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Yonsei Study Abroad

And then my professor asked, “What frustrates you about Japan?”

My Japanese professor recently assigned a short essay in which we had to compare life in United States to life in Japan. Specifically, she wanted the paper to focus on things that we found frustrating or did not like in Japan. I was a bit taken aback by the assignment, in that for the most part, I genuinely enjoy life in Japan and it seemed as if anything I wrote would come across complaining about how Japanese life was not American life. There have been times when life has been difficult here, yet that is to be expected anytime a person moves abroad. Furthermore, I often feel as if I do not really have the right to complain about things I find jarring here. I did decide to come to this country after all. Hence, I went into this assignment with reservations. Yet in the end, writing that piece made me reflect more on my experience here than anything else so far.

The essay really made me consider what it is to be a foreigner in Japan, and then in addition, a foreigner of Japanese descent. Breaking past the barrier of being an outsider has at times been difficult to deal with, as many of the Japanese students at Ritsumeikan approach foreigners with an element of curiosity, yet also caution. I cannot speak for all of Japanese society, and feel barely qualified to talk about Japanese college life, however we exchange students often get asked to take surveys about life in our home country which mostly just seem patronizing. A good example of such questions being, “Do you drink a lot in your country?” Despite this curiosity in us, we rarely have a long conversation with students about anything of substance. Granted, there is a large language barrier between many of us, there are also several amazing students who are exceptions to the larger student body. The prevailing experience is that it can be very hard to intermingle with the greater student population.

Also, I and others, including some of my foreign professors, have experienced this uneasiness off of campus. Foreigners here will tell you that it is very rare to be sat next to by a Japanese person on a bus. There have been countless times where my friends have been sitting on a packed bus, yet no one will sit in the empty seat next to them. On numerous occasions, a group of us have been stared at because we look different. Granted, most of these stares come from middle school students, who, in no country, are the most nuanced nor understanding of demographics, it still is, nonetheless, uncomfortable to be the object of curiosity or uneasiness because of the way you look. There are times when we have just wanted to say, “We may be foreign, but we’re not going to make any trouble. We promise.”

In the same way that I had concerns about writing my essay for class, I had concerns about writing this article, given that it deals with the same subject manner. In no way, do I want to sound as if I dislike life in Japan or the people I encounter. At their worst, these issues are minor inconveniences in my daily life. It just seems that homogony of Japanese society has left many of its citizens with unwarranted concerns about foreigners. I absolutely do not want to leave Japan any time soon and I definitely would like to return after I graduate from college, yet I do not know if I could ever be a permanent ex-patriot here. I have been told that as my Japanese improves I will be treated more and more as a non-foreigner because of my heritage and name. Yet, I still wonder if it would ever be possible for me to fully pass as Japanese and fit in here.


© 2011 Nathan Kenji Kasai

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About this series

Nathan Kenji Kasai is a fourth generation Japanese American foreign exchange student at Ristumeikan University in Kyoto.  He is studying Japanese and international relations and will be traveling throughout Kyoto and other parts of Japan. He will be staying in Japan for one semester from March until August 2011 and will be writing biweekly articles on his experience.