Should I Study Abroad in China or Japan? 

by Dominic James Fusco

For many Western travelers, China and Japan remain as mysteriously omnipresent as the sun and moon. You know that they shine differently, they have been highly influential for a long time, there is a complex and sensitive mutual relationship between them, but you did not pay enough attention in high school geography or world history to remember how or why.

For thousands of years these two great Eastern civilizations have reigned supreme over the Pacific, virtually isolated from Western influence until the 19th century. Today, China and Japan boast two of the three largest economies in the world, a huge number of leading corporations and academic institutions, and combine to form nearly a quarter of the global population. Yet, from a cultural standpoint they remain as distinct as yin and yang. 

If you are interested in studying abroad in Asia, then you may have already started the great debate between these two countries. But, regardless of where you are at in the decision making process, here are a few things to consider before choosing your study abroad destination, which highlight what make Japan and China starkly opposite, yet equally fulfilling, destinations for study abroad. 

Geography: Small & Big 

Beginning with the basics, Japan is a tiny island nation and China is absolutely massive.

Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan encompasses an archipelago of nearly 7,000 islands, the four largest of which constitute over 95 percent of its mainland territory. A highly intricate railway system connects most of the major cities, and bullet trains, which run at over 300 miles per hour make transportation throughout all of Japan astonishingly quick and effective; you can essentially get from anywhere to anywhere in a matter of hours while studying abroad in Japan (and you should check out a number of cities). Beyond its highly modernized (and densely populated) cities lie deep temperate forests, beautiful cherry blossoms, and active volcanoes in the midst of a wonderfully diverse island ecosystem.

Southwest across the East China Sea lies Shanghai, the gateway to China. The second largest country by landmass in the world, China’s territory roughly expands East to the Pacific Ocean, North to the Gobi Desert, West to the Himalayas, and South to the abundant rice terraces bordering Vietnam, Burma, and Laos. Railways connect many parts of the country, though planes and buses are often more convenient for travel in China, depending on the distance. While China may receive negative attention for high levels of pollution in its major cities, you will find a never-ending supply of natural beauty throughout its expansive and diverse countryside. The mighty mountains, rivers, and plateaus of China are an awe-inspiring wonder to behold. 

Shanghai skyline at night

Nighttime view of the Shanghai skyline

Infrastructure: Developing & Developed

Although filled with an ancient history centuries long, China still remains less developed than its highly industrialized neighbor, Japan.

China has seen a massive urbanization movement throughout the past few decades, and as such its cities have witnessed an explosion of infrastructural development. Even so, you will find many basic amenities are lacking and a large portion of the population still struggles in poverty. This ruggedness is accentuated in rural areas, where the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion inhabitants still reside. While parts of the country remain chronically underdeveloped, the silver lining for students who choose to study abroad in China is that it remains a cheap and affordable place to lead a comfortable lifestyle. Meals will rarely cost more than a few dollars, and transportation is very inexpensive too. 

In Japan students will find the opposite. The country is impressively industrialized, more so than most Western nations. Due to its limited land area, Japan constantly strives to make everything smaller, sleeker, and more efficient. Cities are crowded, yet astonishingly well-kept, and for the most part students who study abroad in Japan will witness very little poverty. Living quarters are tiny but comfortable, as Japanese culture takes pride in a neat and orderly aesthetic. The catch is that comfort comes with a significant price tag. Everyday costs in Japan reflect a higher standard of living, and so life as a study abroad student in Japan can be quite a bit more expensive. 

Cultural Expectations: Buddha & Confucius

You must decide before you depart, what cultural, religious, and philosophical setting you’d like to be surrounded by while studying abroad.

Buddhism began in India, worked its way up through mainland China, and eventually found a quaint and cozy home on the islands of Japan. Though today Japan identifies as a primarily secular society, its historical roots in Shinto and Zen Buddhism breathe life into its’ culture of pleasantness, respect, and honor, which will heavily influence the daily experiences of students who choose to study abroad in Japan. Beyond these cohesive values, Japan continues to develop a fascinatingly unique culture, which remains largely isolated from foreign influence. Modern particularities, like niche bars, capsule hotels, and bizarre (to the outsider) game shows, prove that the spirit of autonomous cultural progression is still very much alive in modern Japanese society. At times this island nation can feel like an entirely different universe, even for international students that are well-versed travelers.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

At the other end, China is making a hard push to become more global. Similar to Buddhism’s impact on Japan, Chinese culture has been historically influenced by Confucianist thought, which emphasizes discipline, education, and tradition as its core societal values. However, you will find that modern China is very much a land in transition. Along with a continued effort from the Communist government to instill these disciplinary values into its citizens, China is also rapidly Westernizing in a movement to lift the country out of poverty and into global prominence. The younger, educated population is making a more sincere effort to learn English and consistently reaches out to Western travelers in a genuine effort to bridge a major cultural gap. The Chinese people are friendly, hospitable, and engaging; just don’t expect the lines to be as neat and orderly as in Japan.

Future Opportunities: Teach or Tech

Studying abroad can be one of the most impactful experiences of your academic career, in terms of deciding what kind of job and future you want for yourself. Be sure to expose yourself to the type of industries and economic market that may lead to very prosperous opportunities for you in the future.

The world’s fastest growing economy, China has experienced huge strides of recent growth, through large scale urban industrialization and a booming manufacturing industry (enter the “Made in China” label you see on nearly anything). As such, a number of successful international businesses and research institutions have risen to prominence in China, providing many opportunities for engineers, architects, and young professionals seeking work abroad in China. However, China’s most popular magnet for foreign employees remains in the field of education. The country is in perpetual demand of Western teachers, who have a desire to teach abroad in China and instruct just about any subject. For many schools, international teachers don’t even need a college degree to apply.

As an advanced economy, Japan is widely known for its innovative development of cutting edge technology and electronic goods. The headquarters of such prominent global corporations as Sony, Honda, and Mitsubishi are all centered in Japan. The focus on electronics and technology can give major Japanese cities, like Tokyo, a futuristic feel, and therefore students will see many examples of innovation that have not made their way out West yet. Although teaching job opportunities are likewise available in Japan, if you are interested in working in scientific or technological research, than studying abroad in Japan will be a particularly beneficial and uniquely fulfilling experience of a lifetime. 

The Final Word

Whether you are planning to turn your study abroad program into an opportunity to live and work abroad in either of these countries or simply traveling East to study abroad for an adventure, Japan and China both offer perception-altering experiences that will expose you to life in our modern global era. These are two countries that are ripe in history, culture, and industry, which each project an entirely different social manifestation than that of Western Civilization. So sit back, mull over these points of interest, and you’ll soon be closer to deciding which country holds the defining global experience for you.