Now that I’m into the third week of the program, I’m really getting a feel for how things work here. I don’t just mean in terms of my classes, but also in general about how to exist in Japan.
Here are some things that I think you should know, think about, or have before coming to Japan.
- Exchange your money for Japanese Yen before you get here! Or do it immediately when you arrive in the airport. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, you will find that people here always pay for things with cash. In the U.S., it:s common to buy something as cheap as a drink at a cafe with a credit card and nobody will think that its strange. However, in Japan, people even pay for very expensive things with cash. You need to carry a substantial amount of cash and leave your cards at home. The second reason is that it’s actually very difficult to find ATMs that accept foreign cards, let alone shops that accept foreign cards. The one ATM that I’ve gotten to work will only let me take out 20,000 yen per day, which is about 200 dollars. You may ask, “why would you need to take out more than 200 dollars for one day?” Well, the answer is that I definitely don’t use that much money in one day (or even one week), but when you withdraw money from a foreign bank’s ATM you get slammed with charges from both your own bank and the foreign bank you are using. Each time you withdraw it costs you at least 5-10 dollars for the service. So it’s better to take out as much as possible at one time so you don’t have to waste all your money on these sorts of charges.
- You need a small handkerchief/hand towel that fits in your purse/pants pocket/school bag easily. You might even want to have several so you can rotate them everyday. The reason is that here, public bathrooms usually don’t have paper towels or hand dryers. I think as a means of eco-friendliness these things have been eliminated and individuals are expected to bring their own towels to dry their hands. Anyways, I didn’t know about this before I got here, and I found myself very confused the first few times I used public restrooms and couldn’t find any paper towel dispenser. Also, since it’s rainy season right now, many people also carry another slightly larger towel to use to dry one’s self off when soaked by the rain.
- Get over your person bubble! If you plan to use public transportation (which, you probably can’t avoid), you will not believe how crowded it can get. You will literally be like sardines in a tin can. Himeji is not even a particularly large or busy city, but the morning buses are always crowded. If you don’t get out of the way, you will get shoved, hard! Also, remember that if you are sitting, and a very elderly person, a pregnant woman, a person carrying a small baby/child or an injured person boards the bus or train, you must immediately stand up and offer your seat. If they refuse your offer, don’t sit back down, just keep standing and/or walk away from the seat so they don’t feel bad about taking it.
- Certain things that in the U.S. are considered social obligations are non-existant in Japan, and you need to be able to adjust to this. For example, in Japan, men do not hold doors for women. In fact, people generally do not hold doors for other people at all. There has been many a time when I’m walking to the convenience store and head for the door right behind someone and they let the door slam in my face. Another example is that in Japan, when someone sneezes, you do not say “bless you” or any other equivalent. In fact, sneezing/blowing your nose in front of other people is considered awkward, and it’s best to not say anything to the person and pretend it didn’t happen. Otherwise they may feel embarassed, because they will think the noise they made bothered you. Remember, you shouldn’t be offended or distraught about these things. At first it will really put you off, but your behavior will adjust over time.
- Things here are compact! That includes food portions, the size of hotel rooms, bath towels, notebook paper, clothing, etc. You will pay the same amount, or sometimes even more money than you’re used to for these things but you will receive less. Even McDonalds here costs significantly more than in the U.S., and you won’t get the super-sized food or drink cups you’re used to. You need to take this into consideration when you’re packing and/or budgeting. If you’re a person with large-sized feet, you’re tall, or you wear a clothing size that is considered average in the U.S., you won’t be able to find anything here unless you somehow get to a specialty store. Other than food and clothing, many other types of things in Japan are designed to be compact, and most importantly, economical. An example of the concern with efficiency is the scarcity of air conditioning in Japan. In public buildings, schools, and maybe even some hotels, A/C is avoided as much as possible. There is usually no central A/C, but separate controls for each room so that only rooms that are being used are cooled. If you’re here in the summer, get used to sweating a lot! Especially if you’re studying abroad, the likelihood is that your school won’t have the same icy A/C as what is common in the U.S.
- Know when things shut down! Something I find that many people are surprised about it how early things close in Japan. Himeji is not a huge city, but it’s basically dead by 9-10pm. Things like banks, post offices, buses, trains, etc, all shut down much earlier than in the U.S. That’s why there is always such a concern about “making the last train” in Japan. Because if you miss the cut off, it really does suck. You’re stuck paying for a taxi (which are obscenely expensive here), or maybe even stuck wherever you are until things start back up around 5-6am. ATMs are not usually not 24-hours here, nor are convenience stores, as they are in the U.S. Be aware of when things close, and when public transportation stops running.
