Interviews, Travel

Interview: Savvy Kenya, MEXT Scholarship Recipient

August is set to be an amazing month, and The Wondercores are absolutely excited! Here on the blog, we want to shift our focus to visiting Japan – be it for business, pleasure, or education. We’re featuring stories of Kenyans in Japan. (If you’d like to share your story, get in touch!)

Our first interviewee? None other than Harriet Ocharo of the popular blog Savvy Kenya. Harriet began her blog as an undergraduate student at JKUAT, and she quickly became one of Kenya’s most well-known bloggers. Now a PhD student in Japan, Harriet shares her story with us – how she got the scholarship, what life’s like in Japan, and what she misses most about home. Let’s get right to it! Aspiring MEXT scholars, take notes. 🙂

On the scholarship application & selection process

I was not actually actively seeking a scholarship in 2013 as I was just about one year into my job at Ernst & Young working in IT audit, and was at the same time finishing my master’s thesis at Strathmore University. In addition, I was on maternity leave at the time (April 2013) so scholarships were the last thing on my mind. It was actually my mum who saw the ad for Japanese government scholarship in the Daily Nation and encouraged me to apply. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Japan but I applied anyway, and about two weeks after the deadline, they called us for the first interview.

For the master’s and PhD scholarship aspirants, they had about 200 applicants and they had to narrow it down to 50 applicants. From shortlisted students I interacted with, the four of us who ended up getting the scholarship in October of 2013 had first class honours undergraduate degrees; they definitely do use academic qualifications to narrow down the selection list. However, one should not despair as you shall see, especially if one has some Japanese language ability. Once the 50 of us were shortlisted, we were then given a standardized English test, and an equivalent Japenese test. Japanese was not required but it would be an advantage if one did it. For the English test, 100% score was encouraged because going to the next stage did not depend on a set passmark, say 80%, but rather it was a fixed number people of proceeding, about 12. So the top 12 of us were called for the next interview.

The second interview was also the last, where we met with 3 or so ex-MEXT scholars and one Japanese official on the interview panel. They don’t ask specialized technical questions, just general questions about why you want to go to Japan, what’s your motivation for your area of study, what do you want to accomplish in Japan and how will you apply the knowledge and experience gained into solving Kenya’s problems today… such questions.

I was pretty relaxed going into this interview because I wanted to know what Japan is like for the people who had gone there, and I genuinely wanted to pursue further studies. I also knew which area of study I was interested in – IT in general, and I know it will play a role in Kenya’s future. If anyone gets to this stage of the interview, remember to relax! Thas way you can think clearly about the questions the interviewers ask you. By the time, you should also have polished your knowledge of Japan and of your area of research. Master’s and PhD in Japan are all about research, so find out what you are really interested in.

Only when I finally got the results of the scholarship, about 2-3 months after the initial application, did I realize how lucky I was among the over 200 applicants to be in the final 4! Before getting the scholarship, I hardly knew much about Japan except of Manga (which I knew of – Bleach and Naruto – but hadn’t watched), and a few other things like sushi. But I obsessively read about Japan after getting the scholarship and realized no matter the difficult decisions I had to make like leaving my son behind and quitting my promising job to start life as a student in a strange country, I knew I had to go. I want to travel around the world, so what if I was starting from the East? The plans fell into place, I left my son with my parents with plans to bring him here later – he will be joining me this October – and I got onto the Emirates Plane to Osaka, Japan. Here‘s a post I did about Japan before coming here.

On social life and being Kenyan in Japan

In-Osaka-May 2015

In Osaka, May 2015

Being black in Japan, you definitely acquire the status of “minor celebrity”. There are such few black faces around. Most Africans go to Europe or America for studies, work etc.. few venture into Asia. The language barrier could be one of the reasons, of course. However, I feel like the challenges faced by being African in Japan are the same as those faced by many foreigners living here, there is just no fitting in! You will always stand out, especially if you live in a rural area like me. However, Japanese people are big on honour, respect and kindness. They will always treat you well and forgive you for any faux pax you may commit.

