This is part 1 in a series of posts offering advice to American undergraduate students interested in studying abroad in Japan.
So you know you want to study abroad in Japan. Great! I spent a year studying there and it was possibly the best year of my life. I had incredible experiences, learned new things, met amazing new people from all over the world, and my understanding of the world broadened. Of course, Japan is a large country (for a tiny island nation, as many will remind you) and the options you have for programs are going to be numerous.
Personally, I would strongly recommend spending at least a semester abroad as an undergraduate. If you are studying Japanese language, culture, and/or literature, then I would strongly encourage spending a year at a Japanese university. Don’t let the fact you don’t have twenty thousand dollars sitting in your pocket deter you—it’s doable! In fact, I spent less of my own money during my year in Japan than I do an average school year in the United States. My next post will be about how to make this more affordable than it might sound. For this post, I will be examining some questions to consider when you’re making the choice.
Should I actually do it?
Yes! I wouldn’t trade my year in Japan for anything, so if you’ve had the thought to go, make it happen! If you are studying Japan or the Japanese language, I would argue that some experience in the country itself is absolutely necessary for increasing your linguistic and cultural understanding.
Now, a different kind of international experience may ultimately be more attractive for you. Regardless of what you’re studying or planning on for a career, some sort of international experience will do nothing if not benefit you. Nothing challenges and enhances your understanding of the world like living in another country and exposure to its culture, and your university career provides the rare opportunity to realize this. Get out of America and experience life in another place and another mode. Be it Japan, China, Brazil, Italy, or Zimbabwe.
What do I want to accomplish?
Do you want to go to Japan primarily to hone your Japanese language skills or to have the opportunity to learn a variety of things in a new environment (while experiencing Japan and working on your Japanese language skills)? Many universities let you choose between intensive language study, classes taught in English, a mix, or even Japanese lecture classes.
Myself, I elected to attend Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies, which was about half lecture classes in a variety of subjects in English and half Japanese language classes. Personally, I am skeptical that my Japanese language abilities would have improved much more (surely a little more) than they did had I chosen Waseda University’s intensive language-only school (bekka). For my interests, I am deeply glad I was able to focus on Japanese literature classes, improving myself as a researcher and writer, and exploring a variety of academic disciplines in a different setting than my home university. At Waseda, I met many fascinating and inspiring professors.
It is worth noting that Japanese lecture classes tend to be less demanding than their American counterparts. Often, little reading material is required, the teacher simply lectures, and you maybe have a short essay or easy test waiting for you at the end of the semester. However, at Waseda I had some professors both Japanese and foreign who still made classes rich and rewarding, and even offered a satisfying challenge through the coursework. On the whole, though, expect something somewhat easier, and do remember that even a relatively unchallenging class can be rewarding if you choose to take something from it.
If your language skills aren’t yet approaching fluent, you will likely want to refrain from attempting Japanese university classes (not language classes for foreigners) in Japanese. You may or may not be given this option. If you are advanced enough, the additional challenge may either break you or push you to new heights.
How long can I go?
I mentioned above that I strongly recommend year-long programs for students of Japanese language and literature, but of course, that will not be practical for many students for a number of reasons. Other commitments (family, work, other education) might require you to not leave the country for so long. In that case, many schools offer faculty-led summer programs for intensive language study. The longer you can stay, the richer your experience is likely to be. It can take a couple months to get used to life in Japan, and if you leave soon after that, you’ll likely feel like you’re cutting your trip short.
Where do I want to go?
Most programs will be offered at universities. Unsurprisingly, these will mostly be in or near Japan’s major urban centers, like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Each of these areas has a distinct character geographically, culturally, and socially. Kanto schools (including the major Tokyo schools and Tsukuba University, out near Mount Tsukuba and home to a fair number of international students) are going to feel very different from Kansai schools (the western part of Japan, including Kyoto and Osaka) and Kansai is definitely .
Tokyo is, of course, very busy and very dense. Most of Japan’s cities are pretty dense in population, but Tokyo’s central areas are packed and the pace is considered pretty fast. For some this is unnerving and for some the convenience and never-ending, sprawling opportunities for events and sights to see (more on Tokyo life in a subsequent post). In contrast, a friend of mine who went to Kyoto said it was beautiful and he got to know it very, very well. It’s an ancient city (the imperial capital of Japan between 798 and 1868) filled with temples, waterways, and surrounded by mountains. Osaka is huge and has a mercantile character, and the people there are famous in Japan for being chatty, more outwardly friendly, and maybe a little flashy (the three days I spent there seemed to broadly confirm that stereotype).
In my own experience, I initially thought I wanted to attend Kyoto as my interests were more oriented to so-called traditional Japanese culture (and my school had an exchange relationship with Doshisha). However, as my interests shifted more toward modern literature and film, Tokyo and Waseda University began to look more attractive. I made the right choice for myself.
Of course, in addition to these three major poles, there are a number of other options. Investigate! If you want to go to Kyushu or Hokkaido, there is likely a viable option for you. While I’d be happy to stay in most any part of Japan, I would prefer to live in Tokyo again. However, I know some fellow students who got sick of it after a time. Research any areas you’re considering going and figure out what sounds the most appealing and exciting.
Where can I go?
Once you’ve decided where in Japan you’d like to go, you’ll have to pick the specific program and school you want to attend. This will probably be partly determined by what connections your home institution has, especially if you want to do an exchange program. My school, the University of Utah, has an exchange relationship with Waseda University, taking a certain number of students from that school and sending a certain number over. As a result, I paid in-state tuition at the University of Utah for one of the most prestigious private universities in Japan. Among all the universities in Tokyo, Waseda would have been my number one choice, so I was lucky. We don’t have a relationship with Meiji University, so if that had been my desire, I would not have been so lucky.
There are other options besides exchange, though. These can often be more expensive. It is possible to do direct enrollment through the schools themselves, but that is most definitely going to be more expensive and may not offer as much institutional support.
One such option is ISEP and I know some students who have used it. They advertise its affordability.
On any such decisions, make sure to consult with your home university. You want to be sure that your credits will transfer, at the very least!