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Last updated: 10/19/04

Questions about being an exchange student in Japan

I started this page after someone e-mailed me with a general question: I’m going to be an exchange student in Japan. What do I need to know? And I asked her to be more specific, so she was. Since I answered her questions, I’ve added more questions and answers from others. If you are going to be an exchange student (hypothetically or realistically), give me your questions, and I’ll put them up here with my answers…


Q: Uhm... how about…What Should I definitely bring? ~I only know that we need business cards (which we make over the stay-over weekend), only favorite clothing (since u'll most likely be shopping), and the rest are like x.X

A: Actually, you might need to bring more clothing than you expect. If you're like me and have unusually long limbs, you'll have a hell of a time buying clothes (mainly pants and long-sleeved shirts/sweaters). I actually didn't do much clothes shopping. HOWEVER, if you're going to high school in Japan and you wear a school uniform, you'll only really need to wear your street clothes for two whole days and 5 evenings each week...

I know I wrote a bunch of stuff down on my page, I think in the "before I left" section... presents and pictures are a must. The first couple days with your host family (if spent at home) are very awkward and they have no idea what to do with you. It's easy for them (and for you) if you drag out the photo album and some simple gifts. Pictures are also very helpful in explaining about yourself and your country/city. (And you'll have to do a slide show for the Rotarians (unless they changed that) anyway, so it's nice to get some practice...)

Q: ~What are some stuff that I should know before I leave, other than knowing my Japanese, kanji/hiragana/katakana?

A: Hmm... well, the rotary always tells you to be aware of the country's current politics (something I didn't bother to learn...well, I'm not interested in politics and they didn't expect me to be, so I was okay. your Rotarians may be different, however...)

Also, you should be aware of stuff from your own country/state/city. Like the population and how much houses cost, etc... At the beginning, they don't expect you to know too much about Japan (actually, they expect you to know absolutely NOTHING about Japan, even Japanese, so it's important you know a lot about where you come from...)

Also, keep a little metric (and yen) conversion table with you. They're interested in the climate of where you come from and the prices of things and it's hard enough having to say it in Japanese, but you have to say it in metric/yen, too... ^^;

Q: What sorts of stuff do you do with the rotary club while you're there, along with other exchangers?~ I know you talked about dinner, but what sorts of trips (other than the hot spring) did you go to?

A: Hm, let's see, I'm ditching school today, so I can be thorough...

I went to their business lunch once a month to get my allowance >v<
I also went to a business dinner every once in a while...

With the rotary alone, I went on:

-Their Christmas party (much better than the one with the students, in my opinion...oh yeah, that's right, I don't like teenagers...)
-Their new years banquet (had to wear a kimono and sit in seiza the whole time...but I got this nifty seiza chair thingie, so it wasn't so bad.)
-Tours (as an interpreter) with a small group from Nebraska
-Their anniversary banquet (as a speech interpreter...though I didn't do much interpreting. Spent most of my time back stage listening to hentai jokes from Tsuyoshi-san >v<)
-A trip to some botanical gardens type place with the wives from rotary (this was, like, during my last week.)

With other students (through rotary), I went to:

-A reallllllllllllly boring conference at some hot-shot high school where we discussed the problems of our countries... (Sam did the discussing for America while Chris and I talked about me crocheting him a ski mask so he could rob banks... ^^;)
-The autumn camp (hated it. I never was a fan of gatherings of people I'm not friends with. Plus, it was a little awkward, b/c Sam and I were the only ones in the podunk, while everyone else was in the big city. So naturally, they broke the rules and had been meeting each other just about every day and were all pretty close.)
-The Christmas party (pretty pathetic, in my opinion. but at least we got to go to karaoke...)
-The winter camp (also known as "the compilation of everything you thought only happened in sit-coms"...dude, that really sucked. It's all a blur in my mind now, but with a little thought, I'm sure I could make a sit-com out of it... ^^;)
-The prefectural rotary meeting/gathering (all the clubs in the Iwate prefecture met and stuff. All the Iwate students were there, too, and we introduced ourselves. Also, the students from Iwate who were going to go to America and various other countries were there. In the evening, there was a banquet, and I and the wives of my rotary club danced a traditional dance from our city...pretty nifty)
-A rotary meeting for the Japanese students who were going to be exchange students the following year. We were supposed to give them a little "briefing" and let them practice their English, but we ended up talking (in Japanese) about J-pop and other whacko stuff instead. Hahaha.
-a sort of "graduation ceremony". We students were given "diplomas" and gave little speeches, etc. (I think that was one of the only times we actually had to wear our blazers...but about half of us forgot anyway.)

