Soaking Up Japanese Culture
When and where did you study abroad?
My student exchange location was Hirosaki University in Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan. I studied there from October until August the following year.
What made you want to study abroad?
I became interested in Japan years before I started university. It's a long story that includes a physics class, me sleeping during it, and two chatty otaku girls who sat behind me. The girls were discussing a manga called Naruto in loud enough voices to wake me up. I got curious and decided to find out what exactly Naruto was. I was introduced to the world of Japan through these comics, and from that I was motivated to do more research. Eventually I found out that English speakers often go to Japan to teach, and that all I needed to do that was a degree, so I enrolled in university to study the only subject I was ever truly great at, which was, coincidentally, English. In my first year of school I had to take a second language in order to meet my degree's requirements. I took Japanese. In my Japanese class some students came by to tell us about the exchange program. With dreams of going to Japan to teach someday, I thought that there would be no better way for me to test the waters and go outside of my comfort zone. So I applied, was accepted, and went. It was my sheer curiosity and the willingness to test the capacity of my own adventurousness that made me go.
How did you search for programs? What made you select your program?
My university has a broad and varied student exchange program. My school's partnerships in Japan provided two opportunities for studying there: one school is the Mukogawa Women's University in Hyogo, and the other is Hirosaki University in Hirosaki. As I'm not a woman I couldn't apply to attend Mukogawa, so my only choice was to go to Hirosaki. Although my choice was limited, the opportunities I had while I was living in Hirosaki were varied and amazing, and I would recommend that if your school has a partnership there, and you're interested in studying abroad, you should go to Hirosaki University.
Do you have any tips on writing applications and preparing for a study abroad term? What was your application process like?
The application process for the student exchange program at my school had three steps. First, the interested student must attend an information seminar that provides students with details about what an exchange is like, and provides them with the opportunity to ask any questions they might have. They can then pick up an application from the exchange office. The application package includes a checklist asking for things like a letter of intent, unofficial academic transcripts, recommendations from professors, and other such things. The second step, after waiting for an agonizing amount of time for all the applicants to be screened, is for the student to have an interview with some of the coordinators from the exchange office. My interview didn't take more than 10 or 15 minutes, but is a critical component, because the administrators are choosing students who will be able to properly represent the school abroad. The last step, assuming the student is accepted into the program, is to fill out the necessary paperwork to actually enroll in your foreign university.
The best advice I can possibly give any student aiming to travel on exchange is to make sure to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. Getting everything in order early, like getting your passport or buying your plane ticket or saving up money, will give you time to think of anything you might have forgotten, and will give you a chance to relax before you travel, which will make all the difference on the day of your departure!
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
Although I was expecting it, the biggest surprise was how relationships work in Japan. The way that the Japanese perceive themselves in relation to everyone else around them, and in different situations, dictates everything from how they act to how they speak. Hierarchy is very important. For example, if a person who ranks higher on the social scale goes out for drinks with someone of a lower rank, the lower will usually pour the higher's drinks. If I were to go out for drinks with a professor at my home university, I wouldn't think twice about how I spoke to them; to me they would be an equal in nearly any setting that is not academic.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
Within Hirosaki University, the social groups that were set up were pretty much the same as the clubs at my home university At Hirosaki, there are clubs and circles. These clubs and circles focus on interests that range from Japanese calligraphy to rock bands to sports. The only distinction between a club and a circle is that a club is more structured and requires a certain amount of participation, whereas a circle is much more casual, and is geared more towards meeting people, having fun, and going out for drinks and karaoke.
For more culturally-driven events, there were two ways to go about participating. A good example would be the Nebuta Festival (which is specific to Aomori prefecture), where students could sign up to participate in the parade as a part of the school's group, as a member of a community, or as part of another sort of organization that they might be affiliated with. I was able to march in Aomori city's Neputa parade as a part of the post office group, for example, because the father of a close friend of mine worked for the post office in Aomori city. The best way to get involved in events and activities is to go out by yourself and meet people. Find out who they are and get interested in the things they're interested in. The difference that this makes is that all of a sudden you'll have a life outside of the exchange program and university campus, and your life in whatever country you're in becomes much more exciting.
