My journey in Japan started in a slightly unconventional way. While there are several paths to enter the country, such as a working holiday visa, English teaching, or getting hired by one of the many wonderful companies, posting jobs on TokyoDev, I first came here via the Vulcanus in Japan programme. More than just an internship, it’s a complete package including an intensive language course, cultural lectures and accommodation support. It can be an excellent starting point for engineering students who aspire to live and work in Japan in the future. So how exactly does it work, and what was my experience?
Disclaimer: I joined the programme 4 years ago, and some of the contents described might have changed since then. Please consult the official Vulcanus in Japan website for up-to-date information.
The Vulcanus Programme
Vulcanus in Japan is co-organized by the EU Commission and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Every year, around 20 to 30 students are selected from a large pool of applicants to perform a technical internship in one of several Japanese hosting companies.
Not only that, but the programme also includes an intensive language course and multiple cultural lectures. Support is provided in all matters relating to setting up your life in Japan.
The application process begins with a pre-selection based on your resume, motivation letter and recommendation letters. Then, host companies get to take a look at the students and pick those that they believe are a good fit for their open internship positions. Thus, when applying, you need to appeal to both the programme committee, as well as the Japanese companies themselves. I wrote a more in-depth guide on how to improve your application here.
Those selected then join an information session in Brussels, which provides participants the opportunity to get to know each other, while also getting briefed on the programme details.
The Language School
I arrived in Japan on September 1st, and after a few additional briefing sessions and administrative procedures (such as opening a bank account and obtaining a phone number), I settled in my little apartment in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, and was ready for 4 months of intensive language learning. I wrote more on my arrival experience here too.
The language school I attended was the Naganuma School in Shibuya. I found their teaching approach very effective due to their strict policy of only using Japanese during the lecture, even at the very beginner levels. Additionally, I greatly appreciated the complementary excursions and cultural activities such as calligraphy and tea ceremony.
Before I arrived, I took a short test to assess my Japanese ability, and was assigned to a class of the appropriate level. While most students arrive with close to zero knowledge of Japanese, I already had an intermediate level of Japanese on arrival, and had the chance to pick one of the advanced courses. I chose the business Japanese track, which turned out to be extremely useful, with topics such as handling telephone conversations, emails, and even work interviews in Japanese. It even covered behavioral lessons such as how to exchange business cards, or where to stand in the elevator (believe it or not, there’s rules for who stands where in many situations; shimoza being the spot for the lowest rank person, and kamiza for the highest).
My host company was NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone), a major telecommunications company with research centers throughout Japan. Due to my background in machine learning, I was selected as an intern in the speech recognition team at their research center in Yokosuka.
Most interns will be located in Tokyo, but a few, such as me, will be positioned in slightly more remote locations such as Yokosuka, Tsukuba or Atsugi. Occasionally, there will even be positions in the Kansai region, such as Kyoto.
In my opinion, those kinds of locations are much more rewarding than Tokyo, since you get a chance to experience a more unique and traditional face of Japan that is not present in Tokyo. Nature is closer, trains are not so crowded, and the people are warmer and less busy. It is also more challenging to survive without Japanese, which gives you the necessary motivation to continue learning once the language course ends and your internship begins.
This is the part of the programme where students will have widely different experiences, both positive and negative. Some of the other participants I talked to complained that the company wasn’t a good match, did not care much about them, or had unexpected changes in their team or internship content. Most, however, had extremely fulfilling experiences, including myself. Additionally, many received full-time offers by their host companies upon completion of the internship, and at least a few students each year stay working full time. There were even instances of students releasing patents and research papers during the internship, marking an extremely successful end to their internships in Japan.
Personally, I improved my Japanese significantly while working at NTT, since all my colleagues were Japanese and I needed to communicate daily with them. I even had the opportunity to give presentations and receive feedback on my projects. While I didn’t stay at NTT (instead pursuing higher education in Tokyo), I am still in Japan 4 years later at the time of writing this post.
Vulcanus in Japan is not for everyone. Firstly, the programme has strict eligibility requirements. You have to be an engineering student from a selected number of countries, and have completed at least 3 years of university education. Additionally, the monthly stipend is not very high, requiring a certain amount of discipline and strategy to survive. Finally, you need a bit of luck to be matched with a company that aligns with your expectations.
With all that said, if you are an adventurous European engineering student looking for a path to Japan, the Vulcanus programme might just be the opportunity you are looking for!