Konnichiwa! It is hard to believe that I am at the halfway point of my time abroad in Japan. Being at the halfway point means I have experienced a lot! Recently, we have started our teaching assistant program at a nearby junior high school that is part of the Kanto Gakuin system. We assist a teacher in an English class and help the students learn English. On Tuesdays, we teach the high school grade 4 level class and on Thursdays we have a casual English lunch break in the English lounge where we talk with the students in English. After that, we help teach the junior high school grade 1 level class. To be quite honest, I wasn’t looking forward to be a TA for an English class at first because English was not one of my strong subjects in high school. Luckily, I reached out to some of my former high school teachers and they gave me strong words of encouragement to be patient and keep it simple. I especially need to have lots of patience because in the grade 4 class, some are not as interested in learning the English language. Some are sleeping, or talking to their friends. The grade 1 class on the other hand, are very energetic and interested in learning the subject. But at times, it can be hard to teach them since they are very noisy.
Now, this post will not be like the others because as much fun studying abroad seems, it will not look like a picture-perfect experience at times (and that’s OK). I will share those challenges that I (as well as others) have encountered during my time in Japan as they are considered learning experiences.
#1 The Language Barrier- this for me is the biggest challenge in Japan since the Japanese language is one of the most difficult languages in the world. In fact, the other Linfield students have said that the language barrier was the most difficult as well. Vanessa Kelly said that with the language barrier, you are “not able to say what you want to say.” Edna Poton mentioned that “it has stopped her from asking questions that she wanted to ask and continuing conversations. In Japan, there is more intricate vocabulary that catches us off guard at times.” I totally agree with both since they are mentioning similar points. In Japan, there are many levels of talking based on rank and statuses of people; ex. boss to his subordinates. Especially in Japan, you have to be very careful when speaking to someone higher than you because there is respectful language called keigo (honorific.) There are also different tense endings that are used when talking about past, present, and future. Even when speaking to friends/host family during a conversation, it is hard to continue the conversation especially when there is a word you don’t know the meaning of, yet you have so much to talk about. Often when I come across a word I don’t understand, most conversations are left open-ended.
And sometimes there are things I really want to talk about that I am able to in English, but many times I don’t know the meaning in Japanese, so I try my best to keep it simple. My perspective on the language barrier is that it is taking a while for me to get through. Sometimes, I feel intimidated when someone is talking to me in fluent Japanese, and I can’t understand a word at all. It also takes a lot of energy for me to speak the language especially there are times when I want to use English. If I am in an uncomfortable situation and someone is trying to help me, I completely shut down and unable to try to speak Japanese. Not a lot of people speak English in Japan, so it sounds very foreign to me and I have to fend for myself. Not only is there the language barrier in Japanese, there are also barriers from other languages. There are many international students from other countries such as Russia, China, and Taiwan. The positive aspect is that it makes the study abroad experience more diverse, but there is also a negative aspect in my opinion. English may not be their first language, so the only way to communicate is to use Japanese, or somehow find a way to learn their native language. In a way, it creates a double language barrier As you read on, you will find that the language barrier can play a role in the other challenges that I talk about.
#2 Standing Out- This is another major challenge that I have noticed in Japan. In the country, a majority of the population is Japanese/Asian. Very few are either white, hafu, (half-Japanese), etc. and that includes mostly tourists. For the two other Linfield students in my group, they easily stand out due to their ethnicity with one being white and other Latino. In my case, it is a little different. Since I am Japanese, I have a Japanese last name and I look Japanese. Therefore, people expect me to know Japanese. However, not being fluent and knowing little about the cultural habits makes me stand out as a 外国人(foreigner). There is a Japanese proverb that says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Japan is a group-oriented society meaning that everyone has to conform to the cultural norms. If one does not conform accidentally, Japanese people really notice, and act very emotional about it. That is why, I have to be careful when blending in with society so that they don’t know I am a 外国人.
#3 Typhoons- In my hometown of Hawaii, we have hurricane season but in Japan, there is typhoon season. The season lasts between May and October, with August and September being the peak season. During a typhoon, there are strong winds and heavy rain showers hitting Japan. Typhoons can impact many things including delays in the rail lines. There have been a few typhoons since arriving, and I remember experiencing one that hit close to my area. One night, I remember the room shaking in my homestay as the wind speeds were about 46 miles per hour, plus the power went out. I was feeling worried as the room kept shaking since this the first time I felt wind speeds at a very high level. Luckily, it happened close to my bedtime and I was safe after that. But it was a scary experience for me.
