Cultural lessons from the Japanese

Katrine K, Bachelor of Nursing

University Life in Japan: Kimono, Matcha and You at Sonoda Women’s University (December 2016)

Konnichiwa! My name is Katrine, and I’m a third year student studying the Bachelor of Nursing. In the first two weeks of the December holidays, I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange program hosted by the Sonoda Women’s University in Amagasaki, Japan. Not only did this unforgettable experience enrich my awareness of cultural diversity, but the kindness and warmth of the Japanese people made it possible to form friendships with almost anyone I encountered; whether that be at university or on the streets of Osaka! Throughout this program, I have been incredibly lucky to experience many unique and wonderful moments.

One memorable highlight of my trip however, would have to be the week-end I stayed with the Fujii family in Ojiro. Although I could speak or understand little Japanese, my host father, mother, sister and visiting locals were extremely sympathetic and accommodating to my needs and often tried their best to speak in English to ease my anxiety and restlessness. I thought this gesture was very thoughtful and generous of them and once again empathised the kindliness of the Japanese people. From the moment I arrived, my host family offered me food, snow boots, manga, fresh clothes, and my very own tatami room! I was also surprised and deeply touched at the lengths of preparation they put into arranging my bedroom. I never expected to have a mini decorated Christmas tree with flickering lights standing before me when I entered to unpack my bags! These experiences made me reflect on a time when my classmates and I had a cultural lesson with Keiji. He stated that Japanese people generally have a “you”-centred attitude or a “guessing culture”. This meant that they will often try to guess what the other person is feeling in order to accommodate their needs, believing this showed humanity. As a foreigner, I found the Japanese culture in this context quite refreshing and surprisingly relatable. I eagerly wanted to learn more about their culture as I too, coming from a nursing background, believe passionately in upholding similar values.

While living in Ojiro, I went on many insightful and exciting adventures! This included visiting the captivating sand sculptures at the Sand Museum and conquering the Tottori sand dunes through freezing winds. Another memorable highlight of staying in Ojiro was the opportunity to design and sculpt my own jewellery from stone.  The stone used to make our pendants were known as “magatama”, and were traditionally made from jade, glass or rocks. What I enjoyed most about this experience was not only learning of its historical value and appeal since the Jomon period, but the connection magatama had to religious practices including shamanism and Shinto. In addition to its spiritual significance, I found the crafting of magatama a challenging, but truly rewarding experience that I will never forget!

During the time when my classmates and I were not living in Ojiro, we inhabited the cosy grounds of Sonoda Woman’s University to learn Japanese or explored the historic highlights of Amagasaki where we took part in cultural activities. While at Sonoda Woman’s University however, I immediately noticed how small and homely the campus was in comparison to the blocky high rises that occupied the grounds of QUT. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the students (which were no more than 200!) noticed our presence and gave us their utmost attention. My allocated group were particularly fortunate to receive a dynamic culture class presented by the university’s students themselves which I had the pleasure of attending. One unforgettable moment from our experiences was taking part in the traditional Japanese game, “suikawari”, and then learning about the meticulous process in which “katsuobushi” is made. Katsuobushi, in particular, made the most impression on me as I never expected dried fermented fish to appear as an oddly shaped rock or a chunky piece of wood that would later become an essential ingredient used in traditional Japanese foods, such as dashi. In addition, the kindliness and welcoming mannerisms of the students were, again, infectious and I felt a great sense of belonging and acceptance when I was asked to introduce myself to the class and share with them the cultural practices I engaged in while living in Australia.

My cultural experiences in Japan have been endless, and I felt so grateful for the time the Sonoda University staff gave us to make it such a pleasant experience! I would also like to say how very thankful I am to the teachers who managed, without fail, to remain optimistic and deeply passionate about teaching Japanese. I’m very proud to say that I’m now quite confident in ordering food in restaurants, thanks to a large appetite for Curry House CoCo and the multiple visits I’ve had to the “taiyaki” (fish-shaped pastries filled with custard or red bean paste) stand near Amagasaki station. I would highly recommend this exchange program for anyone, both young and old!

Bullet Trains, Godzilla and Temples – The Real Japanese Experience

Elise L, Bachelor of Business/Bachelor of Fine Arts

Ritsumeikan University (Semester 2, 2016)

New Colombo Plan mobility grant recipient

In the Fall Semester of 2016 I studied at Ritsumeikan University in Osaka, Japan. I was part of the short term ‘Study In Kyoto’ program (SKP), but because I study in the Business Track my home campus and life was actually in Osaka.

Ritsumeikan University, Osaka Ibaraki Campus, from the ninth floor

I lived in a studio apartment (in the same building as many other SKPers) about forty minutes by train from uni. OIC campus was only completed in 2015, so dormitories are still under construction. Our apartments were small (22m2) but had everything we needed and I really came to love that little space. Being based in Osaka, we also had places like Kyoto, Kobe, and Nara only an hour away by train! Cost of living in Osaka seems moderate – rent is quite high and travel can be expensive (a ride on the bullet train can cost hundreds of dollars…), but food is very cheap and it is easy to walk to many places.

Home base – Aya Mikuni apartments

SKP students were assigned a Japanese student buddy, and they helped us with the little complexities of day-to-day life – how do you pay your bills when you can’t read them? How do you call the maintenance guy when you don’t speak Japanese and he doesn’t speak English? Our buddies helped us to function as residents rather than tourists, as well as taking us sightseeing and making us feel very welcome.

Shinjuku, Tokyo, feat. Godzilla

I spent more time on campus at Ritsumeikan than I ever have at QUT, and the timetable was more intensive than I’m used to – going from part-time study to 10 x 90 minute classes a week was a bit of a shock to the system! I studied Japanese too, and I’d highly recommend it – the things we learned were very practical for everyday life. There are also many university events to attend – we volunteered in a Haunted House at the Halloween festival, and we supported the university team at their American football games (go Panthers!). I attended the first World Community Power Conference in Fukushima, which was fascinating, and also visited the Toyota factory in Aichi.

My top 3 tips for studying in Japan:
1. Say yes (hai/はい)!
A piece of advice that my Dad gave me when I moved from our small country town to the big city of Brisbane. Whether it’s a student excursion on offer, or grabbing dinner with new people, say yes. If you don’t enjoy it you don’t have to do it again, but at least you tried!

2. Learn the language!
Downloading an app, buying a phrasebook or enrolling in classes like I did – language was the biggest barrier I encountered in Japan. By the time I left, I was able to have very simple conversations, and that felt like a huge achievement when I couldn’t even read my own mail.

3. Get an ICOCA card
A bit like a gocard in Brisbane, except you can’t get a discount as an international student (boo). It streamlines your travel process (no queueing for tickets), works across the whole country, and you can pay for a travel pass –  I had unlimited travel between my university station and the central Osaka station (with my home station being in between) which was worthwhile. Just don’t lose your card!

Japan is an amazing country and I feel like I barely scratched the surface, despite travelling as much as my budget allowed. My exchange actually postponed my graduation by a year, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat – in fact, I’ve already booked my flights to go back!

The famous red tori gates of Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto