When it comes to being an exchange student in Japan, I would be the first to admit that I am a repeat offender. My first experience was as a Year 11 high school student, with the Iwasaki Sangyo Japanese Bursary program. I spent two months at Rokko Island High School, Kobe, attending day-to-day classes and living with a Japanese family. I had studied Japanese since primary school, but those two months were definitive in my experience. Japan and Japanese became an integral part of all my plans for the future. I knew that I was going back.
My second experience occurred in university. As an undergraduate, I was incredibly fortunate to receive a Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, to continue my studies and work as an intern in Japan. On a basic level, I was able to enjoy what we would call the ‘standard Japanese study exchange experience’. Nanzan University has an excellent program for Japanese language; I lived with an amazing host family; and, with students from all different countries, my friendship circle became truly global.
At the same time, I was doing a bit more than the average exchange student. My Japanese studies had a purpose: I wanted to be functional and independent, not just as student, but as a professional (shakaijin) by the time I finished in May 2012. I was taking myself to conferences – as far as Boston and Harvard University – and also organising my internships for the latter part of the year. As an intern, I had two immensely valuable experiences. The first was with the Public Diplomacy Section of the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. The second was in the constituency office of a Japanese Diet member from Nagoya. Working as a professional was an altogether different means of self development. I did, for example, have to face an overriding fear of using Japanese to answer the telephone. Facing those challenges and doing that ‘little bit extra’ has created a world of opportunity. It also laid the foundations for my return to Tokyo in 2014.
I am now on my third exchange experience, as a research student on the Japanese Monbukagakusho Scholarship Program. I am based at Tokyo University, and will formally start as a masters’ student in April next year. In terms of language, I am now at the level where I can handle phones, doctors, law and politics lectures and most parts of everyday life in Japanese – and sometimes surprise people when they look up and see that I’m a foreigner. But I’ve still got a long way to go.
People keep asking what it is that draws me to Japan. This is a hard question to answer. I never read manga, never watched anime, never had a family connection to start it all off. My only conclusion is that I first loved Japan for Japanese. I love the sound, the writing, and even the words with the untranslatable meanings. Everything else grew up around that. Someone told me once that Japanese is worthless – that Japan’s time as an economic and political power has passed, and I should study Chinese instead. I took offence. I have studied Japanese for over two thirds of my life. It is part of my identity, and I still see a huge future in it.
This will probably be my last stint as a student in Japan. My next step is to find work here. That itself will be an interesting experience: Japanese students are renowned for the efforts to which they go for a good job. I still have a bit of time in which to build my own strategy. I can still enjoy the freedoms and also the quirks of being an exchange student living in Japan. Tokyo itself has a million things to do, but when I’m tired of city life, the Japanese countryside is my escape. Beautiful mountains, lovely people, and (at least in high-land Izu) some awesome wasabi ice-cream. I have accidently ended up dressed in a yukata wearing cats ears for a local festival; I have learned how to make rice cakes with a giant mallet; and I have met (entirely by coincidence) a Japanese man, now friend, who attended my high school in Australia three years before I was born. It is again these ‘extra’ things that help to build a great experience.
Kate Stevenson is a Monbukagakusho Scholarship recipient currently studying at Japan’s most prestigious educational institution, Tokyo University.