4 Things to Consider Before You Study Abroad in Japan
Japan is a great choice for study abroad because it is both very different from other countries, and similar in a lot of ways that make it quite easy to visit.
It is a highly modernized country with amazing public transportation and relatively inexpensive prices for food and other commodities, and many people speak enough English to help you in a pinch. At the same time, Japanese culture has remained fascinatingly unique and, at least in some ways, un-Westernized. It can be an enormously fun country to study in.
How to Study in Japan
There are a lot of different ways to study abroad in Japan. Many people apply to study abroad programs through their home-country university or college, but if you don’t want to go through a school there are many independent study abroad programs as well.
Another option is to apply directly to universities or colleges in Japan as an international student. Whether you are already in a study abroad program or are still thinking about it, here are some things to consider that we hope will help you in your studies and travels!
4 Things to Consider Before You Study Abroad in Japan
Part 1: Regarding Language Study
Learning Japanese is not a requirement. But it depends on the following:
a. Will you be applying to a study abroad program through a university in your home country
b. Are you going to apply directly to a Japanese university
c. Specific programs in question
In major cities, one can get around with a fair amount of ease in Japan even speaking little to no Japanese. However, even if your school/program does not require it, you may want to consider some study of Japanese in preparation for your adventures.
Why Do I need to learn Japanese Before I Study in Japan?
1) While almost all Japanese citizens have experience studying English, many have very little experience speaking it (or being spoken to in it). If you speak some Japanese, it may help to facilitate communication, making it easier to make friends. It will also help to ensure your question is understood when asking for directions or other information.
2) You will have more fun! Part of studying abroad in a foreign country is to experience cultural immersion, and if you gain some preemptive language skills you will be able to more fully participate in your surroundings (for example, being able to read the katakana on signs; which often spell out trendy (but hilariously phonetic) Japanglish words).
How do I learn Japanese?
1.Use a variety of resources
If you decide to study Japanese on your own in preparation for your time abroad, we recommend using a variety of resources, including a full-fledged textbook, even if you only wish to gain cursory knowledge.
Audio courses such as Pimsleur Japanese are great as auxiliary resources, but they often focus more on rote memorization than a true understanding of what you are saying, which impedes long-term language acquisition.
For beginner resources, our own Kawa Kawa Library is a great place to start! There you will find alphabet-learning charts, vocabulary sheets, grammar practice, and more. You can also check out our Blog page for articles on Japanese culture, including holiday practices and other customs.
2. Ask your school for language courses
If you are applying to study abroad through a school in your home country and they do require you to learn Japanese before studying abroad, they will likely direct you to their own language courses and let you know which ones to take.
3. Take JLPT tests
If you are applying directly to a Japanese college or university as an international student, they may ask you to prove a certain level of Japanese proficiency, for instance by passing a particular stage of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
In that case, our recommendation is to go through a course of textbooks (Genki is a particularly well-respected textbook series) combined with the use of other resources and to augment this with JLPT kanji lists and practice tests in order to give yourself the best possible idea of what will be on the tests.
If the school you think you will want to apply to has JLPT-based proficiency requirements, you will want to begin studying far ahead of time — the higher levels of the JLPT can take years to achieve if you have no prior Japanese language experience.
Free JLPT practice tests can be found on the JLPT website.
Additional practice tests can be purchased through websites such as Amazon.com.
Part 2: Regarding Housing
Depending on your program or school, you may be offered a choice* between staying in a dormitory, an apartment, or with a host family.
All three of these options have the potential to be a wonderful experience, but some students find that they have a strong preference for one over the others. When deciding which option you’d like to submit as your first choice, consider:
Things to Consider When Choosing Housing:
1) Making friends:
Host family experiences vary. You may hit it off and become instant best friends with your host family, or you may find that you and they get along, but that you don’t necessarily want to spend all your free time with them. Depending on your program, your host family may spend a lot of time with you, eat with you and take you on day trips, or they may interact with you primarily when you and they are both at their home.
