While I was studying Japanese at Michigan State, there were two distinct factions of people: those that liked anime and those that didn’t. Those that liked anime were often derided as wanting to learn Japanese for the wrong reasons.
Weirdly enough, many classmates automatically assumed that I didn’t like anime – after all, people that like anime can’t be serious about their studies, they thought. I didn’t really think much of it until one of my classmates pointed at two others across the room and whispered: “Those two are always talking about anime – no wonder their Japanese is awful!” The classmate then looked at me, expecting a chuckle or other amused response. Instead, all they got was a look of bewilderment. After all, I felt like I was being judged as an anime fan myself.
Till that point, I didn’t realize just how ingrained this culture against anime-watchers was within the Japanese program. It was argued that people that like anime often equate the fictional worlds within their favorite TV shows to being exactly what Japanese culture is like, which would be culturally insensitive. Indeed, I have certainly come across some people that do think like this: they talk of going to Japan solely to visit Akihabara, a popular destination for pop culture fans filled with various anime-centric stores. However, I have never come across anybody in the upper levels of the Japanese language program that would assume anime and real-life Japan to be one and the same. That’d create a lot of contradictions with what you’re studying!
Generally, if you’ve committed to studying Japanese for two, three, four, or more years of your life, you likely are more dedicated to it beyond a simple desire to watch a television show without subtitles. Sure, anime was the reason I first got into my studies, but that was really it: a start. From there, my interest in Japanese culture coupled with the challenge of learning kanji and the grammar structures propelled me to three separate study abroad programs and a major in Japanese. I spent hours every days bettering my language skills, and prided myself on my ability to achieve high marks. So to hear people assume that certain hobbies necessarily meant you were an insensitive, low-achieving student was pretty hurtful.
Now working at JCMU, I have the opportunity to meet with students across the state at various events promoting our study abroad programs. During my conversations, some lamented the same thing happening at their school. Many of them went on to have successful semesters at JCMU.
With this all said, I think it’s time we put this rumor to bed: your hobbies are not indicative of your ability to succeed in the classroom! So rather than focusing on whether or not your classmate watches anime, cosplays, reads Harry Potter, goes to the gym, plays sports, or what have you, instead work together and focus on the one thing we all collectively hate: keigo.
I was not prepared for how intense the JCMU Summer Intensive Language program would be. And you know what: I think a lot of the fault lies with my own misconceptions of what my life in Hikone would be like.
It’s not like JCMU didn’t try and warn me. I mean, “intensive” is literally in the program name. At pre-departure orientation, it was clearly explained to me that I would take 4 hours of class a day and could expect to do another 3-6 additional hours of homework and studying thereafter. Meeting with the instructors the day before my first class, we were told that due how quickly we would be moving through coursework, we have to really stay on top of our studies lest we rapidly fall behind.
Despite their best efforts, I opted to replace their caution with my own unrealistically optimistic expectations: “Surely it won’t be that hard,” “They’re just trying to scare us,” and so on. So I waltzed into my 4th-year classroom the first day excited to do a few hours of work then be off to explore the rest of the day.
If you’ve ever been on an intensive JCMU language program, you may have come into the program underestimating it too. So you likely know how it felt when expectations and reality finally collided.
Classes were difficult that first day – I felt like I learned a lot, but it took all of my energy to keep up and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. However, the real “star” of the day came afterwards: the homework. With my Japanese classes at Michigan State, it wasn’t too hard to spend just an hour or so studying after class and feeling confident in the material discussed that day. At JCMU, it really did take the 3-6 hours the staff were warning me for.
Perhaps the most difficult thing of all, though, was learning how to cope with this new academic reality. On campus, I always felt like if I studied the textbooks long enough, I would be absolutely prepared for class. I was so used to reaching a point in my studies where everything clicked, a sort-of “aha!” moment where darnit, this ～ている form actually makes total sense. However, try as I might, I never really got to that point in my studies at JCMU – especially at first. You see, the first night after classes at JCMU, I studied from the end of class till 2 in the morning, all without taking a break to eat or relax. Sure, the first few hours were pretty productive, but the sheer amount of content combined with my overworked brain prevented me from feeling like I could get a complete grasp on what I was learning just in one sitting. But I refused to accept this, so I continued studying in vein till the wee hours of the morning hoping to finally have it all click.
