Studying abroad is one of the most unique, rewarding and adventurous decisions one can
make in their undergraduate career—or even in one’s lifetime. Last spring semester, I was
fortunate enough to be able to study in Kyoto, Japan, where I participated in Columbia University’s intensive language program, the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies (KCJS).
Given that I had been studying Japanese for three years and had done extensive research on Japanese culture, one might think that I was fully prepared to immerse myself in the society and that my study abroad would go off without a hitch. However, there were still things that threw me for a loop.
Whether you’re a seasoned expert in all things Japan or a newcomer to the wonders of the “Land of the Rising Sun,” there are some important tips that don’t often make it into the average traveler’s guide. Lucky for you, I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts from my own experiences, those of other Brandeis students who studied in Japan last semester and even advice from Brandeis staff to ensure that your semester or year in Japan will go down smoother than a cup of finely brewed sake.
DO: Keep an open mind and try new things.
I’m going to go ahead and throw this one out there first because it is by far the most
important. For many people, studying abroad in college will be their one and only chance to live in Japan and fully immerse themselves in the culture. Don’t waste this precious time being shy, afraid or a picky eater (dietary restrictions and religious observances aside)—take the bull by the horns and truly experience all Japan has to offer! Emily Choi ’19, who studied at Sophia University in Tokyo, recommends joining clubs, attending seasonal events such as hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing and trying foods unique to Japan, such as sushi, ramen and okonomiyaki.
DON’T: Be convinced that you absolutely have to go to Tokyo.
In speaking with Dr. Matthew Fraleigh, professor of East Asian Literature at Brandeis, he notes that many students believe that they must go to Tokyo in order to have the true “Japanese experience.” Having spent time in Tokyo as well as the rural areas of Japan,
Fraleigh advises that this notion is simply not true. Many cities and rural towns can offer a
rewarding experience. In fact, where Tokyo is highly modern and heavily trafficked by tourists,
the capital may offer a less “authentically” Japanese experience than one might expect. Brandeis has many approved programs aside from Sophia University in Tokyo, including IES Nagoya, CET Osaka, KCJS Kyoto and Princeton Summer in Ishikawa.
DO: Be conscious of societal rules and etiquette and do your best to follow them.
Japan doesn’t get the reputation for being one of the world’s politest and safest countries
for nothing; Japanese people take rules and respect very seriously. This includes not speaking loudly or eating on trains, not crossing the street while the light is still red, even if there are no cars in sight, standing to the proper side of the escalator, using chopsticks in the proper manner and more. Another very important concept in Japan is mottainai, essentially “don’t be wasteful.” Japan is a resource-conservative country, so remember to turn off your lights and air conditioning or heat at night or when you’re not in the room, don’t let water run excessively and definitely don’t waste food—try your best to eat everything you take or are given.
DON’T: Cling to your English-speaking friends for dear life.
I’ll be the first to admit that Japanese can be a painfully difficult language to learn—seemingly endless grammatical constructs, a multitude of particles, and kenjogo and teineigo and sonkeigo, oh my! But stop that descent down the rabbit hole right there! You didn’t travel all this way to trap yourself in an English bubble. Japanese people are often very enthusiastic—and probably relieved, too—when a foreigner knows any level of Japanese, so for your benefit, the benefit of your waiter and that of the kind citizen you ask for directions when you inevitably get lost, use Japanese whenever you can! You’ll find that your reading, writing, listening and speaking skills will improve immensely while living abroad if you do your best to leave English behind in the U.S.
DO: Apply for scholarships and manage your spending while abroad.
There are many scholarships dedicated to supporting students who are studying abroad,
and a surprising amount tailored specifically to students studying in East Asia. If you are
concerned about the financial burden of studying abroad, apply to as many scholarships as you can, talk to your financial aid advisor and talk to your study abroad advisor. One scholarship I would suggest that everyone apply to is the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, as it is the one that gave me the freedom and peace of mind to experience as much of Japan as I could without digging a grave for my bank account. Whether you’re backed by scholarships or not, keep track of your spending because living abroad has a sneaky way of luring our brains into our wallets. Luckily for those of us studying in Japan, the dollar/yen exchange rate works in our favor and since Japan is largely a cash-based country, spending money is a very transparent process. Amy Zou ’19 suggests keeping an Excel sheet of your transactions as an easy way of recognizing your spending habits and planning your budget. Also, be sure to check the foreign transaction fees on your credit card.
Of course, there is much more I could tell you about Japan, but why ruin the mystery?
Just kidding, I have five more do’s and don’ts coming up next week! While the advice listed above was more or less the general and straightforward tips for studying in Japan, next week will delve into more specific actions you can take (or avoid) during your time abroad. Hopefully, these tips and tricks of the trade will help make your transition to Japan easier and help your Japanese skills flourish.