result that a building of that size gets plonked down on whatever parking lot, tennis court, or grove of trees is not yet built over.
Buildings tend to be ill-maintained, at least in public universities. The national budget includes (at least until the reforms of 2004) line-items for each specific university department or center, with little or nothing for the university as a whole. Within each department faculty interests dictate that the bulk of the money goes to research, with things like grounds upkeep, building maintenance, cleaning, and soap in the bathrooms done on the cheap or cut altogether.
In the dirty buildings the research laboratories are often overflowing with shiny expensive equipment. In Japan, as elsewhere, faculty are evaluated in part based on the funding they bring in. In Japan, however, faculty salaries are for 12 months, grad students traditionally do not expect to be supported, technicians generally cannot be hired with soft money, and overhead is very low, so the only real possibility for spending is equipment. It is also the case that grant reviewers smile upon proposals where the budget is mostly for equipment, perhaps reflecting the fact that in the Japanese economy overall capital investment is highly valued, and indeed forms an unusually large fraction of GNP.
Visitors are often presented with a bound volume of all the lab's publications over the past fiscal year or two. The point of this is of course the size; a large number of pages proves that the lab is productive. These bound volumes exist also for another reason: multi-year research awards typically require a formal report at the end and include a budget item for a large print-run. The extra copies are mailed off to various interested (or uninterested) researchers and libraries, with the remainder stacked up to await visitors. It's often said that Japan is a country where producer interests take precedence over consumer needs, and research is not entirely an exception.
How do you get into a graduate school in Japan? You'll probably find no clear account of the procedures anywhere. In a sense this is surprising, as Japan is a country of rules, and the admissions process for domestic students, although complex, is at least well documented.
One reason for the obscurity is that differences of opinion among the faculty are often left unresolved. Should application forms be initially screened by the department office? by the international programs office? by the desired advisor? If the committee never got around to deciding, the rules will be silent. So you have to ask someone, and if he thinks you are worth the effort, he will ask around and find out what the actual practice is, perhaps well established by precedent, but not written down since not Official.
Obscure procedures are also functional, since knowledge is power. Information can be hoarded (not just from foreign applicants), and granted as a boon only to those who seem worthy and likely to be appreciative --- behavior which is easy to relate to anthropologists' descriptions of traditional Japanese society.
The best way to start is by making contact with a researcher you might like to work with and who might like to work with you. Of course, this is tricky; you don't know who's available/busy/semi-retired/etc. but you have to try. In some countries admissions committees are comfortable selecting international students as faceless applicants from a large pool, bringing them in, and letting them run loose in the department in hopes that they'll eventually connect with a research advisor. Such chaos would be out of place in a Japanese university, and more generally in a society where everyone has a place, a role, and bonds of commitment. The Japanese system effectively requires you to forge a personal connection from the start.
How to make a connection? Personal introductions are the best, but a scholarship is a good second. The best kind of scholarship is that which vouches for the applicant in some way, especially Monbusho scholarships, which carry the added cachet of approval by the Authorities. (Indeed, applicants holding Monbusho scholarships are often sometimes seen as inevitable: decreed by Fate and thus a burden to be shouldered without question.) Unfortunately there is a circular dependency here, in that scholarship applications look far better if they include a letter of support from the proposed advisor.
In Japan, each person is the responsibility of someone else, and the teacher-student relationship is the classic example of mutual obligation. If a student gets sick, goes missing, or gets in trouble, the expectation of society is that the teacher will take the blame and the responsibility for getting him back on track. Even in the university, advisors were traditionally responsible for ensuing not only degree progress but also for keeping students safe, solvent ... and even for standing up for them at their weddings. Faced with these responsibilities, faculty are likely to want students only if they seem highly trustworthy and willing to accept the reciprocal obligations that come with such a relationship. While the teacher-student relationship is weaker today, it is still strong enough that few professors are happy taking chances here; few will just take it on faith that an unknown foreign student will work out somehow. Perhaps this is also an instance of the general adversity to risk found in Japan.
One way or another, many potential applicants get discouraged well before they apply. This is not entirely accidental. Having to formally reject someone is not something Japanese people enjoy, and the system works such that only the most suitable applicants are encouraged, or even allowed, to formally apply.
Although some departments admit foreign students using special criteria, in many cases entrance examinations are required. These may be the same as for domestic applicants, although perhaps given in English translation, or perhaps graded more leniently. Unlike, say, the GREs, which are mostly intended to measure likelihood of success, Japanese entrance examinations are in part a rite of passage; they have to be tough because society demands it. These test not only ability but also dedication. Because they usually focus on something that can be easily tested and objectively scored, such as names and dates or advanced but routine math, they can be prepared for by intensive cramming.
Japanese university students are famous for not taking classes seriously. There are many reasons for this, but one is the predominance of formal lectures, often very dry ones. Sometimes this even feels like religious teaching, with the wise man imparting pearls of wisdom mixed with inscrutable pronouncements, and the students gratefully receiving enlightenment. In this model there is little role for questions, homework, or significant feedback from the teacher to the student. Nor is there much feedback the other way: course evaluation is still rare.
The curriculum is usually fragmented into courses that meet for 90 minutes, once a week, for 15 weeks, and students take 12 to 20 courses per semester.
Students thus are forced to take a passive role in their education. In some cases their participation consists only of showing up for class, signing the attendance sheet, and listening until they doze off.
If you do get to Japan you will doubtless feel out of place, because you are: Japanese universities were not designed with foreign students in mind.
On the other hand, with a tight relationship with your advisor and therefore with the other members of his lab, you will belong. For many Japanese, work-related activities cover for social life, and this is true for students also. For example you can look forward to do-it-yourself in-lab parties, unencumbered by silly rules about alcohol on university property. Since everyone commutes by public transport, there is no worry about getting home safely, and if you do miss the last train, you can always sleep under your desk.
Thus you have an automatic social life. All the important events of the academic year are celebrated by the lab. Friendships among students are also easy; rather than requiring creative personal attention, they tend to fall into semi-institutionalized patterns.
Japanese universities are typically weak in cross-disciplinary fertilization; or even a rudimentary awareness of activities on the other side of campus. If you want to learn things outside your department, or even outside the lab, the initiative will probably have to come from you. But if you are active outside, word will probably get back, and you'll get a reputation for being active, even "visible", which is a very good thing. Japan being a small country, where everyone in a field knows everyone else, evaluation of people is as much by reputation as by objective poring over c.v.s or papers, so a strong reputation can carry you far.
Another good adjective to seek is "hard-working". To some extent hard work and long hours are seen as a virtue in themselves, regardless of the importance of what is actually accomplished.
A Final Note