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zemi (ゼミ)

As I explained in a previous post, in Japanese universities you have something called a zemi. Its basically a seminar of around 10 students studying/researching an area of their major the professor is particularly interested in. So in the business faculty you can take zemi on corporate finance or strategic management for example, and in the faculty of law you can take zemi on family law or french law and so on. These seminars usually begin in your third year of college and finish when you graduate. This means that if you pick a crappy zemi (translation: crappy professor), you’re not going to have a good time at all. Very few people change their zemis because the professors take it as a personal insult that you don’t want to study with them (even though they probably suck for some reason or another). This is bad for obvious reasons; what if the professor isn’t what you expected, what if you don’t like the zemi content after all, what if you don’t get along with your zemi-ten or fellow zemi students (as they call them at Hitotsubashi)…Plus, your zemi becomes a big deal in your academic life; you might meet once or twice officially and for a long time (typically three or four hours straight), and you meet outside of class too, for group projects etc. You typically have a ton of work to do for the class. The zemi is also where you write your senior thesis, or sotsuron (卒論).

So it is understandable that the zemi selection process is a big deal for all the third years. When they apply, they list three or four zemi in order of preference. They then have to go in for interviews with the professors. The professors can do the interviews in many different ways; they can do it one-on-one, or, if they’re really tough they can have all the fourth years (the previous year’s third years) also interview the students. Just imagine walking into a room where you have the professor and ten to twelve of your senpais seated in a semi-circle and they all start interrogating you. Remember, the hierarchal system is firmly in place, so the senpai can and will be aggressive/patronizing/just plain mean to try to weed out the students they think are not good enough. I’ve only heard of a few instances when this has actually happened, but I don’t really see the need for it at all.

When it comes to the selection process, there are usually two ways used. One way, is to pick students who have the best grades (that should be fun). The other way which is more commonly used is to choose students who vary in personality and ability to make for an interesting two years. Luckily, my zemi was like this. I was in a zemi for corporate strategic management and we had a good mix of people. I made really good friends with some of them, and some of them I couldn’t stand. Two people I got along with were these two guys; one of them a goth, and the other a guy who obviously grew up listening to alot of hip hop (he’d bob his head when he’d speak to the professor, who was fascinated and appalled at the same time).  Funny thing was that they’re best friends. There were also a few girls in the zemi I got along with. There was however a girl I couldn’t stand, who on the first day of class told me and the other girls in a conspiratoral whisper that she “comes to school on a motorbike”. The other girls were very impressed by all this… but then she added that she doesn’t want us to tell anyone because she wants to maintain her kawaii or “cute” image and didn’t want to be thought of as unfeminine. Unfortunately, she was completely serious. There were some other guys who had never met/dealt with a foreigner before and were very intimidated. It’s understandable, but towards the end, I really wanted to scream everytime they averted their eyes or whatever when I talked to them…it was really frustrating.

Anyway, while the zemi was okay and the professor great, I didn’t really enjoy the subject matter since I had already taken the subject matter as a freshman. Moreover, we were reading an english textbook and our weekly assignment would be to translate an entire chapter. Its a ‘teaching’ method that many Japanese professors use in their zemis. It was a great chance for me to improve my Japanese but I wanted to learn something new too. So I joined a fuku zemi or second zemi to study innovation management. I had always found the subject matter extremely interesting, and the professor had studied at MIT. It also turned out that he was my first zemi professor’s senpai and they had studied with the same professor and even written a book together. I had made the right decision because there are no seminar-style classes at Wharton on innovation management and the professor and zemi-ten were just great.  

Bottom-line: if you are ever in the situation where you have to choose zemi, ask around and see which professors are good and which are terrible. Some zemis are known for being really chill and some for being very challenging. It depends on what you’re looking for.