I attended Sophia University’s summer program – an incredible number of years ago. As well, I attended the Shakespeare Institute’s summer session at Stratford-upon-Avon in England, a graduation present from my parents when I received my B.A. in Theater from UCLA. Those were the best two summers I ever spent during my boyhood and enthusiastically endorse studying abroad for young Americans. Japan connected me with my ancestral heritage in the best possible way and England made me a confirmed Anglophile. A study abroad program is broadening, enriching and fun. And I think it made me a better, prouder American.
As a college student, I spent more than a year at Sophia University’s Comparative Cultures Department, studying intensive Japanese language and taking courses in Japanese culture. My language learning began at Sophia, starting from scratch as a child would to master this opaque and easily deconstructed language. I loved the kanji, the ideographs that told their own story, and I found the sound of Japanese soothing… Unlike English, it seemed absent of edges and elbows, until of course I ran into the abruptness of masculine form and delivery.
Sophia was a wondrous place, full of classes on Zen Buddhism, Japanese literature, Meiji history, the archaeology of the Jomon and Yayoi era and classic Kanbun. My intensive Japanese language class attracted a broad range of students from Europe, Asia, and the United States. Our teachers had developed their own methods, having taught the priests and nuns of the Jesuits in Japan for decades, and I remember their strict emphasis on ridding us of our foreign accents. Hours were spent in the labs with NHK tapes, designed to teach hyōjungo to TV announcers. Once released from class, we would burst forth into Tokyo, a mass of foreigners in all shapes and sizes, speaking to each other (loudly no doubt) on the trains in our heavily American, Italian, Swiss, and German accented Japanese!
But my knowledge of Japan benefited enormously from the extra tutelage of the Kuruba family. I lived with them in their home on the grounds of Hakusenji Temple in Sugamo, sharing a room with Michiko whom I had met in the United States. I slept on a futon, ate breakfast in the morning in the cramped kitchen with o-tōsan, a Japanese salariman, and came home at night to the rhythm of Japanese family life—bath, dinner, and conversation about everyone’s day. On the weekends, Keiko, Michiko’s older sister, would come by with her husband, pregnant with their first child. Yōzō was born not long after I arrived, and I got to be part of the excitement of welcoming the first Kuruba grandchild. Little did I know then that I would be part of his life, and the other five grandchildren born in the ensuingyears, for decades thereafter.
The days were structured by my commute between modern Tokyo and shitamachi. I commuted to Ichigaya by the quaint 19th century Tōden, a small streetcar that still operated in the northern part of Tokyo. I can still hear the clang of the Toden bell, and being swayed back and forth as it took its turns around the tight corners of track that hugged shitamachi. At Higashi Ikebukuro, I transferred to the Yurakuchō Line, and entered the 20th century. After hours of Japanese language learning with my cosmopolitan classmates, I would journey back to Hakusenji’s quiet each afternoon. My Japanese mother would be waiting, with o-cha and dorayaki or some other Japanese sweet, ready to help me with my kanji and the Kōjien. Then, we would go out to the market where Hiroko would teach me the names of vegetables and fish, and we would chat with all of the shōtengai merchants. Needless to say, I ended my days exhausted, only to be awakened the next morning by the sound of the temples priest reading his prayers punctuated by long notes of the kane bells.
My study abroad experience led to a research career working on Japan. Sophia was an amazing place, and the centuries old Jesuit pursuit of scholarship in Asia still discernible in the approach to cultural studies. I went on to pursue a PhD at Columbia University in New York with an East Asian Studies faculty in the humanities and social sciences. Later, I returned to Japan many times—to the University of Tokyo for research for my doctoral dissertation and then again several times as a visiting scholar at Japanese universities, including the University of the Ryukyus and Keio University. Today, I visit Japan two or more times a year as I continue my research and writing on Japan as a policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve changed my focus from language and culture to politics and foreign policy, but I still make the journey to my Japanese home in Sugamo. I now have four generations of Kurubas to help me understand the topics of the moment, and still, I have Hiroko to help me with my vocabulary. Only now, at the age of eighty-eight, she uses an electronic dictionary.
My ability to live, work and study in Japan was built upon the foundation of those early years of Sophia and Sugamo. My friendships with the Kurubas and others in Japan have lasted a lifetime, and continue to anchor and enrich my life. I was a different person by the end of my study abroad in Japan, made more patient and I hope more tolerant by those early discoveries. I met many others who came to learn about Japanese culture and society, and continue to listen to the Japanese conversation about who their nation, its past and their aspirations for its future. Perhaps equally important, I learned so much about who I was in my study abroad, and cannot wait for my son to have the chance for that amazing journey, crossing cultural boundaries, navigating differences, and finding himself in the process.
