Japan Studies (ACM) Waseda University Fall '08 -- Spring '09
Megan Kleven '10
I went on the ACM program for one academic year during my junior year at St. Olaf. The whole program was made up of about thirty students from various Midwestern colleges. (About seven of them were only there for one academic semester; all of them wished they had stayed for the entire year.) Most people arrived on two separate flights and we were met by a couple of Waseda students who would sort of take care of us if we needed them to during orientation. The first week of the program we spent a week at the Higashiyamatoshi dormatory about an hour or so from the campus by train. We got to know each other pretty well while doing miniature socio-anthropological field experience, mini culture classes (e.g., what is appropriate in a dinner setting at a host family's house?), and miniature language classes (e.g., what should you say to your family when you first meet them?). By the end of the orientation, we'd already made some friends and become mostly accustomed to working with Michiyo Nakayama and the resident director from one of the US colleges.
Japanese classes are a requirement and placement testing is done a few days before classes, during the orientation. We had three hour classes four days a week. The three hours were painfully long, but we did get a small break in the middle and got to know the teachers pretty well. Students in past years have said that they were upset with placement testing because once they were placed in a class they could not switch levels if they felt it was too easy or too difficult. I was comfortable with my placement, but I think switching has become much easier and grading seemed fair. The only unfortunate thing about the school system itself was the absence policy; absences were not excusable under any circumstance. I missed about a week and a half of school because I had to have surgery and even that wasn't counted as a viable excuse for missing class. It did work out; I had plenty of offers to help me catch up in class if needed and it didn't affect my grade at all in the long run. Supplemental Japanese language courses (e.g., extra kanji classes) are also available but most students said they were a lot of extra work in addition to the regular intensive classes. They also basically got our cell phones for us. We picked out the color and model we wanted and that was basically it; we had the phones in a few days.
Other classes were extremely varied. I took linguistic and cultural classes for the most part including Sociolinguistics, Translation Studies, and a class on Ainu. However, I also took a class called The Art of Mime and Pantomime and many of my friends took political science and computer classes. There should be plenty of classes available to fulfill all needed requirements at St. Olaf even for one full year. All credits transfer. Just make sure to check with department heads to verify specific courses for fulfilling GE/major requirements so they know what kind of classes you're taking.
The only thing you have to be a little wary of is the description of the classes in the syllabus; they are not always true to form. For example, my translation studies class was described in the syllabus as a class conducted in both English and Japanese and had no prerequisites or detailed descriptions. It turned out to be a lecture class based ONLY on translating from English in to Japanese -- a task that is virtually impossible unless you are completely fluent or native-like in your Japanese. Other classes were surprisingly easy while others were surprisingly challenging -- in general the classes with native English-speaking professors or professors who had taught abroad in an English-speaking country were the most challenging and least frustrating. ...but that's a very broad generalization; my native Japanese-speaking Syntax professor was amazing, so it's kind of a hit and miss with how the class will go... but it will get you a credit and could turn out to be amazing. Just try to choose wisely. Most of the learning is done outside of the classroom anyway.
About a week after getting to Japan, I started having lower back pain; it got so bad that I couldn't even sit down. I ended up having to go to three or four different doctors and having surgery at a hospital not far from my host family's house. One of the students took me to the small clinic near Waseda (which is SO convenient for students) where we met the resident director (who was fluent in Japanese) and his wife (a native Japanese speaker). They translated everything for me, offered to help me in classes if I fell behind, sat with me through the whole appointment, and made sure everything went smoothly. The resident director even took me to the hospital near my host family's house (which took him about an hour and a half to get to) several days a week until the whole ordeal was over. He even translated insurance forms to send back to the US.
That being said, the Japanese national health insurance was amazing. The program helped us sign up -- it's not optional -- and it saved me a lot of money. I saw three or four different doctors, got about four different medications plus additional supplies, had surgery, and stayed in the hospital for three days... and ALL of it only cost me about 700 US dollars. During the whole experience I had company from my host family, the resident director and his wife, Michiyo, and friends. One of the Waseda students and a faculty member even came to visit me in the hospital. Having surgery (even though it was minor) sounds kind of scary, but because I had so many people helping me when I needed it -- even after being there only a week -- that it was perfectly fine. I was never scared (except when I thought they might have to send me back to the US for surgery), and if anything I thought it was a GREAT cultural experience.
I can't even begin to explain how helpful everyone is. That's what I loved most about Waseda; there was always someone there when you needed them. If you didn't need any help, though, they would let you be on your own and you could involve them in your experience as much or as little as you liked. ... and even if you didn't NEED anything, they were fun to talk to anyway.
The only thing that really bothered me, especially during the last month or so in Japan, was the fact that I was always a foreigner. No matter what I did, anyone who looked at me automatically thought, "Tourist" or "She doesn't speak Japanese." Even after I'd lived in Tokyo for nine solid months and considered it a home away from home, I was forever a "foreigner" to strangers. There were plenty of people who were very welcoming and understanding, though, so it only bothered me every once in a while.
