Study Medicine in Japan

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Medicine Studies in Japan

Medical education in Japan operates on a unique system. In the US and most other countries, medical schools are graduate programs, open to students after they complete their bachelor’s degree. Although many medical students are former biology majors or “pre-med” majors, there are always plenty of others who have liberal arts degrees. Their medical education is independent from their undergraduate and high school education.

In Japan, however, medical degrees are attained at the undergraduate level. Students straight out of high school take a qualifying exam, and then a second exam that helps determine which medical school they get into. These exams are extremely competitive, and require not only fluency in Japanese but also a broad knowledge of Japanese medical terms, biological science, and math. Those who pass this series of exams have usually been preparing for them from a very young age, and so the medical specialization is not easy to break into.

Thus, it is highly unusual for foreign students to attain a medical degree in Japan, unless they have been preparing for it for a very long time. Even for students who are native speakers of Japanese, the admissions process is extremely competitive, and it’s even more so for foreigners and those whose Japanese language skills are not as well developed. For those who are capable of studying medicine in Japan, however, the quality and diversity of education is quite good. There are 79 medical schools in Japan, - an extraordinarily high number given the country’s small population – and they all hold their students to a very high level of rigor. Over the last 20 years, the medical curriculum in Japan has been steadily improving as medical schools adopt a more problem-based approach as opposed to rote memorization, and as more and more schools have begun to offer integrated education that combines a traditional medical specialization with more broad, interdisciplinary learning. This is not to say that a Japanese medical degree is anything like an American or European liberal arts degree – far from it – but simply that the curriculum is becoming less rigid and more adaptable to the needs of modern students.

The typical course of study at a Japanese medical school is six years. The first two cover the “Liberal Arts and Sciences” curriculum, which includes biology, physics, math, chemistry, and foreign language studies (usually including English and sometimes a second foreign language). The traditional “liberal arts” – history, literature, philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences – are largely absent from this curriculum, despite its name. Years two through four consist of the Basic Medicine, Clinical Medicine, and Public Health. This includes courses in anatomy/physiology, immunology, epidemiology, and pharmacology. At some institutions, students begin their specializations at this phase. For the final two years, students are trained in an actual hospital, where they learn the details of day-to-day work in a medical setting, and train with highly specialized faculty in the student’s own area of interest. At the end of these six years, students must pass a final Licensing Examination, after which they are qualified to practice medicine in Japan.

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