Exchange Program - Life in Japan
By: Grant Weber, Hyogo University (formerly known as Kobe) exchange student, 1998/99
While a year seems like a long time, you'll be amazed at how fast it goes. Just keep in mind that in addition to what you bring with you, you will inevitably acquire more things in Japan, and at the end of the year you'll have to bring it all home with you. I didn't ship anything over before I went so I can't offer any details in that area. Should you decide to take that route I would suggest having the Evergreen study abroad advisor contact The University to inquire where your stuff should be sent.
Clothing will probably be your first consideration. Keep in mind that Japan's climate is very similar to that of the U.S. eastern seaboard. The seasons are very distinct, with hot, humid summers, cold winters, mild springs and falls. You might have occasion to dress up now and then, so don't forget some nice clothes as well. For the most part anything you need you'll be able to find so don't fret. If you're a male with a shoe size over 10 or 10.5, forget about finding shoes in Japan. Bring plenty. Women's sizes I'm not sure of, but if you've got a large foot, you might do well to bring plenty as well.
You'll also need to bring books with you. Namely study materials, dictionaries, and things you'll need for your contract. There are a few places to find English books in Kobe, but in America selections are larger and prices are lower. As per recreational reading, unless you like really esoteric stuff, you should be able to make do with the English books available at Maruzen bookstore in Motomachi, or Shin Shin Do in Sannomiya. Both are easy to find, and everyone knows where they are. Miyazaki on the other hand is extremely limited in English reading material, I would suggest an account at an online bookstore if you need books that you didn't bring with you.
Think about things you think you might not be able to live without. For me it was coffee and music, so I ditched the jewel cases and put my cds in a travel case, and had my parents mail me bags of my favorite beans (Olys own Batdorf and Bronson) periodically. Remember, you're not going to the jungle, you're going to one of the most modern places on earth, so just try to pack light. If you are on medication it would be a good idea to research the availability and legality of your prescription. At the time of this writing (6-99), birth control pills have just now been legalized in Japan, so take nothing for granted. I would recommend looking in travel guides both real and online for further detailed information on this subject. As far as I know, all over the counter medicines should be sealed and in the original packaging upon entry into Japan, and inhalers and sinus medication (anything containing even small amounts of amphetamines) are not to be brought into the country. I'm not 100% sure about this, so if you plan on bringing medicine, some research is in order.
One last thing. Gift giving is a part of life in Japan, so it's a very good idea to bring a number of small gifts for people you'll come into contact with along the way. Specialty food items from the region you come from are best. For example, smoked salmon from the Pacific Northwest, Ghiradelli chocolate from the San Francisco Bay area, fancy canned peaches if you're from Georgia. Just make sure that your items are properly packaged and non-perishable. Use your imagination and remember that these are tokens of friendship and goodwill, so you needn't be extravagant.
You should probably bring around one or two thousand dollars cash with you to start. Exchange it when you get to the airport. Japan is a cash based society. Personal checks do not exist, and crime is extremely low, thus walking around with large amounts of cash is not a thing to be avoided like it is in this country. Furthermore Japan has an amazing national lost and found system, ensuring very high chances that if your wallet is lost it will be returned to you complete with original contents. Exercise caution nonetheless.
If you have money in a major bank account in the states, make sure that your ATM card has some major symbols on it. Call your bank to inquire about international ATM locations. Citibank has an office in Sannomiya (Kobes city center) where you should be able to make cash withdrawals (yen, of course) from your American account. There are also a smattering of international ATM's around downtown Kobe and most major cities in Japan, but they can be hard to find. There is one in the Central Miyazaki station. The good thing about using international ATM's to withdraw from your American account is that you get the best exchange rate. In my case, my parents opened a checking account in my name in their hometown. They mailed me the ATM card and periodically deposited money into that account. Thus I was able to make withdrawals at Citibank ATMs and the international ATMs I mentioned above. Major credit cards are accepted at larger hotels and upscale restaurants, and there are Visa offices in the major cities where you can take cash advances, but like I said, in Japan, cash reigns supreme.
I don't have any experience using travelers checks in Japan, but my guess is that larger banks and exchange offices will give you cash for them, but if you try to pay for a bowl of ramen with one, you might be S.O.L. Once again: CASH!
Japanese College Life
One of the things you'll soon realize is that, like many areas of Japanese life, college life is a bit different from what you're used to. Generally speaking, in America college is the time to hunker down and hit the books, especially if employment later in life is something that appeals to you. For most Japanese students however, job placement is largely dictated by which university they get accepted to, not what they do there. This is why young Japanese students are world famous for studying themselves to exhaustion. Getting into a good junior high school means better chances of getting into a good high school, means better chances of getting into a good college. Thus, for Japanese college students, the battle is over and college is a time to have fun and relax.
"So what do they do when they're not studying?" you wonder. Well, basically they're living it up. Most work part-time jobs in order to make money for the latest fashions. Dating and hanging out with friends are also very popular. Then there are clubs.
There are a few key differences between Japanese college clubs and there American counterparts. While most are sports oriented (soccer, tennis, volleyball, martial arts, etc.), they demand far more of a student's time. The club will also become the core of a student's social sphere. Furthermore, because Japanese society is very hierarchical, the clubs newer and younger members are required to speak up to their superiors, and must also do the dirty work (cleaning the head-quarters, setting up and breaking down equipment and so forth). Though I have no experience with the clubs, the greener who came with me to Shodai joined the karate club and was not only overwhelmed by how much of her time was wanted, but was also made to feel less than welcome at times. Suffice it to say that this is not a warning against joining a club- I'm sure it could prove to be a highly enriching experience, I just think you should think about it carefully before deciding to join. I must also say that there is nothing wrong with not joining a club, it is simply an option every student has. Fear not my dear greener reader, not joining a club will in no way hamper your popularity.
Culture Shock Coming and Going
I hope you do have a wonderful time in Japan. There's no reason you shouldn't. You may or may not experience any culture shock , and even then there are varying degrees. Just try to keep an open mind and when you find yourself puzzled or challenged, try to think about things within their cultural context. What is it about Japanese culture that dictates the why's and how's of what people there do? For example:
One thing that I was taken aback by was what I perceived to be a very shallow, surface level of interaction in Japanese conversation. In other words, a lot of small talk and no real meat. It took me a while to realize that there are reasons behind this sort of interaction that take into account such things as topography, history, and racial homogeneity. One of the interesting things about Japan is that at times it can seem so entirely westernized, while still being very Japanese at the core.
For me there was very little culture shock. For the most part I was very comfortable with my surroundings. The real culture shock hit me upon my return to the U.S. It is still difficult to explain (at the time I've this writing I've only been back for two months), but in Japan people are so polite and considerate of others. Suddenly for the first time I am frightened by Americans, we seem brash, savage, and even dangerous in comparison. This is re-entry shock, and it manifests itself in different ways with varying levels of intensity. I think the degree to which one becomes comfortable in the culture he visits will influence the degree to which his own culture seems shocking upon re-entry. By no means is that to be taken as a warning against immersing yourself. It's just something you should be aware of. In American bookstores I'm sure there are numerous accounts of foreigners experiencing culture shock in Japan. Check out a few, find out what you're in for. When you get back Chris Ciancetta has some excellent literature on re-entry shock. You'd do well to investigate both fronts.
Remember, this is all in the name of learning. This is a chance to participate in an extremely rich experience, one from which you will learn far more than just Japanese language and culture. You will learn more about life.