A program that allows you to study abroad in Japan can be one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of your life. I spent two months in intensive Japanese language instruction while studying abroad in Japan during college and it is unquestionably something that has left a lasting imprint on my life and my character.
The Japanese are, in my experience, the friendliest, most helpful, and most caring people on earth. Even in this age of lost innocence and hyper-technology, Japan feels in many ways like an isolated, homogeneous place, but one that is extremely welcome to visitors. It’s an odd dichotomy because the culture is so technologically advanced (they were a decade or more ahead of the United States in cell phone technology when I studied abroad in Japan) but the people are still so warm, friendly and in a sense innocently naïve in the most wonderful way.
For instance, the group of us visited a local elementary school to see the building and meet the principal, who was a friend of our professor. The schoolchildren literally treated us like rock stars or royalty; it was for many of them the first time they had ever seen an American before or even a ‘white’ person. The school classes were stopped and many of them just followed us around for the few hours we were there. Could you imagine something like that happening in the United States if a few people from Japan came to visit?
The Experience of Studying Abroad in Japan
Japanese culture, the language, the food, the people, can seem very foreign to an American, but that is precisely what is so appealing about the trip. Sure, anyone can decide to study in London or Australia where they don’t have to step outside their comfort zone for one minute the entire time, but studying and living in Japan requires you to step out of that comfort zone all the time!
From the very first instant you land in Tokyo’s Narita airport to the hustle and bustle of the crowded subways, to the extremely confusing signs for the Shinkansen (bullet train), you are bombarded with overwhelming sensations of fear that this might have been a bad decision. If you fight through it and just take the time to ask for help, you’ll find that even the busiest Japanese businessman will stop and help you more than you ever would have expected to help a lost traveler at home. We literally had someone walk us across a major train station to our particular track, just to make sure that we were on our way properly.
Living with a host family is highly recommended if your program offers it, as you’ll get a glimpse of Japanese family life that otherwise wouldn’t be afforded to you if you just lived in a dorm or hotel during your stay. I was in a mid-sized city about two hours south of Tokyo, and I lived with a set of host parents and their adult daughter. My host father was a doctor with his own thriving practice, but because land and homes are so expensive, their home was what you would call an average (at best) middle-class family home in any American suburb, with an extremely small property.
Japan is an island nation of over 125 million people, yet even though you’ve seen how small it is on the map, what you probably don’t realize is that over 70% of the country is made up of uninhabitable mountains. So they manage to fit 125 million people in just about 25% of the land. This makes for close quarters in every aspect of life, from the aforementioned small properties to the crowded buses and trains. The society is remarkable for its order and rule-following, which must have almost been a cultural necessity given the large population in such a small area.
The Study Abroad Program in Japan
There are many different programs available for studying abroad in Japan, and they are easily accessed through your university’s international education department, your Japanese language teachers, or through the internet. You can study in Tokyo if you want to see the big city life, or you can live in a smaller city or town if you want to experience a more traditional Japanese life. Either way, with the incredible train network available throughout the main island of Honshu, you will not be far from any travel destination you might want to embark on.
There’s no better place to study the Japanese language and culture than in Japan. You can go days without hearing any English spoken (though many can speak English and are happy and proud to try out their English on you), and this type of total immersion is invaluable in your quest to learn Japanese. I fully recommend a study abroad program in Japan, as it was one of the top experiences of my entire life.