By: Hannah Perry
Dartmouth College, IES Tokyo (Kanda University of International Studies), Fall 2013
Chiba Prefecture, Narashino City, Yatsu. District 2, block 22, house number 4. My home for the next four months. A narrow, cement-brick building three stories high, with each room distinguishable from the outside by a sliding door providing access to a small balcony protected by short iron railing from which laundry could be hung to dry. The downstairs was occupied by a family of four, a mother and father and their two young sons, who oversaw the operations of the dorm and directed the adjacent “Kids’ Club,” a children’s English learning center. The second and third floors housed sixteen residents, both regular university students from Japan and international exchange students, many of which were waiting in the dining room to greet me, since at 9 PM I would be the last to arrive. Night obscured my image of the dormitory even more than my fading consciousness as I stood before the stone walkway leading me through a small, quaint garden area up to the entrance of the dormitory. Besides trying to piece together how exactly I had arrived here in the first place, I wondered how my fall exchange term at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) would unfold.
Disembarking at Narita and rolling my way through customs and baggage claim were a huge blur. And though only two hours had passed, navigating the train system from the airport and wandering the streets of Yatsu in search of my dormitory for the first time were even cloudier in my recollection. However, the initial feelings of overwhelming excitement and perpetual confusion, bitter discouragement and burning determination will forever remain in my memory.
September. Figuring out the independent lifestyle in Yatsu International Dormitory, I realized that my daily activities in Japan would be very different from my ordinary routine back at Dartmouth College, or even the Japanese homestay in which I had participated the previous year. I owe my smooth transition to my “Buddy” Saeko. At KUIS, each exchange student is assigned a “Buddy,” a regular Japanese student who volunteers with the international office to offer guidance throughout the program. With Saeko’s help, I was able to accomplish many tasks during orientation week – procuring a commuter train pass, purchasing national health insurance, registering for classes. Out of the various excursions we went on that week, I consider running errands at local department store our most memorable. For me, everything was novel and interesting. For instance, while in Japanese supermarkets, entire aisles are designated for the vast multitude of brands of soy sauce and seaweed, in US grocery stores these ingredients are typically harder to come by. Conversely, if I was craving a peanut butter, I would unfortunately have to wait four more months to find a jar sold at a reasonable price back at home. For Saeko, my enthusiasm for such ordinary things may have been strange, but this shopping trip became a wonderful setting to engage in an afternoon-long conversation about cultural differences – from a playful comparison of the eccentric but kawaii idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to America’s very own “fashion monster” Lady Gaga, to technical subjects such as the most frequented methods of transportation, to broader issues like the influence of the rigid, test-based compulsory education system on English instruction. Returning together to the train station with bags full of household items, cooking ingredients, and everything necessary to start my journey as an exchange student, I felt so fortunate to have her support in my adjustment to everyday life in Japan.
October. After spending two weeks in class, I was already starting to second-guess my language ability. Earlier during orientation, I had taken a series of placement exams, a combination of written and oral, and entered Interaction Level 4. In the KUIS exchange program, there are six Interaction levels, Level 1 for students beginning Japanese and Level 6 for students who have already passed the JLPT N1. Since I had only studied Japanese for two years in college, I was daunted by the challenge of immersing myself in six high-intermediate Japanese classes with limited kanji knowledge and speaking proficiency. I felt so behind my peers as I spent hours painstakingly trying to make sense of my assignments. While my classmates actively participated in discussion, the extent of my responses to professors’ questions was usually just a quizzical look and a sumimasen, wakarimasen. This month, we would begin our next major class project, directing the rest of the exchange students on a bus trip to Nokogiri Mountain, and with this internal struggle, I was especially nervous about assuming such a leadership role. As we continued our preparations for the trip, from working out the details of the itinerary to planning musical activities to be played on the bus, I came upon a song by SMAP called Sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana, or “The Only Flower in the World:
Sousa bokura wa sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana Hitori hitori chigau tane wo motsu Sono hana wo sakaseru koto dake ni Isshoukenmei ni nareba ii
We are all flowers unlike any other in the world,
Each and every one of us carrying a different seed.
In order to make them blossom into flowers,
We should try to do our very best.