But what you do and where you go depends on your rotary club and where you're staying. Jessica and Sam had very strict and dull rotary clubs, but my club was very nice and cute and fun...

Q: Will they be offended that I don't like fish?

A: No, not *offended*… They’ll probably just laugh and say, "but fish is so YUMMY!"

Q: Do they expect me to know table manners and customs?

A: No, like I said, they expect you to know NOTHING. But just because they don’t *expect* you to know these things doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try and learn about these things before you go. It will help you a lot.

Q: Would going to school in Japan count or would I be set back a year?

A: That depends on how much school work you can actually do over there. If you already know a fair amount of Japanese, have a good kanji dictionary and try very hard, you might be able to transfer some of the classes you take in Japan to count in your high school in America… Still, it’s more likely your Japanese high school classes will not be honored by your high school and you will have to repeat the year. That’s why I suggest you wait until after you’ve graduated high school.

Q: Do the Japanese eat any meat other than fish?

A: ~_~;; I think it should have been clear from the other pages I wrote in this section that yes, they do eat meat other than fish. Chicken, beef, pork… just like everyone else.

Q: What are the computer keyboards like? Are they English letters or Japanese characters?

A: They are English letters along with Japanese characters. For the most part, they’re identical if you want to type in English, but some of the other keys like quotes, apostrophe, comma, etc., are in different places of the keyboard. It just takes a little getting used to. Interestingly enough, to type in Japanese, most people use English letters. If I wanted to type "Watashi wa sakana desu", I would type that exactly in English letters, and then the Japanese typing program (if that’s what I was using) would automatically change these letters into Japanese characters as I went along. Sometimes if there’s more than one kanji to choose from, a menu pops up and I, the typist, choose which one I want. Needless to say, it takes much longer to type in Japanese than in English.

Q: Can I access the internet in English?

A: All "accessing the internet" really is is double-clicking an icon and then clicking the "connect" button…though the word "connect" will be written in Japanese, it’s hardly any different from connecting to the internet in any other country. "The internet" is the same the world around. Once you get a browser up, you can still type in any URL and go anywhere, no matter what country you’re in…Granted, the initial page you’re taken to will be Japanese and not AOL or Earthlink or whatever server you have now, but that doesn’t matter at all.

Q: Will they make me go to a Buddhist temple/Shinto shrine?

A: Generally speaking, most Japanese people are not religious. Even if they are, they don’t "go to church every Sunday to worship" like most religious Americans do. You probably will be taken to a couple shrines and temples during your stay, but more for tourist purposes and holidays (like New Years), not on a weekly basis.

Q: I have to try and find 2/3 host families for an inbound student from Japan, though I am having trouble finding a family willing to take in an exchange student :oS Did you have to do this? if you did, do you have any suggestions... or what you did...

A: No, I didn’t have to find host families. I’m surprised you have to. That’s usually the Rotary Club’s job. But it is true that sometimes if your Rotary club can’t find places for inbound students to stay, they might not send you away. They really do like to make *exchanges*

Q: I am hoping to have an interview with the rotary club soon, any suggestions on how i should prepare myself for this interview etc ^^;

A: Yeah, I had to go to a few interviews. One was just an informal meeting with a cool Rotarian chick who told me the kinds of things I should know about being a student with Rotary. The other was more formal and was with a group of Rotarians, asking me specifically why I wanted to be an exchange student with Rotary. The keys here are "why exchange student" and "why Rotary" (and another key element is "why the country you chose").

