7 Things You Should Know Before Studying Abroad in Japan

So you’re planning to study abroad in Japan? Or maybe you are just considering a stay in this beautiful and far away country? Congratulations! Here are a few things to know before you go.

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  1. You will end up hanging out with other foreigners.

I went to Japan with a misguided vision of cultivating friendships with “the natives.” I mean, that’s why I am flying halfway around the world right? To connect with “real” Japanese. Right? Honestly what was I thinking. >_< My life experience in the United States had taught me that friendships are usually not that simple. It takes time and a lucky chemistry to build a friendship with someone. My “I-am-a-foreigner-in-your-country” wand was not going to cast a magic spell to make everyone my friend.

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I also overlooked the practical considerations of being a study abroad student in Japan. Especially when you first arrive, you will probably spend lot of time with other study abroad students in your program. If you are going to take Japanese language classes, your classmates will naturally be other foreigners. (Native Japanese-speaking Japanese students are not taking language classes! Big surprise, I know.) At the beginning, I was actually a bit disappointed when I met other non-Japanese students, like I wanted to say, “Yes, it is nice to meet you. But I am really not here to make friends with people like you.

It took time for me to appreciate the fortune of connecting with other study abroad students. They provided support to me, as we adjusted to life in Japan. Also I had the chance to meet people from all around the world, who I might not have otherwise met.

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Credit: S. Kinkema.
  1. You will not immediately become fluent in Japanese.

Sorry to disappoint. Yes, spending time abroad * can * be incredibly helpful for learning a language. But no, language learning does not occur spontaneously through the air. It takes effort to learn and improve, even if you are living in the country where everyone speaks that language. When I moved to Japan, I thought my stumbling Japanese would rocket to native level. That did not happen. I still had to look up words; I still had to practice my pronunciation; I still had to drill my flashcards. Living in Japan was definitely good practice. In particular, it helped me become more comfortable and (a bit) less embarrassed speaking Japanese. But it did not happen overnight.

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What to eat for dinner…
  1. Simple tasks will be maddeningly difficult (at first).

When you are living abroad, simple chores that took no thought in your home country will suddenly be mysterious and difficult. I remember one day in Japan when I need to buy shampoo. I found myself standing in the pharmacy confronted by a wall of shampoo options and feeling totally overwhelmed. I had gotten myself to the store where shampoo was sold. I had navigated to the shelf where shampoo was stocked. But at that point, I came to a halt. The brands did not look familiar. I could not read the labels describing the many options. Buying shampoo, which normally takes me 10 minutes in the U.S., ended up consuming an entire afternoon. At the beginning, this process of relearning how to do even simple everyday tasks might be frustrating. Over time though, I began to master these little chores and felt incredibly satisfied. To this day, when I can easily walk into a Japanese grocery store and purchase the item I want, I feel a surge of pride (even though everyone else just sees a person buying milk). 

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  1. You might NOT be lonely.

Before going to Japan, I think I had read too many essays about young people going abroad to “find themselves” and being gripped by intense homesickness. I even met some of these people in hostels in Tokyo when I was just traveling around (but not yet living in) Japan. As I was getting ready to move to Kyoto for a year, I tried to accept the scary idea that I might be crying everyday and calling my mom wishing that I could go home. And…it did not happen. I was able to settle and make a life for myself in Japan. I was able to be brave and go out to make friends. Of course, I missed my family and friends at times. Christmas was especially hard. That was my first (and to this day – only) Christmas that I spent away from my family. But overall, it was totally fine. I wish I had not wasted so much time dreading something that never happened.

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Photo Credit: A. LeClair.
  1. There will be some rough patches.

There are supposedly four stages to adjusting to a new culture – 1) the honeymoon (elation at everything new), 2) culture shock (hostility and intense irritation over minor differences), 3) adjustment (gradual sense of comfort and belonging), and 4) adaptation (being able to live and work to full potential). This suggests that there is a smooth transition from excitement to frustration to comfortable adjustment without any kind of bumps along the way. In my experience, even months after I felt comfortable in Japan, I still had days where things definitely did not go smoothly.

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Sometimes I feel like despite all my best efforts, I am committing one appalling cultural faux pas after another. Looking back at my blog from my year living in Japan, I found an entry dated 10 months after my arrival. I quoted a passage from “The History of Mr. Polly” by H.G. Wells. The passage goes:

At times one can tell so much so briefly… He found a punt and a pole, got across to the steps on the opposite side, picked up an elderly gentleman… ….cruised with him vaguely for twenty minutes, conveyed him tortuously into the midst of a thicket of forget-me-not spangled sedges, splashed some waterweed over him, hit him twice with the punt pole, and finally landed him, alarmed but abusive, in treacherous soil at the edge of a hay meadow about forty yards downstream, where he immediately got into difficulties with a noisy, aggressive little white dog that was guarding a jacket.

At the time I wrote, “This passage is brilliant. I have definitely had these days in Japan. You know, those days when everything goes wrong. The days when I am a blundering and hopeless foreigner.” Happily I found that with time, those days became less and less frequent. And when I did have those days, it helped me appreciate just how much progress I had made in adjusting.

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Photo Credit: A. LeClair.
  1. You will only need half the stuff in your suitcase.

When you are packing, you might worry about what you should bring and what might be hard to find once you leave the U.S. However, in my experience, stores in Japan sell most things that you can find in the U.S. After all, lots of people are living in Japan. They need basic supplies like toothpaste and shampoo and socks, too. One thing that I would recommend bringing is medicine (of course, check that it is legal to bring that medicine into Japan!) After an afternoon in Tokyo trying to find pain medication for my splitting headache, I am careful to pack what I might need. But generally if you forget something, no worries! You can probably find it in Japan.

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  1. You will (probably) not fall in love.

Okay, so this is kind of a joke but… also kind of serious. At the beginning of my year in Japan, I met the husband of another Fulbright grantee. I was freshly graduated from college, and he was several decades my senior. While chatting, he offered me lots of life advice. He told me the most important thing I could do in Japan was fall in love. He seemed quite serious about this advice. He repeated it to me 3 times.

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And it did seem like a romantic notion – traveling abroad, meeting someone new, being swept up in the excitement, and never returning to the U.S. Before I left for Japan, my friends half-jokingly predicted that this might happen to me in Japan. And I met some people in Japan who were preoccupied with finding their partner while abroad. For myself, I am glad that I did not focus on the hunt for love too much. I know it is a cliché but you can’t go looking for love, it has to come and find you. And in the end, I did fall in love (in a way). I fell in love with the adventure of traveling and the excitement of new experiences. That love snuck up on me, and keeps surprising me to this day!

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Photo Credit: A. LeClair.

Thanks for reading! Want to read more? Check out:

9 Things That Are Cheaper in Japan

Hair Salon Experience in Japan

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