Contemplating the meaning of the lyrics, I realized that instead of comparing myself with others, I could achieve a more positive outlook by accentuating my strengths, improving my weaknesses, and setting individual goals, one of them being a successful bus trip. From then on, I worked to overcome my self-consciousness and contribute my own talents and ideas to class preparations. Taking in the enchanting natural scenery of Chiba at the edge of Nokogiri Mountain, by the end of the month I finally felt that I deserved my placement into Interaction Level 4.
December. Stepping back through security at Narita airport upon my departure, I looked back at Saeko, both the first to welcome me into Japan and the last to wave goodbye. By the end of the exchange program, she had not only fulfilled her job responsibilities as a “Buddy,” but had also become one of my best friends. As I continued to the concourse, I thought of other familiar things that I suddenly would not see again tomorrow. The sign at Yatsu International Dormitory, the cubbies at which we would exchange our outside footwear for slippers, the area in which cleaning teams would sort garbage into groups more specific than recyclable and non-recyclable, the gas range on which my cooking companions and I often experimented with new recipes. Though back in September they were reminders of how far away I was from home, I have come to remember them as symbols of home. Waiting at the gate for boarding, I put on that special SMAP song, which had since made it to the “Most Played” list on my iPod. For the rest of my time at KUIS, whenever I was discouraged I would recall the important message of isshoukenmei, doing your best. Even now the lyrics resonate in my mind, reminding me of what I have learned and experienced over the past semester as an exchange student of KUIS in Chiba, Japan.
As a restless teen growing up in a quiet suburb of Vancouver, Canada, I looked to study abroad not so much to expand my intellectual horizons as a ticket to adventure. Since I would have gone just about anywhere in those days, I jumped at the first interesting offer that came my way: a two-week study tour of France. Organized by the French program at my high school, the tour included visits to places that were connected to Canadian history, like Saint-Malo, the birthplace of the explorer Jacques Cartier, and the Normandy beaches where Canadian troops landed on D-Day. To a 16-year-old who’d never left home on her own or even flown on an airplane, that trip couldn’t have been more exciting. It also inspired my next adventure: a French summer immersion program at Laval University in Quebec City. (Quebec certainly doesn’t qualify as “abroad” for Canadians, but for a native English speaker like me it came close enough.)
Although my engagement with things French proved to be short-lived, that trip to France and summer in Quebec City made an indelible impression on me. Intellectually, I gained valuable insights into French and Canadian culture. Personally, venturing outside of my comfort zone helped me to grow up. Nothing builds maturity and self-confidence like having to fend for oneself on unfamiliar terrain—and in a new language.
As a sophomore at the University of British Columbia, I had an “ah ha!” moment during a class on Japanese history that led to a life-long connection with Japan. Our professor had invited a friend of his from the local business community to address the class about career opportunities for graduates who could “combine a marketable degree with knowledge of Japanese.” It was 1984, just when Japan was nearing the peak of its remarkable economic rise. The message really resonated with me for some reason, and I resolved then and there to learn Japanese, spend some time in Japan, and become an international lawyer.
As luck would have it, I did not get to Japan until several months after graduation when I landed a two-year position as an English teacher with a northern Hokkaido branch of the Japan YMCA. Not exactly “study” abroad, but it was a formative experience nonetheless. I traveled the country, worked on my Japanese, and made several friends, all the while learning things about Japan that could never be gleaned from newspapers or college textbooks. And as often happens when people struggle to adapt to new cultures, I learned more about myself. I got a better sense of my strengths and weakness, my likes and dislikes. I also realized that my temperament was ill suited to the legal profession and that I would be happier pursuing an academic career in Japan Studies—a realization that would have come much too late had I gone straight to law school after college.
I returned to Japan again and again in subsequent years. In 1991, I arrived for a one-year stint of Japanese language training at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama, followed by nearly two years of dissertation research in affiliation with Keio University. Those years were very eventful ones for me, filled with exciting new experiences and, yes, plenty of challenges, both personal and academic. There were times when I thought seriously about throwing in the towel and taking up a new profession that didn’t require such heavy personal sacrifices. But I stuck with it in the end, and I’m so glad I did because my work in Japan soon opened doors that I never thought existed. I remind myself of this every time I make my annual two-week sojourn to Tokyo as a Japan Studies professor.
Clearly, my study abroad and other foreign adventures had an enormous impact on my personal and professional development. I often share those experiences when I encourage my students to take advantage of similar opportunities. Live outside your own cultural box for a while, I tell them, and see where it takes you. Take a chance before life’s responsibilities pin you down!