It’s important to have a specific goal in mind. One boy I met who wanted to go to France said his goal was to become a French chef. Angela said she wanted to be an international businesswoman (doing much of her business in Japan). If your goal is not really connected with the country to which you hope to go, you may become one of the "unlucky ones" who gets sent to a different country at the last minute. Though most of these students say happily when they come back, "That was the best mistake that ever happened to me," if you really had your heart set on going to Japan but had to go to Greece instead, you may be very upset. To avoid this, try and give a reason exclusive to the country to which you want to go. "I want to go to Japan because I love anime and hope to get into the industry", as lame as you might think that sounds, is actually a very good reason to give to your club. They like to see a specific goal and a passion and drive to achieve the goal.

As for the "why Rotary" aspect, you really need to show an interest in your Rotary club and in Rotary International in general. Maybe go to their website and see what kinds of things they do. They will want you to represent their club and help them establish/maintain friendships and connections with other clubs in the world. If you want them to take an interest in you, you need to take an interest in them as well.

Q: I’ve been learning Japanese language as a hobby for a while, do you think I should mention that as a reason as to show my personal interest and ambition etc.?>

A: Like I said, becoming bilingual is a valid/noble reason for studying abroad, but Rotary cares less about language and more about culture and inter-personal relationships. Of course, they don’t want you to go over to Japan and learn no Japanese at all (as some do… and I don’t respect them : p ), but they care more about plans for the future and how you want to contribute to the world. You can say you’re interested in the language and have been studying it, but you’d better have another reason for going besides that… And I’m not saying you should have another reason so you’ll have something to tell the Rotarians so you’ll get into the program… you really SHOULD have a goal and a reason for going (or a collection of reasons) to keep yourself on track while you’re there and to make the most out of your experience as possible. Like I said, the Rotarians have *connections* and can help you accomplish some things ordinary people wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.

Q: How much of the language could you speak/understand after spending a year there?

A: …Hahaha. That depends on who I’m talking to and what about…

These were my approximate understanding levels by the end:
General conversations (when I’m involved): 95%
General conversations (when I’m not involved): 75%
Most anime: 95%
Most manga: 99%
Music specials on TV: 80%
The news on TV: 50%
Teenagers: 70%
Old people: 60%
Most general TV shows and movies: 90%
Aomori dialect: 30%

As far as speaking goes, I could say just about anything I wanted to. If there were words I didn’t know, I’d describe the word. Generally speaking, I didn’t have to think of what I wanted to say in English, then translate it in my head before I’d speak. I’d think in Japanese and speak in Japanese… and sometimes not even think at all and just start blabbing ^^; Sometimes to this day, I still like to talk to myself in Japanese, since there are so many feelings that make more sense if expressed in Japanese. Writing was also not a problem. As long as I had a dictionary, I could write around the highschool level…

Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone will be at as high/low a level as I was. It certainly helped that I had two years of Japanese before I left, but it certainly did not help that I didn’t have many friends most of the time I was there. As a result, I ended up learning most of my Japanese through TV, manga, and singing karaoke; not through conversation…

Q: Do you have to qualify in order to achieve the ranking of foreign exchange student?

A: Since this is a page about being a student with Rotary, I'll briefly describe the qualifications I needed to have…back in 1999, so things might have changed, of course… And if you're going with a different agency, the requirements will be different.

-a good GPA (I think it was supposed to be at least 3.0 or something)
-a physical
-a dental exam
-lots of forms filled out and signed in blue ink by certain people (my dad and I agreed this was just to weed out the people who weren't serious ^_-)
-a formal interview with a group of Rotarians (part of mine was even conducted in Japanese… but that was only because they heard I had studied it and wanted to know exactly where I was)
-(part of the forms, I think) answers to a few questions. These have to be well written, of course. The section that's probably most important is where they ask you what you think the four biggest problems of the world are…like I said, Rotary is very much into helping people internationally and solving problems, so in a way, they're interested in "hiring" exchange students who would also make good Rotarians.
-And there is a sort of age bracket you have to fall into. The youngest student was 15 and the oldest was 19. Obviously, if you intend to go to high school, any older than 19 is really a stretch… but I did hear something about Rotary accepting students all the way to age 25 (students 20-25 are probably sent to college, but I'm not sure… check out their site - www.rotary.org")

Q: Are the teachers there like the ones here a lot?