Unsurprisingly, there was no such moment. I kept up this pattern of death-by-overstudying for the next week, desperate for everything to start making sense. Despite my efforts, my JCMU teachers and I both noticed something peculiar: even as I studied by far the most time out of everyone, my grades were actually getting worse. I was a 4.0 student through my first 3 years of college, yet here I was scraping by with a 2.0 thus far. I was so stressed out by my falling grades I actually sent the Program Coordinator at JCMU’s East Lansing office a frantic message asking them about what in the world they thought I should do to magically increase my grades (now working full-time in the East Lansing office myself, the two of us get a chuckle about this every now and then).
One of my instructors, Kamiya-sensei, was very concerned that I came to class increasingly despondent from studying past midnight every night. After seeing it wasn’t producing the results I was hoping for, Kamiya-sensei decided it was time to sit down and talk with me about it around the end of the second week of class. She spoke with me about what my typical day looked like, my concerns about the course content, and my own emotions regarding the program.
Kamiya-sensei told me three things that immediately and positively impacted my time in Japan:
You’re in Japan for a reason! Go out, practice using the language in day-to-day conversations, experience the culture and society you read about in the textbooks, and have fun while doing it.
You should of course study, do your homework, and prepare for the next day’s coursework. However, there’s a difference between positive and futile study tactics. Your brain needs rest in order to work properly – takes breaks between study sessions to give your brain more time to recuperate.
There are more ways to study than just from a book. Work together with your classmates and ask for their input. You can even reach out to JCMU’s English Language Program students and help each other out with each others’ language work.
Hearing a professor tell me I had to be more flexible with my study habits was something I really needed to hear.
I followed Kamiya-sensei‘s advice as best I could: I still studied 3-6 hours a day, but gone were the days of studying past midnight. I worked closely with my classmates, including the Japanese students studying English at JCMU. And above all, I made sure to dedicate at least some time to going out into the Hikone/Shiga community, learning more about my temporary life abroad. Low and behold, my experience became much better thereafter! I was enjoying my time exploring the area, I gained a group of really close friends, and my grades even improved to a 3.0 overall.
Not considering exactly what the intensive nature of JCMU would mean for me before the program definitely made me think more negatively about the experience at first. However, this wasn’t JCMU’s fault, but my own for trying to treat study abroad like any other on-campus class. After readjusting my thinking though, I really felt like I was making great strides with my studies – and having fun while doing it!
To current and future students traveling to Hikone: JCMU is a difficult academic experience. However, it’s so much more than just the classwork! Make sure to do your homework and prepare for tests, but also practice Japanese at the grocery store, explore the historic sites in Shiga (and elsewhere in Japan), and hang out with your friends – both classmates and Japanese students. Your experience (and maybe even your grades!) will be better for it.
I’m sitting in my room tossing clothes back and forth, nervous about my first trip to Japan starting the next day. Ever the millennial, I sent texts to all of my friends hoping to gain comfort in their words. Many of them responded quizzically: “You were so excited for this trip just yesterday, what caused this sudden change?” they asked. “Is it the long flight? Being so far away from friends and family?”
“No, none of that,” I sighed. “It’s… well, I think I might be too fat to be in Japan.”
I am a 280 pound, 6 foot man. While large, in the U.S., people my size are relatively common. I’m accustomed to the occasional rude comment here and there whenever I pick up fast food, work out at the gym, or am forced off an amusement park ride since they couldn’t buckle the seat belt around me. Beyond that though, my weight doesn’t really affect how I go about my day-to-day life. It’s easy enough to find clothing that fits me, and the vast majority of people are indifferent to my weight.