Next year, my seventh-grade daughter and I will mark milestone birthdays. To celebrate, we’ve decided to travel somewhere special for a couple of weeks—just the two of us. I let my daughter pick the destination, so long as it was a place that really intrigued her.
In my role as a teacher at a Japanese High School, I have developed a great desire to instigate change and reform in the archaic Japanese education system. I have come up with two unpleasant conclusions through my teaching career. One, most of what is taught in school is increasingly irrelevant. Students see no relevance or practical applications in what they are forced to learn. This process rewards students who can perform effectively while completely bored, while other students are penalized for individualism and excessive creative thinking. The Japanese education was designed to create corporate soldiers and puts great emphasis on coping with boredom, enduring physical and psychological hardship, and respecting hierarchy. It doesn’t encourage the development of analytical or creative skills. In the past, it has not produced many great thinkers. The skills that served the corporate soldiers well in the Post World War II industrial environment are of decreasing importance today. My other conclusion is that the rote learning hierarchical approach makes the education experience oppressive and actually kills curiosity and analytical ability, at a time in human history when these skills may be most needed.
When I decided to quit teaching, my long term goal was to become a principal at a progressive educational institution which teaches students the skills they will need to function in a world of declining resources, diminishing social and political stability, an ever worsening environment, and increasing physical danger. I was researching professional schools in Japan to think where I should spend time to deepen my knowledge in Education. Unfortunately, there was no school that excited me in Japan. Once I started researching professional schools in the United States, I was astonished by the number and the quality of the graduate programs. It didn’t take me too long to decide to study abroad.
Harvard offered a unique opportunity to think about education in both the most abstract and practical terms. It was very interesting to gain a historical overview of curriculum development and organizational change (forefront leadership theories). I was very impressed of the deep learning you can get from an environment that theory and practice is together. As taking courses, I had an opportunity to do a year-long internship in a Charter school. This gave me an opportunity to not only learn theories but also implement what you learned in class into a real life situation which leads to “true” learning.
I have always inherently believed that a high quality education system is one of the main pillars for any successful society. Never more so than in these times of monumental change across all aspects of society in Japan and around the world. I was particularly attracted by Harvard’s philosophy of forward thinking education being vital for our society’s future. I had great inspiration throughout all my educational studies from many of the Harvard faculty members who have had such an effect on reshaping the American education system in a way that we need to emulate here in Japan. In the future, I envisage becoming an educational leader not only in Japan but across Asia, and understand that applying the philosophy and teachings of Harvard was fundamental for my future success.
In the 1960s, Japan was a distant and rather unknown place for people of my “baby-boom” generation—the war and occupation were over and the onslaught of Japanese brand-name consumer products had hardly begun. Air travel was also expensive; the only trip I made out of the country before Japan was a brief summer vacation foray with my family to Quebec. My interest in Japan began in September 1966 when a very cute Japanese girl showed up at the beginning of my senior year in high school as our American Field Service exchange student. We went to the senior prom the following spring and dated a few times more before the school year ended and she had to return home. I spent the next four years in college desperately trying to figure out how I could get to Japan to reconnect—and this was long before either the JET program or other English language teaching opportunities. Luckily my school, Amherst College, had a longstanding relationship with Doshisha University (since its founder, Joseph Hardy Nijima, was an 1870 graduate of Amherst, the first Japanese to obtain a B.A. in the United States) and sent a just-graduated senior to Doshisha each year to teach English. I managed to obtain that fellowship, and off to Japan I went in the late summer of 1971.
Having never been outside continental North America, Japan was truly an eye-opening experience for me. My fingers cramped up the first week from using chop sticks at every meal; my legs cramped up from sitting on the floor; the lack of flush toilets assaulted my olfactory senses, and the crowding on trains (far worse than today) crushed my suburban New Jersey sense of personal space. But I happily spent the year at Doshisha in Kyoto with only light teaching duties (one undergraduate and one high school class). I lived in Amherst House, a theme dormitory (an Amherst-financed 1930s imitation of Amherst fraternity houses) for students with an interest in the United States. I gave these students a weekly seminary on whatever I wanted concerning America, but mainly just hung out with them. The friendships I formed that year with the Amherst House boys at Doshisha remain with me today. A full year in Kyoto gave me ample time to explore temples, Imperial villas, and other sights at a leisurely pace. My favorite remains Sanzen-in (in Ohara just north of the city). Nothing compares to sipping tea on its veranda while contemplating the flowering garden in spring rain.
