|Japan may be far away, but luckily, there are more options to approach it these days. Classical routes are exchange programs at college, working holiday or even the traditional working visa. However, we want to introduce a program that might be less known, and even fewer people have the opportunity to take part in.
Evi spent a month in Japan when she was a high school student in 2016; this article is based on her experiences. She learned Japanese with a private tutor but hadn’t taken JLPT N3 exam yet when she went to Japan.
I travelled to Japan through a competition of the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT). On a one day long contest I had to prove I’m capable of representing Hungary abroad. Every Hungarian citizen under 18 could take part in this contest, and we were twelve. Only six people qualified. The program was organized by AFS, an international organization for exchange students, and we had to accomplish various individual and group tasks. There were basic knowledge tasks, when they assessed how well we know Hungary, for example whether we can name five Olympic athletes and so on. We had to talk in Japanese too, for example we had to tell why we want to go to Japan. From the group tasks I remember very well, when we had to plan a trip which was to measure our prejudice. We had to choose three from different group of stereotypical people who we want to travel with, so for example we had to decide whether we want to travel with a Muslim who carries matches in his shoes. After the varied tasks, six people qualified. Except for the plane ticket everything was payed by MEXT.
Where, how long?
I spent one month in Fukushima prefecture in a city called Kouriyama. After our departure the program took place in Osaka for five days, where we were taken care of by AFS. They had pretty strict rules. We couldn’t use our phones, couldn’t leave the hotel, had to eat everything they gave us, so it was like they were trying to prepare us for what’s coming. Students arrived from around the world, so we had to get used to the new circumstances.
We had accommodation at host families, in Japanese ホームステイ. I spent two-two weeks at two different families. One of them was already experienced, they have accepted exchange students many times and the family consisted of the classical model; father, mother and two children. They organized programs, trips together, and it was obvious they were used to such things. The other family on the other hand had never done this before, I was the first foreigner at their place. The father was a soldier, most of the time away from home. The mother led the household with three children. They had a hard time even without me, and sometimes they couldn’t do anything with me so they just make me sit in front of the TV. Of course they tried to take me to trips too.
From Monday to Friday we went to school, just like the Japanese students. We had a full schedule from 8:25 to 16:30. The morning started with self-study, then the classes, and after school the cleaning. In Japanese schools students clean the classrooms after the lessons, and we foreigners took part in this as well. The other element of Japanese student life is club activity (部活動). We had many options, sport and culture as well. I chose hula dance, once or twice a week, but others, for example the soccer team had club more often. Hula dance was chosen by about 20-30 students.
All the six Hungarians who qualified at the competition ended up in different schools, but there were five other foreigners in my school. There was a boy among them who spent one year in Kouriyama through a different program. Foreigners went to different classes but all the same grade. I was in 12th grade in Hungary at that time but still got to 10th grade (1st year in Japanese high school). By the way there were five classes in each grade, so the foreigners could be distributed well.
I didn’t have much free time beside classes. Usually, I had to wait 1-2 hours before I could go home since I couldn’t leave the school without my host. While I was waiting, I was talking with my classmates who were super inclusive with me. They never were cold or distant, always hugged me, invited me to their table at lunch break, never excluded me from anything. Of course, they already got used to foreigners. Boys were much shier than that, I barely talked to them.
When I went to Japan I hadn’t had N3 yet. I could pretty easily communicate with others but I have to admit my brain got tired very quickly since I had to speak Japanese the whole day which I was not used to. There were easier classes, for example I could understand biology and history, but literature was very challenging. Not to mention math. Not only the language barrier made it difficult to understand, but Japanese people learn a completely different system as Europeans.
Basically, I didn’t have to stress about my staying, I didn’t have to write a test or anything. There were short tests in English only but I got a sticker no matter how many scores I got.
The atmosphere of the class depended on the teacher. There were some, who came to the classroom, gave the lecture and then were gone immediately, but others were quite friendly. Everyone arrived really punctually, they respected the bell, but it doesn’t mean it was like at the army. Some teachers’ classes were actually fun and even though teachers are respected in Japan some of them were friendlier than in Hungary. They were empathetic and patient, if a student didn’t know the answer they only said it’s okay, their friends will whisper it to them. There was plenty of joy during classes for example when the history teacher demonstrated the march of the Roman soldiers.
The rules were much stricter compared to Hungary. Students can’t dye their hair, wear make-up, earrings or short skirts. The foreigners had to wear uniform too. But interestingly, talking was prohibited during class, but sleeping was not. You were okay as long as you didn’t disturb others in the class.
This one month was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned a lot about Japanese culture and the behaviour of Japanese. They are a very polite nation; take care of their surroundings, respect nature, elders and others. I had a great time and my language skills improved a lot, I passed the N3 exam after I got home.