As such, I didn’t really give much thought about being a bigger person in Japan. At least, not until one of our faculty leads sent out a last-minute e-mail mentioning that the largest size of clothing we’ll find in Japan at almost all shops there is the equivalent of a U.S. extra large (I wear 2XL and 3XL, depending on the brand). I wasn’t terribly concerned about shopping for clothes there, but something clicked in my head at that moment: “Oh my gosh, bigger people aren’t that common in Japan. Will I be ridiculed wherever I go? Will people wonder if all Americans are as large as me?” These thoughts swiftly took over the excitement of traveling to another country.
Happily, most of these fears ended up being unfounded. I never really noticed anybody treating me different for being bigger – at least in a way that was intended to offend me. But there were some problems and amusing scenarios I ran into:
Too big for Japan, too small for my pants
I walked and biked all over the place during my first summer in Japan. By the end of the program, I probably could have walked to my favorite parts of town blindfolded! Because of all the increased exercise, I found myself losing weight pretty quickly (I was down to 240 pounds by the end of July).
However, this led to a peculiar problem: my pants, so snug and perfect around my waist before, were falling off me, and my old belt wasn’t able to help. Unfortunately, while I was pleased with my newly-lost stomach size, Japanese stores still weren’t equipped for shoppers of my size. I scoured clothing store after clothing store looking for a belt that fit me without luck. Eventually, I gave up, purchased 2 small belts, tied them together, and wore this Frankenbelt until I returned home.
The program I was on had me work as a student intern on the “Michigan“, a paddle boat in Otsu (the capitol of Shiga) designed after the “Michigan Princess“. In fancy terms, our goal was to serve as cultural ambassadors, teaching Shiga citizens basic English and telling them about life in Michigan. In more realistic terms, we were there to be waiters and greet people as they entered the boat.
As people made the short trek up the docks and onto the boat, my classmates and I would stand just outside. There, we welcomed customers with a loud “Irasshaimase“, or “Come on in”. Most of the people we interacted with bowed and walked on by. Copy+paste about 100 times, and that made up 99% of my experiences greeting people before the cruise started.
There was, however, an encounter that went much more awkwardly than normal. One day, a small elderly couple made there way up to the boat. As usual, I greeted them with a hearty “Irasshaimase“. The older woman bowed, but the old man stopped and gave me a long, baffled stare. After a while, he slowly walked up to me, staring intensely at my stomach the whole way. I expected him to stop and walk along at some point, but he got mere inches from me before he planted his feet down and stopped.
At this point, I was equal part uncomfortable and confused. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what I did to apparently offend this guy: “Did I do something to offend him? What in the world is going on here? Am I in trouble?” So in an effort to maybe diffuse the situation, I confusedly asked “Can I help you, sir?”
At that moment, the man’s head shot up to look me in the eyes, his expression unchanged from its earlier intensity. Then, something even more unexpected and baffling: he reached out with his right hand and lightly grabbed my stomach. He even rubbed my stomach in a light circular motion, his eyes still locked onto mine.
I had no clue what was happening. This random elderly man was looking angrily at me while rubbing my stomach. I certainly don’t remember reading about how to respond to this situation when perusing my “Japan 101” book on the flight to Osaka! So I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing, but he beat me to the punch:
“Buddha”, he said dramatically. Then he backed away and hysterically cackled with glee. In perfect English, he joyfully asked “What are you, 100 kilograms?!?”
At this point in the trip I was about 260 pounds. So I did the math in my head and stammered “Umm, I’m actually closer to 120 kilograms-“
“120 KILOGRAMS?!?” he shouted so loud that other people were turning to see what all the hullabaloo was about (except for his wife, who was frantically walking away in embarrassment). “THAT’S AMAZING!!!” He then slapped me on the back a few times, laughed some more, and scurried onto the boat himself.
Minutes passed, and I was still standing there in shock. It was all just so sudden, so… weird. It was certainly the first time somebody in Japan made a spectacle of my weight, but I don’t think he meant harm by it all – it was just so genuinely surprising for him to see a person of my size that he wanted to have a little silly fun with it. Nevertheless, it took me a full week to process all that happened in just that minute or two.