And what of my high school romance? We reconnected as soon as I arrived in Japan and were married the following spring. Her parents had not objected, although my father-in-law vainly suggested that we wait until I had completed graduate school. In those days, though, we certainly did get occasional unfriendly stares on the street. Up until this time, I had given no thought to Japan as part of my career, but getting married caused me to explore the possibility of combining my undergraduate major of economics with Japan. Luckily Yale University was a place where I could do so, and afterwards was able to find a job in Washington at a Japanese-financed research institute (well before either the U.S. government or American think-tank world had much interest in Japan). We have now been married 42 years, and I am coming toward the close of a satisfying career of writing and teaching about the Japanese economy and bilateral economic relations.
As a student studying abroad, I spent four of the most breathtaking and profound months of my life in Japan. I left that country filled with unforgettable memories of awe-inspiring places and bonds with people that will last me a lifetime. Though I have more to talk about here than can be contained in such a short response, I do want to focus on one particularly inspiring experience: my trip to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is an awe-inspiring city with an effective blend of natural beauty and urban delights. To think that a city could be devastated by a force as powerful as an atomic bomb and rise from the ashes to become a sprawling, modern center like it is now is almost beyond comprehension. Walking through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and looking at the diagrams of pre-bombing Hiroshima really drove the point home. You could clearly see all the landmarks that we walked by during the drive over represented distinctly in the diagrams: the bridge, the river, the city center the dome. All of these were reduced to rubble after the bombing and yet here they stand: rebuilt and improved. Granted it has been almost 70 years now since the bombs were dropped, but even so. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the immense strength and unity it must have required for the Japanese nation to have taken a catastrophe of this magnitude and turn it into a monument for world peace.
I had been put into a tour group in order to see the museum as efficiently as possible, but when I got the chance, I slipped off and took a detour by myself. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave the museum or anything, quite the opposite. I really wanted a moment alone to see the peace memorial without the distraction of chatter and hubbub. From inside the museum, I could see the memorial cenotaph. At the time the area surrounding it was empty and I wanted to get down there and explore it in solidarity. Walking up to the cenotaph itself, I took careful notice of all the architecture of the monument. From marble tiles to an elegant fountain, the beautiful construction of the monument was an odd contradiction to the unsettling truth it sheltered. Here, the world buried the souls of thousands of A-bomb victims; their names, inscribed onto a couple of granite plates and then sealed in history along. As I gazed into the memorial, transfixed upon the tomb, the thought that these very souls would never live, laugh, or dream ever again evoked a heart-wrenching pity from me. So many lives just carelessly tossed away; human lives cut short through no fault of their own. The insanity of all it disturbed me, but the humanity in how the Japanese were able to build on this tragedy, erect this beacon of hope and move on, inspired me.
The saying goes that there are no lessons learned in victory, only in defeat. For the victims of the A-bomb tragedy and their families, this seems so very true. All of the features of the monument served as a reminder to never repeat this mistake again. In the waters surrounding the pond, there were plaques that had messages translated into several languages, eulogizing the victims and offering apologies for their deaths. All around the memorial there were inscriptions of the word peace written in a multitude of languages. The Peace Flame stood as a constant reminder that as long as there were nuclear weapons in the world, there could never be true world peace. As I stood there, silently observing and taking this all in, waves of conflicting emotions clashed within me. There was frustration. There was patriotism. There was guilt. There was anger. But most of all, there was a deep, profound sadness that persisted throughout my entire detour to the cenotaph.
I watched an old couple walk up to the front of the memorial. The wife of the man held
his hand as he shuffled toward the flowers placed at the base of the memorial. This man, as fragile and aging as he was, was making his daily trip to the memorial in order to pray for the spirits of his fellow man. I watched them, touched at the entire ritual. They stepped forward in unison, clasping their hands together and then bowing for a good two minutes. Afterwards, they muttered something unintelligibly and solemnly departed. As they walked away, I could feel a sense of serenity between the couple: a feeling that they had put to rest not only their own spirits, but the ones of the deceased. Looking back to the now empty memorial, I was inspired to follow their example. I would, too, pay my respects for these people.
