Do you have a shot at Bunka Fashion College?
Based on the age and desperate-ness of the people who contact me, I knew writing about my experience as a mature student at Central Saint Martins was my priority.
No judgement, I wrote guides 0, 1 & 2 because I really wish I had someone back then who'd be both kind and straightforward enough to explain the CSM experience to me in lamest terms, so I could've made a decision that was not based on "Oh my god, I lost so much time in my life and now I need this course if I'm to ever make it big in Fashion, but sh*t it's so expensive and everyone's looking at me like I ain't got what it takes, I swear I doooooooo!!!".
The people who come to me asking about Bunka Fashion College don't have the same emotional baggage.
They're just curious - probably after reading a short bio of Yohji Yamamoto, or one of the other few famous alumni - and want to find out if Bunka's a viable option for them.
Mostly they want to know about learning Japanese and how much it is to study there.
And my straightforwardness has been a bucket of icy cold water, apparently.
"Yeah, you do need to speak Japanese, at least at an intermediate level. Better if you're fluent, though. They rarely speak English.”
"No, don't know of any scholarships besides for Japanese descendants. Me? No, I didn't get a scholarship, my dad paid for everything."
“Yeah, living in Tokyo was cool. Yeah, it's an expensive city."
I get it, studying abroad is as exciting as it is scary. Nobody wants to know of any extra obstacles.
Take a deep breath and know that you don't need to figure this out all at once.
Here goes my in-depth guide for westerners who dream of studying at Bunka Fashion College, starting with…
You must speak Japanese. Period.
No way around it.
Your classes will be in Japanese. Your books will be in Japanese. You'll need to write reports for every damn thing you do in Japanese.
80% of your classmates will be Japanese kids in their late teens with basic English from their high school classes.
And none of your teachers will be able to speak English, nor will they be willing to give you special treatment. The Japanese may gush at cute foreigners who can let out a mispronounced konnichiwa, but your teachers won't be amused at a student who can't keep up with the rest of the group.
Google's made our globalised life simpler with Google maps, Google translate, Google travel, news, weather… but you're not a tourist in this case!
Ideally, you'll want to integrate into the local society and culture so you can have a "normal life".
That means making friends; understanding where you need to go to register for healthcare and which days to take which trash out; being able to communicate with your neighbours in case you need to ask for help in an emergency; opening a bank account; explaining to the dorm manager your kitchen fan doesn't work…
You know, the extremely ordinary things we never care about until we're on our own and completely outside our element.
You'll learn most of the daily stuff once you start living in Japan, in good ol' sink or swim fashion, but you need to know:
proper textbook Japanese to talk with office ladies at school or at town hall without looking like a complete gaijin savage - and get them to help you out when you're in a pickle;
combined with good vocabulary and communication skills to chat about boys, anime, food or whatever you're into - so you can make new friends to hang out with during lunch break.
Thanks to YouTube and Instagram, my friend who's only taken a few Japanese classes but follows every other Asian twink would have more common interests to form that initial connection with a 20-something Japanese than I ever did.
But you still need a good language course to give you a structure to follow instead of overwhelming your brain with random vocabulary, weird grammar you won't find in the dictionary or catchphrases from pop culture that don't develop into a conversation.
How long till you speak fluent Japanese? I don't know.
I started and quit Japanese courses at least 3 times throughout my childhood, because the textbooks were so damn boring, and classes were always taught by Japanese ladies that didn't have any methods to teach the language besides following the textbooks.
Being half-Japanese didn't give me an advantage: my grandparents emigrated to Brazil over 100 years ago to work as farmers, they didn't have time to teach my dad and uncles, and they actually wanted their kids to speak Portuguese so they could go to regular school.
(No, stoopid! There was no such thing as bilingual school in São Paulo country-ass-side in the 1920s!)
With the basic knowledge I got from the sleepy classes with the old ladies, I then went on to study by myself with the help of a textbook and a dictionary (bought in Japan, since that was before Amazon's world domination), but
It still took me a year to barely get to intermediate level - where I remained stuck for the rest of my time in Tokyo.
So if you're in a hurry, besides binge watching YouTube and anime and listening to podcasts, you can start your studies in Japan with…
6-month Japanese language courses, in Japan
If you're serious about studying and possibly working in Japan, I recommend you start by researching Japanese language institutions approved by the Ministry of Justice.
(Sounds too grand, official and bureaucratic? Welcome to Japan.)
They offer intensive courses meant for foreign students, and even Bunka Gakuen (i.e. the conglomerate of schools and the university in the Bunka campus) has its own Bunka Institute of Language offering a 6-month course that, if completed successfully, allows you to skip the Japanese Language Proficiency Test required for studying at BFC.
That may sound like another big expense you'll need to figure out, but even a full-time language course will be a maximum 6h the longest day. You can still find ways to earn some money on the side by working part-time or freelancing.
I know of many Brazilian-born Japanese who went to Japan with the complete language course + factory job (back when the Japanese government was happy to have us manning the late night shifts) and their income'd be enough to cover all their expenses with flights, accommodation, school, food, plus buying videogames and trinkets that were much more expensive in Brazil. This might not be an option anymore, but it's also not uncommon to have language programs paired with temp jobs: many English students do jobs at Disney World or ride rickshaws in Chicago, so there's probably a viable option for you.
Most universities include an intensive language course in their curriculum for prospective international students, which they must complete before they're officially admitted, but BFC ain't a university.
Bunka Fashion College is a technical school.
Aka senmon gakkō, or professional training school, in Japanese.
This is the school for getting the best technical foundation.