What made your study abroad experience a success?
How could I measure such a huge part of my life as a success or a failure? Is it that I've made friends with people from around the world? Friendships that will last forever and that span continents? Is it that I have been touched and changed by sceneries and experiences that I would have never been able to have anywhere else? Is it that I've fallen in love with a country of gods, and earthquakes, and sakura and lion-dog guardians? To judge something like that as a "success" is an understatement. In reality there isn't a word I could put to such a massive thing as my year in Japan. I just want to go back.
What international career skills did you develop?
Probably the most important skill that I learned while I was studying and working in Japan was networking. It's easy enough to network in your own city, but when you're trying to make connections in a place that's completely foreign to you it's a different beast. Forging lasting friendships will not only help you find new professional opportunities, but will also broaden your understanding of life and society.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
Research, research, and more research. The thing that I was worried about most when I left, even more than the language barrier, was culture shock. I've read about how it can ruin a person, both psychologically and physically. So what I did to combat that was to know as much as I could about what it would be like to live in Japan.
What was the most important thing you learned about cross-cultural communication while you were studying abroad?
Communication is a concept that isn't necessarily limited to words. The meaning of a handshake, or a bow from the waist, or a smile often says more than a word ever could. When I was experiencing the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake, I felt more connected with the people of Japan, and felt more sympathy for their loss, than with the people of any other disaster in my own country. Sympathy and empathy are more important than nationality or languages when communicating with someone.
What was your return like?
Coming back was exhausting. With my not-necessarily-bad habit of planning things way in advance, I organized myself so that I arrived at Narita airport nearly a full day before my plane was to leave. I didn't sleep. I did not want to experience the massive amount of jetlag most Pacific crossers do, and so I kept myself conscious with caffeine. Needless to say when I arrived home I was beyond tired. In the first months here I found myself having a hard time settling down. I didn't really fit in anymore, and I couldn't relate to the humor or experiences of people my age so easily. That might sound arrogant, but I do admit that I had lost myself. I had separated myself from the people around me with my exchange experience, and it took a long time and a lot of reflection to come back to the idea that I'm not really that different. It might have been reverse culture shock, but I managed to overcome it and find a new identity for myself. It was a challenging process.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Again, do the research and be thorough when you're making preparations. You can never know enough or do enough to make your trip easier.
What did you miss most about home?
Steak. Hamburgers. Food. The only food that I could find in my area that tasted anything like food from home was McDonald's, sadly enough.
Do you have anything else to add?
No matter where you are or what you're doing or what sorts of things you have to go through, keep your head and your optimism up. It makes all the difference to look at things positively, or to at least see an end as well as a new beginning. Enjoy your life and your environment, be kind to your friends and colleagues, and always wear sunblock.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I set my life up in a series of goals that I want to achieve. I leave room for fluctuation and circumstance that might change the route to my goal. Regardless of what sort of variables come up I still maintain my vision, which is to move to Japan through the JET program to teach for five years. While I'm there I plan on visiting friends in Korea, China, and other parts of the world. After my contracts in Japan are finished I would like to go back to school to either complete my master's in English, or else pick up a dual degree in Japanese language and international communications with the goal of becoming a translator.
Mitchell has given a lot of thought to his specific goals for the future and for that we applaud him. We'd suggest that at some point Mitchell take time to explore and immerse himself in other regions of the world, but for the moment he is determined to learn as much as possible about Japanese culture. We encourage him to network with former or current English language teachers and experts in Japanese language and culture. Professional networking can be extremely rewarding for anyone with an interest in a particular region of the world.
- Check out the entire Teach English Abroad section, as well as the Teaching Abroad As A Licensed Teacher section. The latter explores the options for long-term teach abroad terms.
- Also consider reading The Ideal International Profile to find out the most important traits and characteristics for anyone hoping to build an international career.