With heavy heart and a distraught mind, I marched to the front of the memorial and slowly raised my hand to my forehead in the American salute. I must have stood there for maybe ten minutes, my body invigorated from the significance of the ritual. However, my heart and my mind received no such reprieve. Standing there with my eyes closed, I listened to the whispers of nature around me: the gentle summer breeze blowing the trees, the buzz of all the wildlife in the area, the swishing of the water from the pond beside me. They brought to mind the silence that must have enveloped Hiroshima the moment the bomb went off. They brought to mind, the silence of the survivors, unable to come up with the words to express what they’d just experienced. They brought up the silence of 50,000 souls who no longer had a voice in this world. And it was these poignant thoughts that finally pushed me to my limit. I don’t know for how long it was, or when it had started, but I was crying. Standing there with my back erect and my arm in salute, I was crying. Even though I had lost no family in this event; even though I wasn’t even from this country, the human being inside of me felt the injustice of it all and wept. When the field trip was nearing its end, I remember being in my room, staring out the window, and feeling a sense of endearment to this place. Millions of people live in Hiroshima and go about their lives just like any other citizen of this planet, but they are special in that their home is entangled with the memory of one of the worst tragedies to occur in human histories. All over the world, there are advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, but they all look to Hiroshima to lead the charge. For these citizens are the ones who must live with actual memories of an atomic bombing. They are the ones who have the first-hand accounts and can truly describe what it feels like to lose a loved one to nuclear weapons. Reflecting on this notion in my room, I was truly thankful that the people of the city could share their experiences with me. Though it wasn’t always easy to swallow all the emotional turmoil that went with this visit, I left Hiroshima a better person. To this day it will remain one of the highlights of not only this trip, but of my entire life. To Hiroshima, I left a prayer, but to me, it left something even more profound. To me, it left the strength and resolve necessary to pursue a peace: a peace it was robbed of: a peace that needs pursuit: a peace that is the right of every man, woman, and child in existence today.
I left Japan a changed person. It is one thing to read about a tragedy in your books, but it’s another to see the names of the dead etched onto a stone tablet; to reach down and sift through the gravel that marks their graves. Moments like these are the ones that breathe new life into your being and remind you just what it means to be human. To all my benefactors and supporters, I’m eternally grateful that I was able to come to Japan and have this experience. My only wish now is that others too can come to this beautiful country and have the same happen to them.
by Masako Notoji Masako Notoji is a retired professor of American Studies from Tokyo University. She served on the Japan CULCON Panel for six years.
The very first Japanese individual who experienced a home-stay in America was perhaps the young fisherman Nakahama “John” Manjiro (1827–1898), who had been rescued from his drifting ship by Captain William Whitfield to spend three years from age 16 with the captain’s family in Fair Haven, Massachusetts. There Manjiro learned English, Math, navigation, and ship-building skills before he returned to Japan in 1851. The beginning of the Japan-U.S. encounter would have been much more difficult without the contribution of Manjiro’s interpreter skills, knowledge, and personal dedication.
It’s obviously unrealistic to compare Manjiro’s dramatic life in the mid-19th century with what we experience today, but the fact that he was brought to the U.S. alone and was treated as a ”real” member of his host family and the local community remains a key to personal growth, self-discovery, and the development of deep, mutual understanding.
My first experience abroad was at the Seattle suburb of Edmonds, Washington, where I spent my high school senior year, 1966-67, as an AFS exchange student. To share the day-to-day joys and sorrows with an ordinary family is perhaps the best way to understand a society different from your own, and I was fortunate to have a wonderfully generous and loving American family to host me for an entire year. Those were the days when the exchange rate was 360 yen to a dollar, and international telephone calls home were unthinkable for a teenage student. At the end of this total immersion in life in the United States, I had a strong desire to seriously study this dynamic and intriguing society, and decided to major in American Studies at the University of Tokyo. I chose to do my graduate studies at UCLA and eventually spent a good part of my professional career of teaching and doing research on U.S. popular culture and ethnic relations at the University of Tokyo.
Through these studies in the U.S. at different stages of my life, I have met and made lasting relationship with many individuals. How mutually important such a network of friends could be was brought home to me when the great earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan in the spring of 2011; the people who emailed me in the immediate aftermath of the disaster included my American family and many from my student days at Edmonds High School and UCLA. I had stayed in contact with many of them, but in March 2011 some took great pains to locate me to offer their assistance and encouragement. This is just one illustration of how long and deeply my life has been touched and enriched by studying in the United States.
Looking back, I feel it was important to expose myself to a different culture when I was relatively young, full of curiosity and the spirit of adventure, albeit with my personal immaturity and language and other difficulties. I was allowed to make mistakes, experience misunderstandings and frustrations, and deal with life on new terms, all of which contributed to my personal development and my learning the skills for interacting with Americans and other international individuals from different walks of life.
