Recent Year in Asia returnee Nanumi Starke reflects on the challenges and personal growth she experienced while studying at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo over the past year.
As someone who was born and raised in Canberra, a big city like Tokyo seems like a vibrant, exciting and vastly more interesting place to call home. My mother, who is from Gunma prefecture in Japan, taught me Japanese as I was growing up through recorded Japanese TV shows, by sending me to Japanese school on Saturday mornings and speaking to me in Japanese around the house.
My connection to Japan meant that studying there had always been a dream of mine, and when I heard about the Year in Asia (YIA) program it seemed only natural that I grasp the opportunity and apply to study in Tokyo. As I wrap up my final few days here, I would like to reflect on some of the aspects of this program which helped me grow as a student, and more importantly as an individual who needs to make some big life decisions in the next few years.
Good days and bad days
I arrived at the Hitotsubashi University international dormitory in March 2017. Never having lived away from my parents, I was nervous but excited for my new-found freedom. The first student I encountered at the dorm was John, an Aussie boy from Melbourne university. We exchanged greetings as we went to check into our dorm, but both thought that would be that; the dorm was so big and full of such interesting and diverse people! Surely, we wouldn’t have time for other Aussies.
This assumption was entirely false, as I came to learn very quickly. No one in the world understands you better than your fellow countrymen/women. As one of my French friends from the dorms once said, “It is ok to not always be happy on exchange. In fact, having good days and bad days is all part of the experience”. On those bad days, of which there were many, having my Aussie friends John and Sophia by my side meant the world to me. We would talk about the coast while eating Sophia’s Caramello Koalas and forget all our worries.
Lesson one: having friends from all over the world is cool, but never underestimate or neglect the friendship and comfort that can be found within the fellow Aussie.
The next lesson derives from one of my major sources of stress in Japan. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the Japanese academic environment. Japanese universities are notorious for being overly simplified and lenient compared to the middle-school and high-school systems. Although I was taking seven classes per semester compared to the usual four at ANU, the sparsity of the content and the lack of assessment made uni life in Japan feel like a breeze. I would like to clarify that this is not a problem Hitotsubashi University alone faces; it is a trend across most Japanese universities, as I have found talking to other exchange students.
So, what was causing me to feel miserable? For me it was the soul-crushing nature of working life within Tokyo, and what that meant for a (potentially) prospective Tokyo citizen like myself. I knew that after graduating from ANU I wanted to leave Canberra, and before the exchange Tokyo seemed like a very exciting prospect for my new forever home. However, this fairy-tale image of Tokyo soon faded.
As an Aussie, I am a friendly, happy and easy-going individual. Therefore, seeing Japanese salarymen and women coming home on the train at 10pm, either zombified from exhaustion or drunk out of their minds, really got to me. Similar experiences occurred throughout the year.
In Shibuya on a Friday night, a drunk salaryman lay curled up on the street, using his briefcases as a pillow. A salarywoman asleep on the Yamanote train line, covered in her own vomit. Another news report of someone committing suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train during rush hour. These are all aspects of Japan you don’t see as a tourist, and the clearly problematic work-life imbalance made me despair for these people I felt so connected to. Although this connection, I found, was also something I began to doubt.
Lesson two: I am so lucky (in both an academic and general sense) to have grown up in Australia.
The final lesson I learned relates deeply to who I am as a person. Growing up half-Japanese, I had Asian features including brown eyes, dark hair and fair skin. I believed that to everyone (including myself) I looked very Japanese. Before my exchange I also felt quite Japanese. I grew up eating Japanese food (rice with every meal), having a bath daily and watching Japanese dramas with my mum.
This changed within the first month of living in Japan. It was the second day of being in Japan, I held an elevator open for a woman and her daughter at the mall. They rushed inside, bowing frantically, and the mother turned to me and said, “thank you” in English. I noticed within the first week that people seemed to be staring at me on the trains. Confused by these events, I asked one of my new Japanese friends whether I looked Japanese or not. “Oh not at all! You look completely gaijin!” she laughed.
Although not necessarily intentional, the treatment towards gaijin (foreigners) in Japan is quite severe. As time progressed, the sense of seclusion and ‘otherness’ as a gaijin settled in. Even if there was no malicious intent, being treated differently by the people you thought you were one of did not feel fantastic. For the first time in my life, I realised that although I felt connected to Japan, I am not Japanese at heart.
Lesson three: I am 110% Australian.
It may seem like I did not enjoy my YIA experience from this account. I would like to clarify that this is not the case at all.
I had so many happy moments filled with laughter and friendship, but I wanted to share the experiences that changed me, and I think only the most impactful and sometimes harsh experiences have the power to do that.
I would also like to clarify that my Japanese improved in leaps and bounds thanks to my teachers and my wonderful Japanese friends, meaning that I fulfilled my academic goal of the year. However, the most important thing I learnt this year (which relates to all three lessons) is how grateful I am to be Australian, and how much I have underappreciated my hometown, Canberra.
Living in Japan showed me that my heart belongs in Australia, and I think that that realisation alone made the YIA program an experience that I will never forget and forever appreciate.
I would like to thank Jennah Robichaud, Patrick Conroy and the entire CAP Student Centre team for their support and assistance during my year abroad. I would also like to thank Shun Ikeda, Mark Gibeau and the Japanese Department for their guidance when choosing my ideal university in Japan. Without your help, none of this would have been possible.
Find out more about the Year in Asia program.