You'll learn how to make garments starting from the very basics on your main subject - also called Garment creation, or something very similar in Japanese - as you follow the textbook as taught by your class' head teacher.
And you'll show what you've done to the assistant teacher to get a literal stamp of approval for step 1 - fabric cutting; then step 2 - stitching the sides; then overlocking, then finishing, then ironing… and so on and so forth.
On your other time slots, you'll have other extremely in-depth technical subjects such as Textile Technology, Quality Control and Production Management; a decent class on Fashion & Costume History; and very average classes on Design (pretty much just Colour Theory) and Fashion Illustration.
This is NOT the place to develop your own creative process, and BFC feels very much like high school: 50 to 60 students per classroom, you share a desk with a classmate, lockers are in the hallways, you follow your teacher as she writes on the black board, you have reports and homework rather than projects.
The teachers main concern is to make sure everyone will have the same skills by the end of each module. Only after you prove yourself, they may allow you to do your own variations - but nothing too major.
Quick Curriculum overview
Year 1 - main subject Garment Creation
Introduction to pattern cutting: drafting the basic Bodice block + sleeves + pencil skirt; introduction to toiling and fitting;
Basic skirt: first time making a finished garment from scratch; getting to know the standard of quality and finishing Bunka strives for;
Shirt: first time making a finished garment from scratch, making the patterns using the Bunka-style bodice block;
Skirt 2: fully lined, high waisted fitted skirt in wool fabric; option to make pleated skirt;
Trousers: fully lined trousers in wool fabric, high waisted or 3 cm below the natural waist (option to make anatomical waistband);
Tailored jacket: the longest assignment in both years. Fully lined, classic tailored jacket with collar and lapels, shoulder pads, loads of hand stitching and - my least favourite part - hand stitched buttonholes. Still in wool fabric.
Bunka is one of the very few schools that'll teach you proper Ready-to-wear tailoring, similar to this Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons jacket.
In fact, a lot of the finishings on the “normal” or basic pieces by Comme des Garçons (shirts, pleated skirts, shorts etc) are the same as the ones taught at BFC.
If you already have a good knowledge of sewing, you can learn these on their textbooks (available in English, at Amazon, I think).
Dress: a piece of cake after the damn tailored jacket. Wool, lined, shoulder pads optional, and the chance to finally make something a bit more embellished.
PLUS a report for each one, that was pretty boring to make (extra points if you included all of the optional sections suggested by your teacher. And write everything by hand, which I didn't do. Even I am not that much of a nerd.)
Year 1 - other subjects:
Textile technology (outstanding);
Design Theory (meh, but with fun little projects); Fashion Illustration (I was bored and I think I decided to fail this subject, as I could pass without those credits);
Fashion History (pretty good).
There were probably other subjects, but I forgot. Which tells a lot about how great they were.
The main subject is the most demanding, and you'll need to work at least 2 more hours after class, maybe take some more time on weekends when you have to hand in reports for the other subjects.
Considering your classes will finish at 4h40 PM, two to three days a week, and earlier on the other days, it is completely possible to have a life outside of college.
All you need at Bunka is a little discipline, and you'll finish your course with nothing but A's.
The drawback is: if you want to develop your creative side, you're on your your own.
Tokyo offers an abundance of museums and exhibitions in Art and Fashion, and an insane amount of high-end stores, but that doesn't mean everyone will bridge the gap between what they learn in school and how to use those skills creatively just by being surrounded by coolness.
I certainly didn't.
So year 2 was pretty much more of the same.
Year 2 - main subject Garment Creation
Casual suit: tailored jacket without lining, plus a bottom (skirt or trousers, design completely up to you);
Another skirt, to be handed in along with a report for Production Management;
These last two were missed opportunities to do something more creative.
Your teacher doesn't want anybody to slack off and just do whatever's easier, but she also won't push you to explore and make mistakes.
It's not her job to guide you through a creative process of trial and error, but she won't dismiss you if you're a good student, and can communicate properly what you're trying to achieve.
Another reason to work on your language skills the best you can.
Luxury fabrics/ final look: just a final look, no collection.
HUGE missed opportunity to work on my Design Development skills, something I only learned about years later at Central Saint Martins…
Year 2 - other subjects:
Production Management, Quality Control and Apparel manufacturing in the college's model factory (outstanding, but probably not necessary for a Fashion Designer);
Fashion Illustration (the first time I met a self-centered Japanese teacher. The classes were again boring AF, and for the second year I'm 100% sure I skipped this class);
Anatomy: learn medical terms for bones and what-not, in Japanese. F*ck.
Two elective subjects: I chose Dying for the first term (outstanding, and another missed opportunity to play and be more creative), and Hair & Make-up for the second term (lousy, stick to YouTube tutorials by drag queens).
Again, there were probably other very exciting subjects that I forgot.
“Is it worth it?” & other considerations
Bunka Fashion College used to be #2 in Fashionista's Fashion school ranking.
It is now #12.
From my own experience, I can say you don't need to know how to cut and sew anything to work as a Fashion Designer in most companies.
It's highly desired if you're applying to one of the cool brands that actually tries to create new designs - you know, the ones everyone wants to work at - but you'll be competing with applicants from other colleges that probably had more in terms of design, and can present themselves as a complete package, with creative and technical skills.
Nonetheless, the Garment Creation course has a very strong curriculum for its mere 2 years, and it is possibly THE best technical foundation you can get - if that's what you're after.
The course's only the very beginning if you want to be a good designer, and only one of my friends went on to work at a brand that shows on a Fashion Week - but she already had a degree from another Fashion school, and work experience.
How to develop your creative side on your own, further education at BFC, CSM vs Bunka: read part 2.
The kimono obsession came years later btw.