I look back on the event fondly, if only because it’s certainly a bizarre, fun story to tell friends and family! To this day though, whenever I hear the word “Buddha”, I’m brought back to that weird encounter I had with this elderly Japanese man.
“You can eat all of that? That’s so cool!”
One hot afternoon, my classmates and I were to give a presentation at the University of Shiga Prefecture about the differences we noticed between Michigan’s and Shiga’s cultures. During the lunch break, we had the opportunity to casually hang out with some of the students at the university cafeteria.
I didn’t eat breakfast that morning, so when getting my food I grabbed a couple extra sides and the extra large portion of rice. It was a lot of food, but it didn’t seem like an abnormally large amount to me. I found out very quickly that that was only because I was thinking of things in terms of American portion sizes.
I got back to our table and sat my food down. “Is that your’s and Jody’s (one of my classmates) food?” one of the Shiga students asked.
“No? It’s just my lunch.”
As if I had activated some sort of alarm, the rest of the Shiga students immediately stopped their chatter and stared at me. “All of this,” one of them motions to my tray, “just for you?”
Preparing for them to be disgusted, I quietly answered “Yeah…”
The students trade glances with each other. Then…
“That’s awesome! How do you do it? I could only eat half of that, that’s so cool!”
From that point on, our conversations focused on how impressed they were that I could pack away so many calories. Much like my experience with the elderly Japanese man above, I don’t think they meant any harm – I think they were just truly surprised to see somebody eat as much as I do. I’m glad that they were impressed, but honestly I couldn’t help but feel bad that I was probably reinforcing the stereotypical view of Americans in their minds.
All-in-all, being large in Japan comes with some of its own unique quirkiness. Fortunately though, even with the above challenges and bizarre scenarios, my weight didn’t negatively impact my experience. As such, if you’re a larger person, then I encourage you be confident in yourself and not worry too much about studying in Shiga!
When you’re in Japan, you often hear stories about people sleeping in internet cafes instead of hotels. The cafes are open 24 hours a day and provide private cubicles for people, so it’s an inexpensive way to get last-minute accommodations for a short bit of respite. It’s not a great option, but for those in desperate need of sleep, it’s a viable last resort.
Of course, you never want to be in a situation where you’re legitimately considering sleeping in one. For the cost, it’s typically possible to find a hostel that will providemore suitable nightly accommodations. When I did the JCMU Summer Intensive Language program in 2014, my friends and I often joked about sleeping in one to save money, but we never actually considered doing it while planning our excursions. Nighttime comfort is obviously sacrificed, as there is (at best) a small sofa or computer chair for you to attempt (and fail) to get shuteye in.
How do I know this? Because one of my friends and I had the unfortunate “pleasure” of shacking up in one during a series of unfortunate mishaps.
Night buses in Japan are popular, inexpensive ways to traverse the country
It began well planned enough. Three of my classmates and I wanted to travel to Hiroshima for an extended holiday weekend. Two of them decided to travel via shinkansen (bullet train) and arrived quickly after class on Friday, while my friend and I elected to take a far cheaper night bus as we were on a strict budget. It departed Kyoto late at night and arrived early in the morning, giving riders an opportunity to sleep the 6-8 hour bus ride away. The bus ticket was only about $35/person each way versus the $200/person shinkansen ticket, so we jumped for that in hopes of saving funds to use in Hiroshima itself. We read “22:20” as the departure time and instantly translated that into AM/PM time, so we made plans to arrive outside of Kyoto Station by no later than 10:50pm.
Unfortunately, the two mismatched times above are not typos, so I’m sure you can instantly imagine how this went wrong.