Some students may prefer dorms due to the increased opportunities for socializing with other students and making school friends. Studying abroad in a foreign country where much of the population is not fluent in English, in a time zone that may make it challenging to get in touch with friends and family back home, can feel isolating; and being in a dorm with other exchange students may help to alleviate feelings of homesickness.
2) Chance to practice Japanese
If you live with a host family, you will automatically have daily opportunities to practice speaking Japanese with native speakers.
School dormitories may have Japanese students as well as foreign exchange students, but some may have all or primarily foreign exchange students; in which case you may need to take a proactive approach in seeking out persons with whom to practice speaking Japanese. Staying with a host family can also give you a perspective on Japanese daily life that you would never otherwise have the opportunity to obtain.
One additional thing to look into before departing for Japan is how long your commute to class will be from your housing of choice. In some cases, either the dorms, the host families, or the apartments that are associated with your program may be quite far from the school buildings.
*Depending on how many dorm rooms/host families/etc are available, you may not get your first choice of housing.
Part 3: Regarding Travel
1) Daily Commute
Depending on whether or not your in-country travel costs are part of your study abroad program and whether or not there are limitations on the sorts of trips you can take while on said program, you may want to buy one or both of two types of rail passes.
One of these is a Suica card (or the similar equivalent where you are staying). Suica cards can be purchased at train stations once you are in Japan, and once loaded with money can be used for purchasing tickets to trains, subways, and for some other services. They remove the necessity to purchase paper tickets, which is useful if you are in a hurry!
The other type of rail pass is a JR Pass, which can be purchased at certain locations within Japan but should optimally be purchased before you leave your home country. JR Passes cost a fixed amount (depending on whether they are good for one, two, or three weeks) and allow you to ride on any JR train for no additional cost, including Kodama and Hikari bullet trains (which are the two slower levels of bullet train, but are still one of the only ways to get between far-flung cities).
If you plan to take multiple distant day trips, you will want to have a JR Pass; since bullet train tickets can be pricey.
Before you head to Japan, download an app called HyperDia. It is available for both Apple and Android phones and is an essential tool for finding your way around. All you have to do is input the train or subway station you are currently at and the station you are trying to get to, and HyperDia will tell you which trains to take, where to transfer, and even approximately how much the trip will cost and how long it will take!
3) Train Schedule
When you are setting off on a day trip that will take you farther than a taxi ride away from home base, always make sure that you check when the last train of the night is — it may be earlier than you would think. This will save you from potentially becoming stranded!
4) Walking Distances
If your primary mode of transportation is driving, remember to factor walking time into your ETAs while in Japan. While train and subway stations (as well as bus stops) are everywhere, you may at times still need to walk a fair distance from your stop or station to your destination.
Part 4: Miscellaneous
If you are not “Asian” in appearance, people in Japan may stare at you. Small children may point at you. On rare occasion, people may even seem averse to sitting next to you on trains or buses. Our advice is to not let this perturb you. Even just a little way outside of major cities, there are many people (especially children) who have never met a non-Asian before, and they may simply not know how to react. It is likely that they do not mean to be rude, or to appear xenophobic.
If you are not a smoker, be aware: Smoking is more common in Japan than in some other countries. Some Japanese restaurants allow smoking anywhere in the establishment. Generally, trains do not allow smoking, but some trains have “smoking cars”. If you do not get a reserved seat when riding the bullet train, you may need to stand temporarily to avoid sitting in the smoking car.
3) Lots of Coins
Bring a coin purse! There is no unit of paper money in Japan smaller than 1,000 yen (about $10), so you will frequently end up receiving and needing to carry copious amounts of coins in change.
That is all our advice for now! We hope that it was helpful. If there is anything you’ve always wanted to know about studying abroad in Japan and we did not address it in this article, please leave us a comment and let us know! We would also love to hear from you if you have studied in Japan yourself. Do you have any advice for those about to do so? What do you wish you had known ahead of time? If you wish, we will include your questions (and advice!) in our future articles!