#4- Making Friends- I remember this point being mentioned by a former Linfield student that studied abroad in the same program. In Japan, people tend to be very shy so you have to make the move instead of them coming to you. I recently interviewed one of the KGU professors for my Japanese culture class, and he is also from Hawaii. He mentioned that in Japanese culture, they are more patient and willing to wait unlike the Hawaiian culture where they are more welcoming. In my case, it makes it really difficult when trying to do things during my free time and there are two reasons. One, is that I am an introverted person so I am shy as well. And two, there is that language barrier once again which makes me unable to say what I want to say to the Japanese students.
#5- Transportation/Getting Around- For me, this has to be the second biggest challenge during my experience. In Japan, the rail systems are the most reliable form of transportation for everybody. I mentioned this a little bit in my first blog that the trains can get really crowded especially during rush hour. You will find many people such as businessmen/women and school students riding at the same time. At times, it can get so crowded that you feel like you are in a can of sardines. Before coming to Japan, I heard that there are some instances where the train station attendants have to push people to fit in the train, but I have not seen that yet. There are also times when there are no seats available that you have to stand during the whole ride, and it can make you feel dizzy. And, as part of the cultural norm, you have to give up your seat to elderly, disabled, or infant-carrying passengers. Unlike McMinnville, Yokohama is a really big city and it can be hard to get around especially if you don’t know where you are going. I unfortunately got lost a couple times trying to get around. The first time was when I was trying to get to my homestay from school by bus. It seems that I kept taking the wrong bus that were heading in the opposite direction of where I was going. I tried to ask the drivers as best as I can, but I couldn’t understand them. Up to a certain point, I gave up on the bus and took the train instead since it was more convenient. I realized soon after that I was at the wrong bus stop, and I was going by the bus number and not the destination of where it was going. Luckily, the International Center staff helped me the next day by showing me the correct bus stop, and I even wrote the destinations down so I don’t confuse them. The second time happened recently on last week Thursday. This time, it was involving the train. I was supposed to go to the Tokyo Stock Exchange for an economics field trip. What happened was I went to the correct platform that the station attendant told me to go, but what I did not realize is that there is more than one train using that platform regardless of what the sign says. So the platform said to Haneda Airport, but I was supposed to go on a train that was headed to Aoto and was the limited express to Tokyo. That resulted in a series of wrong directions, and I never ended up near Tokyo at all. Therefore, I missed the field trip which feels like missing a big opportunity to experience. After that, I felt humiliated, disappointed, upset, and a little bit traumatized. Especially since this was the second time I got lost, I felt like I let the KGU International Center, my classmates, and my professor down. I didn’t even want to go to class the next day or talk to anyone since I blew it! What also made this more complicated was my poor Japanese language speaking ability. Again, when someone is trying to explain directions to me, I just block it out because I don’t understand a single word (plus they don’t speak English). Now that fall break is approaching, I still feel anxious of getting lost again as that memory haunts me.
Because of these challenges I have encountered, Japan still feels like a foreign country to me. Most of the time, I listen to music just to ease my worries. I have also reached out to the KGU International Center, Linfield College IPO, and my host family for support. They all understand the challenges I have been going through. Most of the time, it feels like I am the only one still struggling to get used to Japan, and the others already gotten used to it. On the positive side, the food is really good and because Japan is so fascinating, I feel like I don’t want to go back home. Already, I have gotten an email about course registrations coming soon, and it will be hard to get back to reality once I come back in the spring.
I hope that people that want to study abroad in the future will take-away from this post that you will tend to make a lot mistakes, and that is ok. It will take a while to get used to a new country, just like how we had to get used to being on our own at the beginning of our college career. At times, we may have mixed feelings when dealing with unknown situations, especially when the cultural norms are different. If you ever need help, you can always ask someone, they are willing to guide you. At this point, I am not ready to give up on my journey, and neither should you. If I had offended anyone who is reading this post, I am very sorry. がんばって!（do your best!)