We arrived at Kyoto Station right “on time”, and made our way to the bus stop even a bit “early” (around 10:45pm or so). With our bus leaving at 11:20pm, we thought, we had made it with plenty of time to spare. At 11:05pm, a bus rolled up to the stop – however, it stated it was heading to Tokyo, not Hiroshima. “Ours must be the next one,” we thought, but the next bus at 11:20pm also listed Tokyo as its destination. Concerned, we asked the bus stop attendant about when our bus would arrive. She looked at our ticket and regretted to inform us that we long missed our ride. “No way,” we thought, “our bus was scheduled to leave at 22:20, which translates to 11-…”
It was then we collectively realized our mistake. “…10:20pm…”
The attendant, clearly sympathetic, scrambled to try and find a solution for us. “The bus is scheduled to stop in Kobe around 12:50am, and if you get on the very next express train there you should be able to catch them!” She handed us a map of the Kobe bus stop area, then we were off to the races.
Kyoto Station is a very cool modern structure, but we were too busy scrambling to get on the next train to Kobe to really take in the building’s beauty!
Fortunately, we were able to get on a Kobe-bound express train almost immediately, and made it with around 30 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we realized all too late that the map we were handed made no gosh darn sense. After 10 minutes of complete confusion trying to locate the bus stop, we asked a couple of really nice locals for help. They were amazing and stayed with us as we collectively had zero clue where the map was pointing us to. After 20 more minutes of frantic searching, it was 12:50am with no bus in sight. Another 5 minutes, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that us being on this bus was not meant to be.
We had no clue what to do at this point. We couldn’t travel back to Hikone, as it was too late in the evening to make it back before the trains would stop service for the night. We didn’t have enough money for a hotel – I mean, that was why we elected to take a night bus instead of the shinkansen. The two kind locals, still helping us through all of our mishaps, pointed us in the direction of a local cheap internet cafe.
They walked in, explained the situation to the front desk worker, then discussed with us what would be happening. We would pay 2000 yen total to have a small cubicle room for 4 hours. The room somehow squeezed in a small 2-person couch, along with a desktop computer that was clearly from another century. The internet loaded hilariously slow for it being an internet cafe, but we had no internet before (neither of our phones worked internationally), so we were just happy to be in a place where we could figure out our next steps before getting a few hours of shuteye.
The “high end” equipment at the internet cafe
Man I wish it worked out that smoothly. We planned out the next day well enough: we let the other two already in Hiroshima know what had happened, and looked through how to get to Hiroshima the following day cheaply. We decided that we would take local trains the entire way from Kobe, starting with the first morning train leaving Kobe Station at 5:15am. It would be a 6 hour trip with 4 transfers – not exactly a fun itinerary, but we were already strapped for money having to pay for these unexpected misadventures.
After that, we laid against each other’s heads on the tiny couch, and tried to get enough sleep to power us through the next day of travel.
But I just.
Sure, my friend was able to sleep a tad. But I just sat there and gazed at my surroundings for the entirety of our remaining 3.5 hours at the internet cafe. I noticed that the place had all of the “newest” video games for us to play if we wanted (assuming you consider PlayStation 2 as a new system in 2014, at least). They had some of the weirdest DVDs that I can only assume came from the Japanese equivalent of the Dollar General. The snoring all around me from other patrons pervaded the air, forming an ensemble of noise that assaulted my senses whenever I tried to relax even just a little. It was a truly awful experience.
You can tell which of the 2 of us had more energy after the internet cafe
When our 4 hours were nearly up, I lightly tapped on my friend’s shoulder to wake her up. My brain painted her “Good morning” as bragging about being able to get some sleep in, but it was surely just jealousy on my part. As we checked out, I remembered our plan to take 6 hours of local trains all the way to Hiroshima. With a whopping 0 hours of sleep under my belt, I couldn’t help but wonder if my body was going to make it through the journey.
We did eventually make it to Hiroshima, where our 2 classmates already there were excited to take us around the city. Though looking back I loved our Hiroshima okonomiyaki lunch and our evening stroll along the beach at Miyajima that day, at the time I was genuinely most excited for a quiet night utilizing our hostel’s bare bones sleeping accommodations.