It was not that difficult to adjust to life in Japan. Immediately I landed, I started class the following week and so it was just like being in any other university. The food is what took some time to get used to, everything is just cooked in a different way. The rice is rather sticky and light of taste, the ramen/udon noodles require dexterity with chopsticks and slurping sounds while eating ( I still haven’t mastered this art), the eggs are soft boiled, etc.. but once you get used to the food, everything else is a smooth journey. Also being in campus means you get assistance from tutors and the international students section to help you settle down. I have made a number of Japanese friends, some of them in the same school, but most of my friends are fellow foreigners living in Japan.


An aerial photo of part of Osaka, taken when I visited there in May 2015. Notice the highway that goes through a building?

Life in Kenya is definitely more fun than life in Japan. I miss my friends and I miss my family so I am looking forward to my summer holiday this September. In Japan, I live in Ishikawa Prefecture and I have visited places like the beautiful Noto Peninsula, Kaga and Natadera temple area, and many historical places in Kanazawa City, the capital of this prefecture. Over various holidays I visited Tokyo twice, Osaka, Kobe… and I plan to see other parts of Japan while I am here. There is much to see but after a while all of it starts to look the same :P. So it’s better to travel when you want to see something unique to a certain place. But it’s quite costly to travel in Japan and I will be here for a while so I am taking my time.

Will I stay in Japan after graduation? Who knows, it’s 3 years away. If I get a good job, I may stay on for a few years. But it’s too early to make any decisions yet.

On learning Japanese


Aerial view of Kobe port when I visited in May, 2015.

I did not know a single word of Japanese before coming to Japan except konnichiwa (hello) and sayonara (goodbye)! So after arriving in Japan, I took the first 6 months to study Japanese alone and nothing else, the scholarship allows this. I chose to do this actually, because I don’t need Japanese in my studies. At PhD level, most top universities in Japan have English programmes so foreigners don’t need to learn Japanese and in my current university, English is one of the main languages, the other being Japanese (of course) so I don’t even need Japanese in my daily life, unless I am interacting with locals outside my university.

However, my language ability is now fair, so to say. まあまあです。At the end of the 4.5 months semester here, we did a mock JPLT N4 test and I passed, so I am planning to take the N3 to see if I have improved since then. I will be immersing myself in research from October so I don’t know if I will have enough time to study Japanese. I would love to be at N2 level by the time I leave here, I enjoy studying Japanese and learning kanji! It will probably take me another year or 2 to get to N2, and then dedicated kanji study to pass the N1 vocabulary. If I have time I will go for it, if I don’t…

On academic life in Japan


Posing awkwardly next to the plaque at the entrance of my university, JAIST in March, 2015.

I studied computer science for my bachelor’s at JKUAT – Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and did my master’s is in Mobile Telecommunication and Innovation at Strathmore University. Currently, I am enrolled in JAIST – Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in the school of Information Science, within the Artificial Intelligence group. Our focus is on e-learning and education.

Once you get the MEXT scholarship, you are then asked to select for yourself the university you want to go to and the area of research you want to study, it is all up to you! You have to look up the professors online, email them and get them to accept you into their research laboratory.

Graduate education in Japan is really about research, schools are organized into laboratories. It’s quite different from our universities where we do a lot of taught courses for masters and even PhD, and funding for research is not as much as here. When I return, I want to continue working in research, I think this is an area of potential in Kenya with the rise of research centers like the IBM research lab, iLab Africa research at Strathmore, and many other research labs in universities in Kenya. I hope funding will increase in these areas.

If you want to pursue a doctorate in Japan, be prepared to “discover knowledge” in your field, so start researching and good luck in your scholarship search!


Follow Harriet on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog, Read her blog posts about Japan here.

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