Most advertisements for the Waseda program say that all students live with a host family. That's not necessarily true, though. Housing placement is done via a short interview with Michiyo and the resident director during orientation. They will have the preference form you filled out with the program application and will talk to you about more specifics. They'll also ask you about the importance of internet, pets, smoking, drinking, etc. so they can place you in an appropriate place. They will place with a (GREAT) host family UNLESS you REALLY want to live in a dormitory. The rooms are limited but there are several international student dorms anywhere from 3 to 40 minutes away from the school by train. They all have internet, washing machines, kitchens or small cafeterias, etc. The students in dorms live with a roommate and will also get stipends that would have normally gone to the host family to help pay for food. A few students from our group did live in dorms at first but more than half of them decided to move in with host families after a few months.
Everyone LOVED their host families. Most of them have had international students in the past and were very good with helping us with anything and everything Japanese. There was only one student who wasn't happy with his first placement, but he was able to switch families and was very happy in the end. Michiyo and the resident director did a great job of placing students with their families based on their preferences; everyone, myself included, claimed to have the best family ever. I was particularly nervous about accidentally offending my host family or doing something "wrong" so I wasn't sure I wanted to live with a host family at first. HOWEVER, it was an AMAZING experience and not scary in the least. I can't emphasize enough how great living with a host family was.
Joining a club or a circle at Waseda was pretty easy. I've heard that on other Japan programs schools are not very open to international students joining clubs. At Waseda, though, almost everyone joined a club. One of my friends joined kyuudo, the Japanese archery club, and another joined kendo, a type of martial arts club. There's a club for just about anything. I joined "Beatle Mania," a circle made up of Waseda students and students from surrounding schools as well if they wanted to make the trip to Waseda. The students just met twice a week and played Beatles songs. They formed bands and put on a concert at the Waseda festivals and in different venues around the cities. It was a great opportunity to use my Japanese, play guitar, learn how to play other instruments, spend time with Japanese students, and learn more about Japanese culture. I made a lot of really good friends that I still keep in touch with; they even threw me a going away party with fireworks when I had to come back to the States. Clubs/circles were an integral part of our time at Waseda and th
e best way for us all to make really good friends. The people I met through the circle were the highlight of my time in Japan. Definitely do it.
Before getting to Waseda I had no idea what the "spring practicum" was. It's one month during the winter break, which is about two months long, during which you live outside Tokyo. There were about six different options to choose from including an internship at a Chinese pharmaceutical company, working at a ski resort, teaching pre-school students, etc. The practicum I chose was to live in a Zen Buddhist temple (Sougenji Temple) as a monk for one month with five other students in the mountains in Okayama -- a documentary on which can be found on YouTube in three parts.
At the temple, we lived as the monks do. We got up at 3:40 in the morning, chanted, meditated, ate breakfast at 7:30, did outside work cleaning the grounds and making them look nice for visitors, inside work to clean our living areas, had a small break, and then did outside work for four hours. After that we had lunch at noon, bathed, and had the rest of the afternoon off until dinner at 5 p.m. After dinner we had more meditation and brief evening chanting until about 10 p.m. when we dashed off to bed to do it all over again the next day.
We ate communal vegetarian food like the monks and cleaned our personal dishes with pickles and tea, cleaning up the kitchen very quickly. We took turns on kitchen duty and did things like cut bamboo, pick up all the sticks in the woods and move them to a different place in the woods, rake massive amounts of leaves, polish pots and pans, make chant books, etc., etc., etc. There was no indoor heating or plumbing except for the sinks and personal space heaters for the whole house. At times it was the most miserable feeling in the world, mostly because of the cold so early in the morning and late at night. It was a lot of hard work and most not always pleasant but we met a lot of VERY interesting people, learned some things about meditation, grew closer to each other and.. how many people (especially Americans) can say they were a Zen monk for a month? Most people have to sign up for at least one year.
It was one of the best experiences of my life so far, even if it wasn't always pleasant.
RECOMMENDATIONS for future Waseda students
1. Go for the whole year; in all likelihood there will be enough classes to fulfill credits needed for even non-Asian Studies majors.
2. Live with a host family; most of them know how to interact with students very well and they will help you improve your language and get accustomed to the culture in so many ways.
3. Join at least one club or circle; they're an amazing way to make new friends and work on your language skills -- and they will love to have you.
4. Bring a gift for your host family and perhaps small gifts for friends you'll meet also. (This includes one for the host family you may have for the practicum.)
5. If you are FORCED to go for only one semester, make sure you include the practicum that comes between the semesters; even if you don't enjoy all of it, it will likely be a life-changing experience.
6. Look at difficult times as good learning experiences. Don't let them bother you; it's just another good experience.
7. TRY EVERYTHING. Even if it sounds awful at first, it will probably be one of the most interesting things you'll ever do and will be completely worth it in the end.