Nighttime at Miyajima was cool – but at this point I was thinking more about sleep than anything
Before this trip, I frequently joked about sleeping in internet cafes. Afterwards though, even the most casual mention of them brought me back to one of the longest days of my life. From that point on, I was extra careful with all of the travel plans I made, quadruple-checking departure times, having another set of eyes look at everything to make sure all looked good, and even having an alternative last resort plan (that didn’t involve internet cafes) should all else fall through. No matter what, I made sure that internet cafes would never be a part of my travel experience ever again.
I look back on the whole thing with a certain level of masochistic fondness now. It was definitely a unique and memorable experience, at least! However, I wouldn’t wish a night at an internet cafe on even my greatest of enemies. That would just be too cruel.
Everybody that’s studied abroad in Japan always returns home with lots of amazing stories to tell their friends and family. Patrick Mercer, our JCMU Media Specialist and a 2014/15 JCMU alum, has his own stories that he’d like to share with you!
Nara is a must-visit while you’re in Japan: ancient temples, shrines, large shopping district, and a park with deer you can directly interact with. However, as Patrick recalls, beware feeding the animals…
I’m ashamed to say that I knew very little of Nara’s history before setting out for the ancient capital. Nope, my reason for visiting was far less noble: I wanted to chill out with deer.
Growing up in Michigan my whole life, I always thought of deer as anxious creatures that would run away at the first sign of a human. So when I heard of Nara’s famous Nara Park (sometimes called “Nara Deer Park”), I was intrigued. According to my friends, deer are considered to be holy creatures in the city and are heavily protected by local laws. This meant that the deer became so comfortable with the human population there that you could walk right up and pet them. Cute, pettable deer? Sign me up!
Oh, if only I knew how terrifying the deer were.
Hanging out with the deer was a lot of fun – at first, at least…
Upon arrival to the park, I was absolutely delighted. There really were deer everywhere! And they really were so used to humans that you could walk right up to them! My friend and I, both lovers of cute things, couldn’t contain our excitement as we walked through the area.
Halfway through, we came across a vendor selling “deer crackers,” disc-shaped food that we could feed the park’s animal natives. In my mind, I had this idealized image of feeding the deer while sitting on a park bench, similar to how movie characters would sometimes feed birds. I thought it would be a peaceful, serene activity to partake in. Needless to say, I bought a large pack of the crackers.
Immediately, I knew this was a mistake.
The Nara deer are always on the lookout for snack handouts
Like something straight out of a horror movie, the deer’s personalities shifted completely, becoming something like a hivemind cult group. Every single deer in the immediate area instantly gathered around me. It didn’t matter if they were previously sleeping, facing away from me, with other deer – nope, the second my money was handed over, the deer were there, ready to strike. And they weren’t going to wait another second for their food.
The deer bit me, jumped around, and pilfered my backpack in search of snacks. There was no space to move, as there seemed to be no end to them no matter where I turned. I tried to shoo them away by throwing the crackers, but that only served to bring even more of the evil creatures over to me. I ran away, but the deer just ran with me, nibbling at my side all the way. Even after depleting my cracker supply, they continued to follow me for the remainder of my time in the park. What was once excitement morphed into fear, and I couldn’t escape the area soon enough.
Tōdai-ji’s absolutely stunning!
Perhaps as a repression technique, I became a lot more interested in visiting other parts of Nara! Tōdai-ji, one of the largest wooden structures in the world containing the country’s largest daibutsu (statue of Buddha), was breathtaking. Kōfuku-ji and its 5-story pagoda were awe-inspiring. My friend and I even got to participate in a delicious nagashi sōmen run taking place in the city’s shopping district. Still though, even as we were on the train back to Shiga, most of my thoughts were still consumed by the creatures that (literally) bit the hand that fed them.
I’ve since returned to Nara twice on separate trips with my JCMU classmates. Despite my previous encounter with them, I still enjoy visiting Nara Park. Now though, I know the dangers of deer crackers.
The city’s beauty is truly stunning, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re ever in Japan. Just be weary of feeding the deer!