A: Gee, what a specific question ^^; Um… every teacher is different…everywhere… In general, though, I'd have to say Japanese teachers are a bit "nicer" and "accommodating" (at least with foreign students)

Q: Is the mailing system in Japan the same as the system in America? How would I go about sending a letter there?

A: I guess it's the same… I didn't notice any differences. You mail a letter by putting it in an envelope, writing the address on it in English (be sure to include "USA" at the bottom), put a stamp on it (I think the fee was around 130 yen per international letter when I was there) and stick it in a mail box.

Q: Do school girls in Japan wear their uniforms AFTER getting home from school?

A: Not usually. Would YOU keep your uniform on? ^^; For many girls, however, "after school" doesn't take place until well into the evening, since after-school clubs keep many students occupied at school all day… But no, it's not like you're *required* to wear your uniform when not at school.

Q: Don't people in Japan sleep around 4 to 6 hours?

A: Hahahaha….ahhh, gotta love ignorant stereotypes. It varies from person to person, of course. I'd say most high school students tend to go to bed around 11:00 or 12:00 and wake up around 7:00 or 8:00, depending on how far the commute is. Incidentally, Japanese schools start later than American schools (around 9:00 as opposed to the ungodly hour of 7:00 which I and many of you reading this page have been subjected to >_<).

Many Japanese office workers (or "Salarymen") are "forced" to go out drinking with colleagues often, however, and consequently might only get 4-6 hours of sleep from time to time.

Q: In what ways should could I change my personality or habits in order to more Japanese?

A: At first, I was like, "…huh?? change your personality?? Who do you think you are? a robot?"… But actually, this is something to consider. There are some personality traits that if you exaggerate or tone down, you will be more accepted/understood by the Japanese people.

If you're a girl, try to be more reserved, shy, cute, and act really interested/excited about everything. Also, act very impressed about any minor talent anyone shows. Try not to speak your mind.

If you're a guy, try to be more confident, but not about women. Act like you want women but are pathetic and don't know how to romance them ^^; Drink frequently ^_-

No matter what gender you are, apologize a lot and thank people a lot. Make a really big deal if someone helps you, but brush it off if you help someone else. Give lots of gifts.

I'd have to say, however, that the Japanese people expect you to be different, so trying to be more *Japanese* might only confuse them. And while acting more "Japanese" can be helpful in gaining acceptance at say, a party, it's better to just be yourself around people you'll see again and again. For the most part, they'll figure you out and come to accept/understand you pretty quickly. They are a very kind and understanding people. Q: How much does it cost to be an exchange student to Japan, and does it vary from program to program?

A: Of course it varies from program to program; that's a given. Hypothetically, assuming you had to pay for virtually *everything* yourself, there's airfare, school, insurance, and stipends to your host families, meaning a year away could easily cost as much as $5000 (and I'm not just pulling that figure out of my ass; it's a pretty conservative estimate for "everything").

With Rotary, however, they cover your school, housing, food, transportation, and give YOU a monthly stipend. All you (or your real family) is expected to pay is airfare and health insurance. I think my dad ended up paying between $1000 and $1500 for the exchange, but since my monthly stipend was $150 and I stayed for 10 months, it was essentially free.

Q: I hear that people there usually feel a lot for those around them that are their friends. So tell me, how do people there fall in love and afterwords how does a couple act?

A: I have no firsthand experience in this matter - the only knowledge I really have is by watching Japanese TV and reading comic books, so any visions I have in my mind are probably false or exaggerated. I also can't make a generalization. All people are different everywhere all over the world in how they fall in love and how they act when they become couples. Age also matters…

The only general answer I can give is that couples in Japan do not show affection in public or around other people. Younger, more progressive couples in big cities are more open, but in general, holding hands in public is the limit.

Well, that’s all they asked, folks. If you’re curious to know more, just send the questions away. Yay.