So you’ve done your research and think you’re prepared to study abroad in Japan. No culture shock for you, right? Not so fast. There are still a few things that might surprise you.
1) Everyone Slacks Off in College
You’ve no doubt heard about the demanding Japanese school system, with students studying all hours of the day and taking after-school classes to pass college entrance exams. However, once students receive their acceptance letters, it’s all smooth sailing. Employers don’t even look at college transcripts and don’t care about grades. All they want to see is that the applicant graduated from a school with a good reputation. College is considered “eternal spring break.”
2) Cell Phones on Trains = Forbidden.
Talking on your cell phone while riding the train will make people literally want to punch you in the face. There are signs everywhere on trains: No Cell Phones. Also, chatting up strangers is just not done. The only way to properly ride the train is in complete silence.
3) Student Clubs are Like Part-Time Jobs
Joining a club is a great way to make friends in university. Whether it’s a sports club, chess club or drama club, you’re sure to meet lots of like-minded people.
Be aware, though - in Japan, clubs are serious business. There are rules and regulations. There are official titles and responsibilities. There are set meeting and practice times that must be adhered to. Clubs are, essentially, like part-time jobs.
There is an alternative to Clubs: Circles. They are a lot more relaxed and laid back, and similar to what you would expect a student club to be like. They are mostly for socializing and having fun, all while taking part in a common interest.
4) Showing TooMuch Interest in Japanese Pop-Culture Will Brand You as a Weirdo
Japanese pop-culture has infiltrated the world slowly but surely over the last few decades, starting with anime (Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball anyone?), followed by cool Harajuku fashion and Japanese TV dramas.
However. Admitting that you wanted to study abroad in Japan because you are obsessed with anime will brand you as a weirdo. It’s just a fact. Imagine if the only reason a Japanese person decided to study at Harvard was because they just loved “The Simpsons.” A typical reaction to both would be “Oh. Really? Hmm. Okay. That’s odd.”
5) Drinking Parties are Cathartic and Induce Selective Memory Loss
There is a tradition called Nomikai – a drinking party with your fellow club members. It’s not always just for fun or for bonding purposes, though. There is sometimes an unspoken social convention at play. Nomikai can be used to speak the words you could never say while sober.
It’s expected that you’ll get drunk (or at least pretend to), and vent and rant about things that are bothering you. These drinking parties are a way to air grievances or confess to things without repercussion. Maybe you joke with your club President that he’s too long-winded and everyone laughs, agreeing that his 30 minute pep talks at the beginning of every club meeting are unnecessary.
The next day, everyone pretends to have forgotten everything they said and heard – however, certain things will sometimes change. Maybe at the next club meeting, the president jumps right into the agenda and skips his usual rambling. Of course, no one will acknowledge where the change came from.
No matter how prepared you think you are, you’ll always find something to be surprised about when studying abroad. Learn to embrace cultural differences and take part in them yourself – after all, who wouldn’t want to tell off a wind-bag club President and get away with it?
Candice MacAulay is a writer, travel blogger and freelance digital marketing and content strategist. She is also one-half of The Let’s Go Ladies, a pair of geeky best friends who blog about their travel adventures. You can find her tweeting over at @candicelee and @theletsgoladies, and blogging over at www.theletsgoladies.com