Speaking of Japan …

Japan – land of the rising sun, Mount Fuji, bullet trains, baseball, Nikon, Honda and Sony, and a culture dating to antiquity – will be the topic of this month’s CultureLink Tea on Tuesday, Nov. 12. Four students – two from Japan and two St. Thomas seniors from Minnesota – will be the guest speakers.

The four are exchange students Ryoya Fujita and Megumi Kosaka, and Minnesotans Jack Kessler and Kale Siebert. Fujita, 21, from Yokohama, is a sociology major at Yokohama City University. Kosaka, 21, from Wakayama, is a junior in Japan and an English major at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies. Kessler, 21, from Inver Grove Heights, is a senior majoring in both actuarial science and Japanese studies; he attended Osaka Gakuin University in Japan. Siebert, 22, from Deerwood, is a senior majoring in both neuroscience and Japanese; he also studied at Osaka Gakuin University.

The four were asked a few questions about Japan (and America), their study-abroad experiences and what they intend to talk about at the Nov. 12 CultureLink Tea, which will be held at 3:15 p.m. in Scooter’s, Anderson Student Center. Their answers follow.

CultureLink Teas are free and open to the entire St. Thomas community.

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Why did you want to study abroad in America/Japan?

Fujita: Because I wanted to improve my English and broaden my mind.

Kessler: Being half Japanese, I wanted to learn more about my background and mother’s culture while also improving my language skills.

Map of Japan.

Japan is an island nation in the North Pacific Ocean, about 125 miles southeast of South Korea, with a coastline of 18,486 miles.

Kosaka: I heard that the education in American universities is very different from that in Japan, so I wanted to experience the difference. Also, I’ve been interested in American culture and society since I studied them in my home university. I wanted to learn more about it living in the country.

Siebert: I chose to study abroad in Japan because I wanted to enhance my language skills. I knew the only way to get better overall was to actually be completely immersed in the language and culture for an extended period.

What stereotypes did you have about life in your host country, and have you found them to be true?

Fujita: Americans are more open with others than Japanese. I think it is true for the most part. They are very friendly and generous to each other.

Kessler: I had a stereotype of Japan that most people eat rice every day. This turned out to be true.

Kosaka: I often heard “American students study hard and play hard,” which was my stereotype. I think it is true. I have much more homework and see many more students studying late at night at the library than in Japan; also, there are so many events held every week here in St. Thomas, which never happens to universities in Japan.

Siebert: Before I went there, one thing I thought of when I thought of Japan was that the country was kind of a trouble-free society; however, I came to realize that Japan is far from that. The country has its share of problems just like the rest of the world, problems like economic issues, racism, political extremism, etc.

What is the most interesting or startling thing that you have learned during your study-abroad experience?

Fujita: Through learning in a foreign country, I have realized many new values. I often stagger at what my friends do, and what I tell them often surprises them. It is pretty interesting to meet new friends.

Kessler: I had no idea how much Japan relies on public transportation. You have to take the train if you want to get anywhere.

Flag of Japan.

The flag of Japan.

Kosaka: I have learned that I should not be afraid of asking for help. Since this is my first time to study in the U.S., there are so many things I don’t know and I cannot deal with by myself. At first, I hesitated to ask someone for help because I was not sure if I can explain it well and catch what they say in English, which might bother them. But when I actually ask people around me for help, they are always patient to listen and explain to me and do their best to help me out. It is sometimes hard to live in such a completely different environment, but at the same time, it enables me to feel the warmth of the people who are kind to me. I appreciate their kindness and I’d like to do the same thing when I find someone in trouble like me.

Siebert: The one thing that startled me most about Japan was the overall friendliness and helpfulness of most of the Japanese people who I met, especially my host family; obviously, they had dealt with foreign students before, but they wholeheartedly welcomed me as part of their family right from the beginning. They were always so helpful when my Japanese ability was low, and they made a huge effort to get me to experience the Japanese lifestyle and Japan itself every day. The friends I made at school were also some of the nicest and most genuine people I have ever met.

Has your study-abroad experience changed you in any way?

Fujita: Yes. Through experiencing new cultures, I have begun to see my own culture from a more objective viewpoint.

Kessler: I changed more in my one year abroad then I would have ever imagined. I became more independent, became able to face adversity head on, and learned not to be afraid to go out of my comfort zone.

Kosaka: This experience gives me another perspective to look at the things around me. It is because people here seem to behave more freely than in Japan. They have their own way of thinking and doing things, and they are sure of them. In Japan, we are sometimes afraid of being different from others and which sometimes makes me feel as if I were bound by rules. But I guess difference is more accepted here, which gives me a wide range of ways of thinking and makes me more flexible.

Mount Fuji

Iconic Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 12,388 feet. An active stratovolcano, it last erupted Dec. 16, 1707. On a clear day it can be seen from Tokyo, about 62 miles away.

Siebert: I would say that I’ve changed a lot since studying in Japan. I remember when I first stepped off of the plane in Osaka and met the Japanese students from school who came to pick me up. I wasn’t able to speak Japanese at all, and I could barely understand when someone was talking to me. I honestly wanted to hop right back on a plane and head back home. I felt like I was in such an alien environment. It didn’t help that I had to live on my own for a few days while my host family was still on vacation. It took me a while to realize that I was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when I did, I made myself buckle down and do everything I could to become comfortable with my new life. I basically was forced out of my comfort zone for an entire year, but there were many things that made getting used to Japan a whole lot easier. Once I started understanding the language better everything about my new lifestyle improved by a huge margin.

Based on your study-abroad experience, what is the one most important thing you want Americans to know about Japan?

Fujita: I want them to keep in mind that any information about Japan they can obtain here can be wrong or slanted.

Kessler: Japan is a very unique culture – unlike any other in the world. They are a very nice and polite culture, but so different from American culture that it is unexplainable in words. From their language, their customs, to their group mentality, Japan will definitely open your eyes to a new way of living and going about everyday life.

Kosaka: I hear Japanese are said to be shy or quiet here or in other foreign countries. So I would like to tell them that it can be true sometimes, but not always. Since we often focus on the harmony of the group, we tend to have less opportunity to express our opinions and we spend more time reading what others are thinking. That’s one of the reason why some people say Japanese are less talkative, especially in discussion. But even if we are quiet, it doesn’t mean we are displeased. Some of us think others can understand their feelings even though they don’t say that because it is a part of our culture. Or they are just nervous to speak in English because we focus on the grammar in education and tend to be afraid of making mistakes when we speak it even though we shouldn’t.

Siebert: I would tell everyone that they need to experience going to Japan at least once. Japan has such an amazing culture that it is still able to incorporate into modern life. Of course the entertainment aspect of Japan is amazing, but the temples and historical monuments that can be found throughout the country are just as amazing. Japan is a country that you actually have to experience for yourself.

What will you focus on when you speak at the Nov. 12 CultureLink Tea?

Fujita: I will do the presentation with some friends, who have their own values and perspectives about Japan. I want to attach importance on the different feelings about Japan among my group members.

Kessler: My experiences while studying abroad. My favorite things to do, must-see places, favorite foods, etc.

Kosaka: I will focus on Japanese culture, especially events in Japan; for example, we Japanese celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Day in different ways. I think it is interesting to compare one culture with another.

Siebert: I’ll focus on my experience in Japan, my life with my host family, life at school, traveling, etc.