Learn more than just the Japanese language in Akita

Here at Asia Options, you can find helpful resources for studying and working in Asia. We also share real-life stories by students about their experiences in Japan. By engaging in similar programs, we hope more students will enhance their knowledge about Japan and Asia as a whole. Be it virtual or in-person! Inspired by Yasmin’s 3 reasons why one should study outside of Tokyo, I interviewed Angus. Like most students, Gus never thought he’d go to Akita to learn about Japan.

Seen here lighting candles using a blowtorch for the annual fire festival in Shiraiwa.
Photo credits: Angus Russo

Angus Russo, or Gus, is a 4th-year university student at the Australian National University (ANU). He studies a Bachelor of Arts with an East Asian Studies major and Linguistics minor, and a Bachelor of Languages majoring in Mandarin and minoring in Japanese. No surprise, Gus’ passion for the Japanese language (and food!) took him to Akita International University – in peak winter!

Q. There are so many languages that you could learn. So, why Japanese?

As a kid, I loved Japanese food, and I still do. At my high school in Year 7, everyone had to study Japanese and French. I enjoyed both of them, but from the beginning, I tried extra hard at Japanese because I wanted to be able to order at a Japanese restaurant. Even though, later experiences of learning that many Japanese restaurants (in Australia) are operated by non-Japanese Asians was a tough lesson to learn. The more I studied Japanese, the more I became interested in the culture.

“I love Japanese food with all my being!” – Angus Russo

Q. So, what made you choose Akita instead of Tokyo?

Actually, I had no choice regarding whether to go to Akita or not! It was the only destination available to students who had completed the courses in Japanese that I had. If I were given a choice of Akita amongst other places, I likely would not have chosen it! However, I am now very grateful I was given the chance to stay in a fairly obscure part of Japan.

Interviewed by local media while helping school kids with ice sculptures.
Photo credits: Angus Russo

Q. Oh? Why not? What changed your perspective?

If you don’t like the cold, you won’t like Akita. But I can now confidently say that all the teaching staff at AIU were incredibly thorough and helpful. If you stay on top of the work given to you, you shouldn’t have any problem doing the course. The program at AIU was very well run, the coordinators, teachers and guest lecturers were all very engaging and rigorous. The immersion in a Japanese-speaking environment helps a lot with Japanese, and the classwork also built on what we learned in beginner level classes before.

“If you don’t like winter, Akita may not be for you” – Angus Russo

Q. What were some of the unique insights you studied from courses at AIU during your time there and how would it help you later in life?

We learned about demographic problems for Japan and specifically Akita, one of the worst affected prefectures. We also learned about local cultural products, traditions and crafts, and how they are being affected by the rural population drain. We learned about a lot of scary statistics regarding Japan’s future in the face of a shrinking population. One thing as well that has stuck with me was learning for the first time the importance of the US whale oil industry in contributing to the ‘Black Ships’ event of 1853.

Some amazing scenic sights in Akita away from the tourist buzz yet to be explored” – Angus Russo

One of the plus points of studying at AIU is that my studies were put in context as he interacted with the local community. I even had an opportunity to participate in a 3-day homestay in Shiraiwa village. Witnessing the urgent rate at which delocalization is taking place, it was hard to imagine the future of festivals such as these, while helping them prepare and execute their winter illumination festival. To me, it was a reflection to experience rural family life and their culture while focusing on the present to establish deep connections with the community unlike future generations would come to know. A truly unique experience!

Q. Looking back at your time there, how would you say your experience has benefitted you since?

When Japanese people hear that I’ve been to Akita, it’s always a great conversation starter since most foreigners know nothing of Akita. Of course, the program helped with my ability to talk about complex issues in Japanese, and it also provided me with a new perspective on the demographic challenges Japan faces.

A photo at the annual Shiraiwa festival.
Photo credit: Angus Russo

Q. What would be your one piece of advice for prospective students interested in going to Akita?

Don’t hesitate to apply. Studying in a city that is not Tokyo can be a very interesting experience, really informative and very well run.

Q. What are the proudest milestones in your Japanese language-learning journey?

I don’t remember ever feeling as if I’d reached a milestone in my language ability. I do have many vivid memories of experiences with Japanese people where, despite whatever level my Japanese may have been at the time, I’ve been able to engage them in conversation, and as a result appreciate Japan and its people more deeply than I would have without being able to speak their language. I am constantly amazed by the hospitality and kindness of Japanese people, especially when you are able to speak to them in their language.

Q. Clearly, you have a passion for Asia and language learning! What are you planning to do with your skills?

It is fun to learn languages! I have found that it opens doors to different cultures. I’d like to use my skills as a JET participant after I finish my degree. In that way, I hope to attain native language proficiency. Later on, I’d like to study security studies and work as an interpreter/translator in strengthening Australia’s ties with Northeast Asian countries.

Make connections in Akita that truly want to know about Japan beyond just Tokyo and Osaka!
During a group project to promote Akita’s food culture. The simple food suited the colder climate in Akita.
Photo credit: Angus Russo

Q. Where has your interest in Japan taken you?

Where it will take me is yet to be seen, but I’ve been able to make many friends and memories over the last 10 years all thanks to being able to speak Japanese.

Never a goodbye.
Photo credit: Angus Russo

We wish Angus all the best in applying for JET and look forward to his career in strengthening relations between Australia and Japan!


AIU is continuing their own summer programs despite COVID. With many cancellations from top tier universities in Tokyo, AIU’s sessions are one of the few programs that are still running. Find more here: https://web.aiu.ac.jp/en/short-term/summer-program/

Read more about the JET Program:

The JET Program: Your Ticket to Living and Working in Japan

Living in rural Japan as a JET ALT: An Interview with Justin Temporal

Interview with JET Programme Coordinator for International Relations: Leianne Chen

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Varsha Patil

A MEXT scholar and an ex-intern for METI Japan, Varsha is a Japan enthusiast. She pursued Japanese studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Asia Pacific Studies from the Australian National University (Canberra). Multilingual in Japanese and Hindi, she continues to explore Japan's affairs in the APAC region while learning Korean and digital marketing.

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