From anime to cherry blossoms, sushi to futuristic robots, images of Japan are often diverse, colourful, and multidimensional. Some images rest heavily on stereotypes, others are shaped by real images of Japan’s exciting and unique culture. Having chosen to study abroad in Tokyo this year, my ideas of Japan and Japanese culture have been both challenged and reinforced – Japan is both similar and completely different to so-called western ideas of what the country is like. I decided to ask some of the other international students in my dorm what their impressions and experiences have been studying abroad in Japan, and how they would compare their recollections with their home countries.
Studying abroad in Tokyo perhaps initially reinforced my image of Japan’s futuristic high-rise cities dominating the country. Yet, what my friends most remarked upon for their favourite parts of the country was the nature and diversity of places you can travel to within the same country. And, as a country home to many ‘food tourists’, it is not surprise that the food also is a firm favourite in Japan. An American friend remarked that: “I’m Asian American and have never had such consistent or cheap access to East Asian food before. Being surrounded by so many little shops for ramen, sushi, and udon makes me very happy!” Indeed, Japan is dominated by a plethora of food options, something that makes for a diverse eating experience.
As for the actual ‘studying’ part of the year abroad, the image of Japan’s universities as academically rigorous institutions focused on rules and regulations was contradicted by my friends. One friend studying in The Netherlands called in comparatively “quite easy” and a Swedish friend compared it to “studying in high school”. Another American friend put it well when she described the attitude towards university in Japan as “the summer of our lives” – a period of levity prior to working life. For her, “university culture is so much more relaxed.” The more lenient attitude towards university makes for a good environment to travel and experience Tokyo life.
When December arrived, Tokyo was decorated by a variety of Christmas lights and displays. With just 1 million Christians within a population of 125 million, it is unsurprising that a Japanese Christmas is more than a little bit different! A Swedish friend remarked that a Scandinavian Christmas is a “huge family holiday”, with a wide range of traditions, like Christmas markets and lights. Though Japan also installs some similar displays during December, one friend remarked that it is an “interesting concept”. Indeed, she said “they have a few small Christmas markets, but it doesn’t have the same magic as the ones I am used to. And during Christmas, they usually celebrate with their partner by eating KFC.” Indeed, KFC’s Christmas sales make up about a third of the chain’s annual income! My friend drew a comparison between the commercialization of Christmas in Japan with stereotypical images of American celebrations. Yet even an American friend remarked that “KFC is a huge thing in Japan. Most Americans wouldn’t consider that Christmas dinner!”
Life in Japan is not always easy, for locals or for international students. As one Swedish friend put it: “I think the greatest challenge was the culture shock in the beginning. Tokyo, and Japan in general, is very different from anywhere I’ve even been, and it took some time to get used to.” The unique culture can take some time getting used to – even navigating Japan is hugely different to anywhere else! The language barrier is also a steep difference between Japan and most countries. A Polish friend of mine speaks conversational Japanese. Yet, she says that the barrier is “so hard that it is sometimes a bit difficult to talk to others. Something I miss is just being able to talk to random people and learn more about them.”
Yet, my friends have largely fallen in love with Japan and all it has to offer, despite its challenges. Indeed, an American friend describes it perfectly: “It is chaotic, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You meet so many amazing people while studying abroad, and this experience has really changed the way I see the world around me.”
Image: Jess Donaldson