A Semester in Tokyo

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A Japanese businessman entering through the main gate of Zojoji Temple in Tokyo.

To me, Japan has always seemed to be a place where modern and traditional life overlap. Tiny shrines are tucked neatly between high-rise buildings, and businessmen dressed neatly in suits take shortcuts through the courtyard of a temple on their way to work. Most people wear western clothes on a daily basis, but every once in a while, a woman wearing kimono will walk past. Even the language is a combination, integrating three writing systems into one fascinating, complex tool for communication. 

I went to Japan intending to learn about Japan, but what I found was so much more than that. My school was known for its international program, and I was surrounded by foreigners in my classes at school and when I returned home to the share house I stayed at. My roommates were from Singapore, Korea, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and China, and my classmates exhibited just as much diversity, if not more.

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A few of the incredible people I met, posing in front of the somewhat famous “LOVE” statue in Shinjuku.

Living in Japan was a perfect chance to explore my GLI theme of Culture and Politics. As a foreigner, and living with other foreigners from all across the globe, I got a glimpse into what Japan is like from many different perspectives. My experience as an American in Japan was not the same as many of my friends. One day, I overheard a conversation between my classmates from Iraq and Pakistan reflecting on the fear they both had had of being rejected when applying for their student visas to Japan—a fear I had never experienced. My Korean roommate was often harassed due to her ethnicity, at work and in her daily life, despite the fact that she spoke Japanese fluently and had graduated from a Japanese university.

I got the chance to learn about why this subtle (not so subtle) racism exists in Japan. With Japan’s recent history as a colonial power in Asia, Japan portrayed itself as a “liberating power” to free other asian nations from western rule (then place them under Japanese rule). However, with Japan being Asia’s first industrial success story, the idea that Japan was superior or especially exceptional took hold, and remnants of this belief are still seen today. Historical revisionism has been an issue (and not an issue unique to Japan), in which some politicians attempt to sweep the darker parts of Japanese history under the rug. For example, “comfort women” who were taken from Korea and other countries to service Japanese soldiers during the war are sometimes portrayed as “volunteers”– prostitutes who willingly came along, rather than young girls tricked and forced into leaving their homes. The infamous Unit 731 of the Japanese army that practiced experimentation on humans in Manchuria during the war is often not discussed– in fact, many of my Japanese classmates had never heard of these war crimes before.

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A street vendor making okonomiyaki at a festival.

One of my main goals in Japan was to practice Japanese, and happily, I found many chances to use the language. I was able to incorporate Japanese into my life far beyond the classroom— buying okonomiyaki (a kind of savory pancake) from the lines of food stalls at a festival, chatting with my seat mates on trains and buses, and reconnecting with a few of my old friends. There are still many situations where I feel uncomfortable using Japanese, and they push me far out of my comfort zone. However, I learned to advocate for myself even when I struggled to communicate. Despite only having an intermediate command over Japanese, I was able to get a job at a climbing gym (via stumbling through a terrifying job interview in Japanese), open a Japanese bank account, and register for national health insurance. By no means were any of these smooth, natural transactions, but they are far more than I could have ever dreamed I was capable of accomplishing in a foreign language.

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A cityscape near my university in central Tokyo.

Studying in abroad has helped me be more confident, as well as more open-minded. I realize that my perspective is different than the perspectives of so many other people from around the world. However, I have also found that whatever our differences, people are all more similar than not, and I am happy to say that I have friends around the globe. I loved my time abroad, and I know it has helped shape me for the better.

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