8 Things I Learned While Studying Abroad in Japan

8 Things I Learned While Studying Abroad in Japan


 It's back-to-school time! While COVID has postponed many college students' study abroad plans, this doesn't mean student travelers can't get a new headstart on 2021 study abroad programs. As we speak, even study abroad scholarships such as the Gilman International Scholarship and FEA Abroad have reopened applications for the upcoming year. Before submitting those applications, it might help to have a glance into another student's study abroad experiences. This student is me.

I was fortunate enough to study and intern in Tokyo, Japan for free. I was there for four months at the start of this year. I had a unique experience as a first-generation college student on an international campus. My classmates were students from various income levels, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, but there was truly no one else like me. Interacting with my classmates alongside Japanese civilians was a thoroughly rewarding experience.

To help you guys out, I decided to list 8 interesting things I learned while in Tokyo! I hope you enjoy:

1. Be Passionate, No Matter What

Before Japan, I had never been on a plane. I only left Chicago twice. I was extremely excited. When I arrived, however, I noticed other students were not as enthusiastic. Happy, yes. But not thrilled.

Quickly, I saw that I was a major minority as a first-time traveler abroad. I was attempting to connect with others on the basis of the novelty of our experiences, but the truth was I was the only one in absolutely unfamiliar territory. I won't lie; it was disconcerting. What originally seemed like an amazing accomplishment turned into something much less unique.

I wanted to scream, "Holy sh*t, we're in Japan!" But I found myself subduing my enthusiasm if only to not be the only person in the room totally freaking out. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't. Controlling my excitement really inhibited me from basking in the newness of my experience. It's never great to blind oneself of both good and bad aspects of things, but for a young woman whose entire world was rocked, I deserved to keep glowing.

Then, finally, when riding the train back to our dorms late one evening, a new acquaintance turned to me to say, "Doesn't it feel like you're dreaming? We're really in Japan!" And I felt a grin split my face in two. We gushed for the rest of the ride. She and I are still great friends today.

2. Shopping in Japan is ... Different

Noise. Flashing lights. Scents. Textures. As a marketing major, I dedicated myself to exploring Japan's consumer experience and advertising scene. It was absolutely everything one might expect from a country that pioneered the "kawaii" and "sentai" media subcultures, but why?

Why indeed, did Japanese ads all seem so upbeat, over-the-top and loud? Why were storefronts and shopping centers rife with forty-inch LED screens and salesman calling from left and right?

The answer is that Japan is a very high-context culture. Since Japanese citizens rely on idioms and symbolism to get to the true meaning of their statements, advertising and shopping experiences have to be very, very overt. Instructions are also placed at almost any imaginable location for this exact reason. I encourage anyone visiting Japan to explore its shopping streets, or 商店街 (shōtengai).

3. Japan Has a Nuclear Problem. A Big One.

Most know of the atomic bombs that the United States detonated above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 people. Since World War II, Japan's society still feels the dredges of that horrific disaster. The country's rapid economic and social growth following Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually compelled me to study its culture and history up close.

In my Japanese Language and Culture class, we had a guest speaker discuss Japan's long history of denial. Denial is, in fact, something woven into the fabric of Japanese culture since ancient times. Often, Japanese citizens feel they cannot trust their government due to this. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, there were mass protests; the government was continually dishonest about the extent of damage the nuclear meltdown caused. Now, during COVID-19, civilians are suspicious of the true threat even the virus has on their population.

With Japan's unpredictable weather, its 39 operable plants hold some concern for its citizens. With such a torrid history with nuclear activity, most civilians are extremely fearful of the presence of nuclear power in the country. However, nuclear power is one of the safest combats against other forms of energy due to pollution. Only time will tell what will happen.

4. Hello Chicago!

As a Windy City native, I was surprised to see the sheer amount of Chicago influence on the city. I'm talking even more than New York? Wow. 

Chicago Harajuku. Chicago-style bars. Chicago fashion stores. Even a Garrett's popcorn right in the middle of Harakuku! Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to vet their Chicago-style hot dogs before leaving. I'll be sure to return in order to do just that.

5. English, English Everywhere!

You might be surprised to learn this, but many phrases throughout Tokyo are simply English words rewritten in katakana.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this phrase: ドーナツ! The characters are “dō (ドー) na (ナ) tsu (ツ).” Donatsu. Doughnuts! All katakana words are borrowed from other languages.


6. "Geisha" are not Geisha

Well, they are, but "Geisha" is a gender-neutral term. It means "a person who does art." The proper, historical, and natively-accurate word is geiko (芸子), which is "a woman who does art." 

In Kyoto, some classmates and I took a tour of Gion, a historical district still teeming with relics from Japan's imperial past. We learned from Ken, our tour guide, that "Geisha" was a term popularized in the West by the book, "Memoirs of a Geisha." Geiko are also not courtesans. They are high-class entertainers for rich noblemen. To be a Geiko is a lifelong endeavor and occupation.

7. Globalization is a Two-Way Street

We often speak of eastern nations becoming "Westernized." That is, they often adopt rituals and characteristics associated with those of the West. Colonialism introduced Western ideas to nations in the past. Today, globalization is largely perpetuated through the widespread consumption of American television, film, food, and technology.

My advertising class challenged my innate assumption that America existed in a bubble while influencing the rest of the world.

Buddhist and overall collectivist principles are becoming extremely popular amongst my generation (Gen-Z). Many young people are rejecting consumerism in favor of the Eastern art of minimalism. Young Americans are attempting to model more collectivist concepts, leaning closer toward collaborative effort rather than sole self-gain. Japan itself has also rejected many American norms, rather than adopting them entirely. It's possible that globalization still only occurs on the receiving country's own terms.

8. The Good, the Great, and the Ugly

Imagine a person who has lived in America for just four months saying, "America is perfect. Every country should be more like America!"

Although positive experiences are amazing, no country is truly perfect. We owe it to those abroad to also learn and be mindful of their social issues and struggles. I made the mistake of attempting to overlook the negative sides to Japan when I first arrived, simply because I wanted to remain incredibly excited and optimistic about my experiences there.

When speaking to long-term students and locals about their lives, often I was met with some complaints. Some downright wanted to go home. It was rather dispiriting to hear, especially as someone who heard nothing but great things elsewhere. I suddenly felt like a total jerk for waxing poetically about a country they clearly lost faith in. However, I also thought it was unfair to reduce Japan to being 'bad' overall.

If someone told me that America was great and perfect, it would be very difficult for me to allow that to remain that visitor's sole interpretation. As a Black woman constantly mistreated by my home nation, I would like for visitors to understand the full nuances of our society and culture. The good and the bad. There are very real people in Japan fighting systemic inequality and social injustice just like we are. We owe it to them to learn the full scope of Japan's society, in order to pay respect to their fight.

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