I came to Binghamton University my sophomore year to begin studying Japanese language and society. Early on at Binghamton, I realized that because of the requirements I needed before studying abroad, the only way I could would be during my senior year. So when I finally applied during my junior year, the answer was going to make-or-break my final year in college. By the fate of the kami, or perhaps just thanks to the International Education and Global Initiatives office, I was accepted into the study abroad program at Kokugakuin University in Shibuya, Japan from September 2018 – July 2019.
Before studying abroad, I was like any other student full of wanderlust and big plans. I have always considered myself more for my humanity than my American lineage and citizenship. I figured that I could adapt to any culture I found myself in, and was convinced that I would never feel culture shock. But when I got to Japan, that illusion was shattered and so was I.
Day One. 15:00
I can’t believe I’ve landed at Narita Airport! Though I only slept 1 hour the night before, and 1 hour during my 3-transfer 17-hour journey, I think I’m running on adrenaline now. I am worried about my Japanese in this state, but this is an English program, so they’ll probably understand how far Westerners had to travel and– Oh no…
Okay, so I traveled the globe for 17 hours, waited for Canadians at the airport for another hour, took a 90-minute bus ride, got on two different sets of trains, walked for 20 minutes with 80lbs (36kg) of luggage, and now it’s been dark for hours. At least we’re at the dorm finally so I can– a tour in Japanese too?!
Everyone’s trying to communicate with me, but I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s boiling hot, I haven’t slept in forever and my brain is beginning to shut off all systems. They’re staring at me now, waiting for me to test my key in my dorm door, but my stupid hand won’t stop shaking…
Now I can’t sleep, a second wind maybe? Is this culture shock or sleep deprivation?
3 days later
Definitely culture shock.
Yet, the biggest challenge by far has been self-esteem. I was surprised how hard it has been to make friends. The Japanese students don’t always stick to the buddy programs and they don’t always want to speak to students who are less fluent than the others. Sometimes people may be condescending or seem frustrated by your Japanese skill, but even when students are bullies or sensei may seem disappointed, you have to remember that you’re learning for you. Just be a proactive student and anyday you make improvement will still be an improvement. Remember your plan and make smaller goals to reach that plan. For example, decide that everyday you are going to practice 5 new kanji from the back of the textbook or listen to Japanese for 15 minutes. It is better to practice even a little than not at all. Everyone can become an N1 level someday.
Studying abroad is a surreal experience. Everything you’ve learned and read becomes tangible once you can interact with it. You get to learn everything first-hand like you’re the researcher in the field, and you get to have experience with contemporary Japan that scholars probably won’t have accurately chronicled for the textbooks for another 10 years.
Everyone’s experience here will be different. One beginning Japanese student loves to help students practice her native language and goes to parties themed around her culture to find Japanese friends. Another fluent Japanese speaker goes to the gym everyday to try to pick up on Japanese girls. Two of the advanced speakers and one intermediate speaker were able to start part-time jobs to practice their Japanese. Two of the beginner Japanese K-STEP students began dating 4 months ago and travel Japan together. Another intermediate student loves to go off on her own independent adventures, meeting people at underground punk concerts. Everyone has their own way of interacting with Japan, so before you go, think about what you want yours to be.
But if you are planning on studying abroad at Kokugakuin University, I’d like to let you know 10 things:
- Outgoing adventurers are most suited for Kokugakuin University; your schedule here will be packed and people will expect you to be amicable and talkative.
- There are only 16 international students here; not a lot of fish in the sea. So be reconciliatory and try to get along.
- The international students here are usually from Britain, Canada, Italy, Malaysia, Spain, Taiwan and Vietnam. So, it doesn’t hurt to read up a little on their countries so that you don’t seem like an egoist. Also, be prepared to field political questions. (In regards to 2 & 3: This year there is a student who hates Americans. This is something you need to consider as a possible circumstance and think about how to deal with it.)
- “They speak English in Japan.” Yes and no. Japanese have to learn English in school, yes, but a lot of people forget their English or don’t use it, so they can’t use it. Don’t rely on your English and don’t ever expect it.
- Be prepared to use Japanese immediately. As soon my American partner and I got off the plane, we had to field questions to some Japanese TV crewmen and subsequently talk in Japanese to 2 Japanese students who came to pick us up from the airport. At the dorm, the tour was 100% in Japanese and the male and female dorm managers (2018-2019) do not speak English. Be prepared!
- If you’re a native English speakers, the other non-native speakers may default to English with you. If you would prefer conversing in Japanese, just kindly suggest that you love speaking Japanese and would rather speak it.
- Every little bit of Japanese you know will make it easier to read, talk and understand. Study all summer before you come.
- The Japanese fluency test in in December and July. If you plan on taking it while you’re in Japan, keep these two months in mind.
- American adulthood is different in Japan. You are not an adult until 20 in Japan; as such, you can not enter clubs if you are under 20 but you can also drink alcohol at 20. Likewise, you will have a midnight curfew at your dorm, that you will not be exempt from, even if you’re a legal adult.
- Trains do not run all night. Most trains stop running around 1 A.M. Additionally, you should be prepared to navigate train maps and use Japanese to understand them. Google will not be useful for this. Some trains have announcements in English, but not all trains. Sometimes the train will stop because of an accident; check your LINE for updates from the K-STEP faculty during school days or talk to 駅員さん (ekiin-san) to find out how long the delay will be or another route to your destination.
Kendell Ari, a Japanese Studies major, is currently studying at Kokugakuin University in Japan for this 2018/2019 academic year.