I Finished Graduate School in Japan in the Middle of a Pandemic
I'm back in Manila.
It has been four months since Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and 6 other prefectures due to the spread of new coronavirus or COVID-19. The pandemic has affected countries all over the world and continues to disrupt the livelihood of many citizens.
Both locals and foreigners residing in Japan are trying to adapt to the current situation. There is definitely a shift in habits and ways of going about one’s day. Businesses are trying to make up for the profit loss in an infinite number of ways. Everyone is trying to survive the best way they know how.
We caught up with 34-year-old International Relations graduate student Quel on what it was like finishing her last few months of graduate studies in the midst of the pandemic. She shares her experience and has advice for those wishing to pursue further studies in Japan.
Our graduation pushed through but with minimal people present
The beginning of new coronavirus
When the news of COVID-19 broke out in Japan, Quel recalls there was a sudden shortage of tissue rolls and masks—a phenomenon that occurred in other countries as well. Other than that, life seemed to go on. She tells us, “Eventually, when the virus started spreading in Japan, a lot more people wore masks especially in trains. There were less elderly people outside although the younger ones continued life as normal as possible. I was busy doing my thesis during the first quarter of the year, so I was mostly indoors. Classes went on normally as well.”
They had to make do with small-scale celebrations
When the state of emergency was declared, Quel was actually in Tokyo. She had to pack up her things and head to Niigata where her university was. She recalls, “It was the peak of sakura season in Tokyo and there were still a lot of locals observing hanami, their tradition of sakura viewing. I was surprised that during this time, even the elderly went outside ironically practicing their annual tradition of appreciating how life can be fleeting. The popular hanami spots were crowded including Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku Gyoen, Nakameguro, and Chidorigafuchi.”
Her university relayed the Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) announcement regarding the current warning level 3, stating "travelers must avoid all travel to Hubei Province, China, including Wuhan." They were also reminded to refrain from unnecessary and non-essential outings. “Necessary precautions and reminders were also sent out and put all over the campus with regard to basic measures against coronavirus such as wearing a mask, handwashing, and proper manners when coughing. Protocols were also prepared in case students felt any symptoms,” she shares.
What it was like on ground
Since most events were canceled—including the most important and sacred festival in their areas—students were left in one location with not much to do. They got restless. Quel explains, “The university and the dormitories were all located in a small, rural area isolated from the rest of the city. Some students got paranoid about getting the virus from students who were still traveling around while others started to feel cabin fever after being stuck in the same place for a long time.” Come spring time, most of the classes were shifted online via Zoom.
Finally done with thesis
The challenges of students during this pandemic
Apart from the shortage of some items and price surge of masks, life was quite normal in Japan. As for her graduate studies, Quel, like many other students working on their thesis, was worried on how they would go about it since they would have to do their defense online and on their own. “It has also been a tradition to cheer students after surviving their defense but this year, we had to be in really small groups of less than 10 people and we couldn’t hold big parties and celebrate like before,” she tells us.
Being a foreign student, we asked if there were any issues regarding Quel’s visa given the situation. She admits, “Since my student visa was supposed to expire this December, I didn’t encounter any problems.”
Quel finished her degree
A lot of the events that usually happen at the end of the school year were almost canceled—including graduation! But since the state of emergency was lifted in time, they were able to compromise with the school administration. Quel shares, “The events including the graduation and the graduation ball as well as the send-offs were all small in scale. The actual graduation only involved the graduating students and the professors and some technical staff. There were no guest speakers and no outside guests although our friends and relatives along with other students were able to watch online.”
At the airport
Going back home to Manila
With travel restrictions and canceled flights, it became difficult to book a flight home. There was also the matter of booking a hotel for mandatory quarantine upon arrival became tricky as the flight schedules kept on changing. Thankfully, Quel had help back home. “I finalized my hotel with the help of my husband who was here in Metro Manila two weeks before flying in. My friends had a hard time since at first they booked through a booking site only to find out they need to book directly at the hotel and inform them that they need to be quarantined. Their flight also got cancelled from the first week of July to the last week, and they even got redirected to Cebu,” she tells us.
After successfully arranging for her flight and hotel booking, she also made sure to monitor the local news, her airline’s flight advisories, and any changes in quarantine rules as they would change even at the last minute. Quel didn’t have any flight troubles and is finally back home with her family, completing her 14-day quarantine and testing negative for COVID-19.
Tips for those who want to study in Japan
She has this to say to anyone who is interested in pursuing studies in Japan. “To be honest, it’s better to put it off for a year or two if possible. Most of the classes might still be held online and travel might still be tricky. Getting a visa might be harder than usual too especially coming from a country like ours with a high case rate. It’s better to experience studying abroad when you can have peace of mind and also get to enjoy the normal way of life in the country you are planning to go to.”