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Life on Exchange in Japan

Case Study: Exchange in Japan

Life on exchange in Japan
by Frances from Hampshire

japan exchange student with host family

Frances from Hampshire left for her 10-month exchange to Japan in late 2019. While in Japan she has kindly told us about  her experience so far and how she has adjusted to life overseas. Learn about life with her host family, at school and tackling a new and very different language.

How has your experience on exchange in Japan been so far?

My experience so far has been immensely fun! I’m constantly learning new words, visiting new places and interacting with new people.

How have you found living with your host family? What do they do that is different to home in the UK?

I love being able to get to know Japanese families. Initially, my school had organised four host families for me, each for two months (I got ill the summer I was meant to fly so it was delayed and I could thankfully still go for 8 months instead of 10). My first host family was a woman the same age as my mum who lives alone. It was a nice, gentle welcome to Japan and exchange life, although it wasn’t lonely as we spent lots of time with her children and grandchildren. My second family was a family of four. I had two younger host sisters who I often played with. My third and fourth families, however, became unable to host me so my second family extended their homestay period to four months and the school found me another family for the remaining two months (parents, son, and daughter, who is studying at university). In the family home I help out willingly with household chores as I see they need doing, I currently have ‘English Time’ with my host siblings for about 10-15 minutes each day, and I spend time with the family.

All Japanese homes have ‘genkan’ at the front of the house or apartment where everyone removes their outdoor shoes before taking the small step into the rest of the house. The Japanese have a bath everyday (after washing first with the shower) and they share the bathwater. The bath gets cleaned every day. The family I am currently staying with as I write this are very musical so they practice violin and piano every day. The children also spend a fair bit of time studying for extra-curricular English exams or doing their homework. I’m learning from this family about maintaining important habits every day – a useful skill to know!

What has your favourite part of the experience been so far?

Getting to meet so many different people is probably my favourite part. Everyone – host families, school students and staff, and members of the community – have all made me feel incredibly welcome. Getting to visit beautiful places such as Himeji castle have also been a highlight.

What has been the most challenging part of exchange?

The first month was a tough time for homesickness. Other than that I guess being surrounded by Japanese all day every day can be pretty tiring as constantly trying to translate and understand everything uses a lot of brain power especially on long school days. It’s important exchange students don’t spend too much time in contact with home, but I have found that talking with my British friends over the phone once or twice a month a very helpful release because I get a chance to express myself easily and it reminds me of the level of communication I want to reach with my Japanese friendships. Of course, every exchange student responds to contact with home differently so take care and make sure you don’t spend so much time talking with England that you miss out on the precious time you have in your host country.

What does a typical day at school look like for you?

My host school differs slightly from the typical school because it offers specialist courses for its students. Therefore, my experience might be slightly different to another exchange student’s. My ‘homeroom’ class is part of the general course and with them I share homeroom time at the beginning and end of every day and I also have various lessons with them such as maths, Japanese literature, and calligraphy. Except for calligraphy and PE, all the general course students are taught in the same classroom for every subject. Students have an assigned desk and the teachers arrive for every lesson. My other classes consist of cooking, patisserie, music and rhythmic dance (with the childcare/welfare course), and ICT. I also have private Japanese lessons once or twice a week with a member of staff who, although speaks little English, has experience teaching Japanese to Japanese children. For me, each day involves a lot of walking! My school is a fifteen minute walk up a mountain from the train station and from there my homeroom is up three flights of stairs. In addition, when I have classes other than the general course or I have PE, I have to walk a couple of minutes up a steep path to the rest up the classrooms and the gym further up the mountain. Once a week I help out at English club after school. I am also looking to join the tea ceremony/flower arranging club. Most other clubs (e.g. sports and calligraphy) meet five days a week, some even at the weekends.

Japan pagoda

What part of Japanese culture has surprised you the most?

This is one of the most common questions people ask me and I still struggle answering it. Japanese culture is different in ways I find quite difficult to explain. The language and various levels of formality definitely define a part of Japan’s mentality. I’ve also found they have a huge culture about food. There are countless television programmes of people eating “delicious!” foods. On a more trivial note, one thing that surprised me was that it is average for sandwiches to be crust-less and don’t expect to find brown bread anywhere! Also they will put next to anything on a pizza, I’ve eaten sausage curry pizza. I was also surprised by the abundance of train lines and how efficient they all are. There is also a lot of English at most train stations. There are even announcements made in English and sometimes other languages too at large stations. Another thing: Japanese meals are never one big plate like in England; they consist of many small plates and side dishes. This is because they like to maintain a varied diet. I found it difficult to adjust to at first because there were so many different flavours in one meal.

How have you coped being away from home?

Previous to exchange, I had never been away from home for more than one week at a time. I talked a bit about contact with home earlier, but I would say the first month (after a few days of soaking up the surge of new information) was the toughest when it came to home sickness. It felt so daunting at the beginning, before I’d adjusted to my new lifestyle and before I’d made friends, to think about how much time it would be before I returned home again. Like everyone else will tell you: my best advice will be to keep busy. Sure, take some time to yourself to think about your feelings but don’t hide in a room and dwell on it all for too long. Even a quick trip to the supermarket with host parents can become an interesting experience. Being away from home for an extended period of time helps you to appreciate home so much more. Home crosses my mind every now and then, especially around Christmas time, but personally, I found it so much easier once I’d gotten over the hurdle at the start and I’d gotten used to my new life.

How has your language developed and do you feel confident and natural speaking Japanese now?

My language has developed massively. I’m picking up kanji (Chinese characters) quite quickly now. I feel so much more confidence in communicating with natives. I would not call my Japanese natural as of yet, though there are some aspects that flow naturally without having to think too much first. However, I am confident in my ability to convey any idea across to a native through mish-mashed sentences and patience. I find that I can always say a lot more than I realise once I give up trying to say it exactly as I would in English. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Do you think the experience of the exchange programme has changed you as a person?

Absolutely! Without a doubt. Our experiences shape us as people and the more adventurous experiences you let come to you, the more you will learn! I have learnt so much about what I can be. Exchange has taught me more independence and confidence in my own ability. I feel passionate about the little things I can offer to my community. When I return to England I want to find somewhere to volunteer and maybe get a Saturday job as well. I intend on helping my family out more with the chores too. Being on exchange and trying my best to make the most of my time here has made me realise that I need to use that same attitude when I’m at home as well. I want to put more effort into my passions and spend more time with my friends and family.

What advice would you give to students about to undertake an exchange programme?

First off, I think you’re awesome! It’s a big lifestyle change and there’s so much you can learn. Make sure you open yourself to new experiences. Remember no two people will experience exchange in exactly the same way; we receive different opportunities and that’s what makes it so special. Try your best. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Make the most of everything because it won’t last forever! I hope you have an amazing time.

Exchange student in kimono

Read more about a high school exchange in Japan