Reading back over this stuff, I realize it makes my experience come across as negative – but it’s really hasn’t been at all! These are all just things that, now that I see in hindsight, are important to know if you’re thinking of coming to Japan for one reason or another.
Here are some additional pieces of advice if you’re a student planning to come to Japan.
- It’s a good idea to purchase a 電子辞書 (でんしじしょ；Electronic Dictionary)! This thing has really been saving my life. I’m really glad I decided to buy one before I came. I was lucky to find a used, but new condition one on eBay for only $150 and I use it constantly. When I was thinking about buying one, I read some blog posts to see various people’s opinions about whether or not an electronic dictionary is really necessary. Many people argued that you can buy a Japanese dictionary app for your iPhone/iPod/iPad for much cheaper, and it’s more convenient than having a separate device. However, with this said, I don’t think that is the reality. Teachers generally do not appreciate it if you pull out a cell phone or tablet during class, and even if you explain that you’re using a dictionary app, they may (and probably will) tell you to put your device away immediately. This year’s CLS teachers tend to be lenient about this, but that doesn’t guarantee next year’s teachers will be. At my home University, you absolutely cannot use cell phones/tablets in class. When teachers see me using an electronic dictionary, they know exactly what I’m doing, and they don’t have any worries that I might be looking on the internet or not paying attention. Also, I find that it just works very well. It’s nice that it has separate sections for English–>Japanese and Japanese–>English, and it searches extremely quickly. I also like that I can use the stylus to write a kanji if I really have no idea how to read it, but I still need to look it up. It really saves me tons of time, and I would highly recommend getting one if you take studying Japanese really seriously. You will use it for years. Before I had one, I used iPhone apps called “imiwa?” and “Japanese,” both of which work great, but I have come to prefer my 電子辞書.
- Don’t bring any office supplies with you! There is no point to it. Stationary, pens, pencils and other school/office products here are extremely cheap. Also, the standard sized paper here is not American-sized A4 paper, but usually B4 paper. Also hole punching here is 2 holes, not 3 holes like in the U.S. So if you bring paper, you might not have the easiest time finding a binder that it can fit into. Overall, bringing office supplies from the U.S. is just a waste of your suitcase space and weight.
- Don’t expect to be able to print out things! Japanese Universities tend to be more strict about use of resources than American ones are. If you’re using more than your own share of resources, such as printer paper, it can come across very badly. I am a person who prefers to have printed copies of things rather than viewing them on a computer, so this is something that I am struggling with a bit. Other students here who have mini-laptops and/or small tablets are in a better situation.
- Remember to use 敬語 (honorific speech) with your teachers! I’m sure any Japanese language student reading this right now is sighing loudly. I understand, because I also hate keigo. It is a pain to memorize and it’s difficult to remember to use it when the time comes. However, using it will really go a long way. I’ve been told that your ability to use keigo is kind of a measure of your maturity in Japan. Although in the U.S., it’s common to call college professors by their first name, and speak to them casually, this is not at all the case in Japan. In particular, if you are making a request that your teacher do something for you, you MUST use keigo. I have made a lot of mistakes with this, and only recently have come to fully understand the importance of getting this right. However, understanding and being able to use keigo is an invaluable skill. Even if you make a mistake and don’t say something quite right, your teachers will appreciate that you made an effort to address them as your superior.
- Remember to bring gifts from your home University or home town! While you’re here, a variety of people will probably help you, teach you, and become your friends. At the end of your stay in Japan, you need to give them a gift, as this is Japanese tradition and kind of a social obligation. Bring a variety of small, but nice, things with you that are special in that you can’t buy them in Japan. Things with your home University’s logo, school name, and/or school colors are a great idea. Things that are local specialties of your hometown also work.
This is an ever-growing list as I continue to study here and learn new things. If I think of anything to add, I’ll update you with another post!
Also, another thing to note is that these are all things that I have made mistakes with. I’m far from fluent in Japanese and far from being able to behave appropriately in Japanese society in a seamless fashion. But that’s why I want to share all of these things on here. Don’t make the same mistakes as me!