Flexibility of thought, sense of humor, and the fundamental belief in the possibilities of mutual trust that I learned from my overseas experience proved to be particularly helpful when I was later involved in various cultural and educational exchange relations between Japan and the U.S. in a more official capacity. During the period between the mid-1990s and the 2000s, I was one of the initial faculty team to launch a short-term undergraduate exchange program between the University of Tokyo and several partner universities in the U.S. and other countries of the world, and as part of my public service outside the campus I joined the Japan CULCON Panel and the Fulbright Commission to work with members of the U.S. government and various cultural institutions.
In addition to the tremendous personal gain from the experience abroad, I would like to emphasize, as I regularly do with university students around me, that the face-to-face encounter with an unfamiliar culture is increasingly more valuable in today’s world of ever expanding globalization and sophisticated communication technology. There is a greater need for a young generation of individuals who are able to collaborate with others of diverse backgrounds and ideologies in finding common values and creative solutions to new crises that challenge the humanity toward the mid-21st century. Study abroad still is a reliable source for opportunities and hopes.
Picture: Masako Notoji in front of her ancestral home, where she hosts visitors from overseas.
My name is Joelle Metcalfe and I was a Bridging Scholar in 2009 – 2010 at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Since my time in Kyoto, I graduated and returned to Japan to obtain a Master’s degree in East Asia foreign policy at Waseda University, focusing on Japan’s diplomatic relations with North Korea during the Koizumi administration. I interned for a number of organizations related to Japan’s foreign policy, including a Washington DC think tank, the US government, the United Nations, freelance for the Japan National Tourism Organization, and the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo bureau. After graduating from Waseda, I now work at my first job as a reporter for a major Japanese newspaper, assisting coverage of the United Nations in New York. Without the Bridging scholarship, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get as far as I have, and the reason why is because this scholarship gave me one chance that I chose to take very seriously given the financial and time constraints of study abroad.
If I were to give advice to a Bridging Scholar studying abroad in Japan, controversial as it may sound, it would be this: don’t sit at the “gaijin table.” I use that term in reference to my experience, in which I would observe a picnic table where a large group of the study abroad students would sit together everyday conversing in English, separating themselves from the Japanese students in the cafeteria. But in a broader context, my advice for any study abroad student in Japan is don’t surround yourself solely with the English-speaking student atmosphere if you came to Japan to learn the language.
In this sense, I am an advocate for a 24-7 immersion strategy: as much as possible, as often as possible. At Ritsumeikan, I would try to limit my English outside of the classroom and avoid clubs meant for international students, including language exchange or English tutoring programs. On the way to school, I would listen to NHK news podcasts on my headphones, and even if I didn’t understand some words, I would write down the repetitive ones and look them up later, as news is practical and consistent enough to learn vocabulary. After class, I would go to the club building and meet with my cinema circle and we would sometimes go to the theater to watch domestic movies, which helped visualize words and actions. In the evening, I would meet up with other Japanese friends at an izakaya, which is common for students to do, and it helped my listening and colloquial conversation skills so I wouldn’t sound like I was talking from a textbook.
The logic behind this was knowing that my time in Japan was limited, and I didn’t know if I would be able to go back, so I wanted to spend every waking moment submerged only in Japanese. Around campus, I would often seek out conversations with Japanese students that were not interested in studying English, so there would be no “safety net” if I got stuck in conversation. I was not the only student to immerse myself during the term; others in my class chose clubs like Yosakoi dancing or soccer in order to jump headfirst into an extracurricular surrounding (which Japanese students prioritize more than class), with positive results on their language ability and lifetime friends.
During the period I was a Bridging Scholar, my junior year in university, I passed the JLPT N2, which meant that I could concentrate on passing the JLPT N1, the final fluency certification exam, in my senior year. This progress in my language learning greatly helped the scope of my future plans, as those looking for work in Japan are expected by many Japanese companies to have a JLPT N1 certification on their resume, which is something I don’t think students are often told. After my study abroad, I wanted to prove foremost that there are other career routes that Japanese language majors can take besides teaching English in Japan, which I was often told at university is the major career route. Personally, I cannot agree with English-teaching as a career path as I don’t feel it justifies the hours and thousands of dollars of tuition I spent to learn Japanese.
