Commute tires Tokyo students

July 27, 2001

A quarter of Japan's university student population lives and studies in Tokyo - adding 650,000 to one of the most crowded cities in the world.

How do universities house so many students? The answer is they do not - universities in Japan lack student halls of residence. Attending a lecture might be a few minutes walk or bicycle ride for many students in the UK but for students in Tokyo, attending university can be a daily grind through the capital's infamous morning rush hour.

Satomi Yamada is a typical student. Her family lives in the outskirts of the capital and her commute to Waseda University, one of the top private universities, is a 90-minute test of stamina as she stands throughout the journey on a crowded metro train. "By the time I get to my first lesson I'm too tired to study anything," she said. According to Ms Yamada, over a third of the students in her class sleep through the first lecture.

Like many students, Ms Yamada stays at home because high tuition fees prevent most families from providing money for their children to live out. Annual tuition fees for public universities start at £2,500 and can reach £7,000 for private institutions such as Waseda.

Even if students can afford to live out they find that the housing options are limited to one-bedroom apartments. These can cost at least £600 a month with a non-refundable six-month down-payment. Flat-sharing, common in the UK, is rare in Japan because of the conservative nature of the capital's landlords. Renting out to families is more lucrative and safe. "Given the choice to rent out to a stable family or four students who might trash the place I can understand their perspective," Ms Yamada said.

Faced with high tuition and living costs, many students work part-time to earn extra money. The most popular job is tutoring junior and senior high-school pupils at their homes to prepare them for the university entrance examinations - a free-for-all where only those who score top marks can enter the best universities.

Students from prestigious universities such as Waseda are especially sought after by anxious parents and can easily get £15 an hour. Restaurant work is also popular, which is not surprising considering that Tokyo is home to over 80,000 eating establishments.

Despite their hectic life studying and working, university students have no problems forming friendships and having a good time. Every university has myriad clubs from tennis to flower arrangement and they form the centre of a student's social life. A typical club evening is always followed by a visit to the ubiquitous isakaya , a pub and restaurant hybrid that stays open into the early hours. Even though drinking alcohol and smoking is illegal for those under 20, the law is rarely enforced.

"And if we miss the last train we go to karaoke," said Ms Yamada. It makes perfect sense since taxis and hotels in Tokyo are so expensive. A three-hour session in a karaoke room costs only £15 per person.

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