My study abroad at Ritsumeikan is the period of my life that I treasure the most and that first exploration of Japan was the happiest time for me, but I will not sugar-coat the immersion strategy–learning a language is uncomfortable and intimidating. Even with four years of language classes, there is no magic wand you can wave where you will suddenly be fluent in all 2000 daily-use kanji or the punch-lines of Japanese comedians. There will be words you don’t know, embarrassing cultural faux pas, and sometimes even the threat of being isolated. Putting yourself in an English-speaking bubble with a close group of international students may feel like it’s much easier, but I found that it was through listening to natural conversations in Japanese by a group of peers in a social setting that I could recognize speech patterns that would self-correct my own way of speaking over time; if you stay in the bubble, you stay the same. No matter what proficiency level you are, you’re going to have to be stubborn, sit with the Japanese students, put yourself out there and talk; more often than not, they will not be the ones to strike up the first conversation. If you don’t speak, you won’t learn.
Kimono, literally, “thing that you wear,” is a simple word for a vast cultural institution. I first became fascinated with kimono during my self-initiated exploration of Japanese history and culture during my teenage years. Right around that time, Arthur Golden’s acclaimed novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, graced the New York Times bestseller list. The book’s thoughtful descriptions of these ornate robes, with their intricate embroidery, silky textures, and myriad of parts left a deep impression on me. It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to don a kimono myself, as a high school exchange student in Fukuoka, Japan. Although, the outfit selected for me was not as sumptuous as those worn by the geisha that I had read about, this thrilling experience paved the way for me to incorporate kimono into my own life as a student of the art of kimono-wearing (soudou). The kimono has also become the lens through which I reflect on my study abroad experience as a whole. Just as we say that you must walk a mile in one’s shoes in order to empathize with that person, I’ve found that dressing up in kimono has helped me to better appreciate Japanese culture.
Even the most enthusiastic study abroad student faces discomfort and awkwardness when they first immerse themselves a culture that is foreign to them. Often they lack confidence in their foreign language skills, feel bewildered by local customs, and do not know how to connect with their hosts. Similarly, when I first began wearing kimono, I could not help but be distracted by the uncomfortable feeling of being tightly bound up. That is because, in order to create a smooth, even silhouette, kimono wearers must wrap and pad themselves with specialized undergarments that eliminate one’s curves. Thanks to my American figure, hiding my curves involved several feet of folded towels and a hip pad custom-made by my sensei!
Wearing a kimono also imposes restrictions upon one’s movements that affect simple actions like walking and sitting. As a person who tends to power-walk everywhere, learning how to take small, demure steps required a conscious adjustment. Sitting in seiza, with one’s kneestucked beneath the body, is a posture that flatters the straight, clean lines of a kimono. However, for the longest time, I couldn’t help but tilt and squirm while trying to sit that way, in an effort to keep my calves from going numb. The more I practiced wearing kimono, and the more I learned about the mechanics of the garment, the more I was able to gradually shift my focus from feelings of physical discomfort to a sense of accomplishment at being able to take such an age-old foreign practice and make it my own. I also began to see myself as more refined and ladylike. Perhaps most importantly, the reactions of my sensei and other Japanese people who complimented me on my “kimono look” helped me to feel more integrated into the local culture and community.
The art of kimono wearing also gave me insight into the tangible objects and intangible qualities on which Japanese people place great value. First and foremost in my mind is the importance of form, and attention to detail. One must be very meticulous when lifting, tucking, folding, and tying the various parts of the kimono in order to make sure that seams align just so. This requires a kind of manual dexterity almost akin to a sixth sense, as often times one cannot rely on a mirror for guidance. The patterns that decorate kimono fabric — cascading flowers, graceful birds, and majestic landscapes, to name a few — a convey hints of the deep reverence for natural beauty that pervades Japanese culture. Many kimono are also decorated with depictions of everyday knickknacks from a time long ago, like fans, toy balls, and jewelry boxes. Others have sprawling designs in gilded threads that depict historical buildings or streetscapes. In my mind, these types of images represent an appreciation for a rich past whose elegance reverberates through the present.
Although I would never dare to pass myself off as an expert on Japanese culture, I do feel that the experiences I had as a study abroad student and, particularly, my engagement with kimono provided me with a more in-depth perspective on the country than I could grasp from books and films alone. Furthermore, draping myself in kimono also enables me to add a layer of almost ethereal sophistication to the regular, everyday me. I would encourage all young people to study abroad in order to see what new insights they can uncover about the world and themselves.