What can you expect from an exchange program in Japan as a foreigner?

There are hundreds of exchange programs you can apply for if you are planning to study in Japan as an exchange student. As Japan is one of the most developed countries in the world, the expectations are obviously very high from new applicants, but what do these programs really offer in the long run? I wish I had the chance of reading such an article as the following before I went to Japan as an exchange student. But let’s read the following few lines before you start considering the withdrawal of your MEXT application.

Being an exchange student in Japan as a foreigner

It would be very difficult to give you a definite answer if you were to ask me whether it was worth studying in Japan and live there for a significant amount of time. My case is somewhat different from those who visit Japan for a week or ten days and then they return to their home country. My case is also different from those who settle in Japan and never return to their birthplace. I spent there 5.5 years and I went home. So, experience-wise I am somewhere in the middle. My principal motivation during these days was to get immersed in Japanese culture and to accumulate the most possible amount of knowledge regarding Japanese culture. So I tried to hang out with locals and not spend too much time with expats. I think I accomplished this task with good results and my Japanese improved slowly but steadily over time. Nevertheless, subconsciously I had much more romantic expectations prior to moving to the country.

My first impressions in Japan

When I was an undergraduate student I visited Japan a few times. I went to Osaka and Tokyo. I am a guy who falls in love easily and the Kansai area mesmerized me. Especially its nightlife. I was a club guy and Osaka offered everything I needed. So as time went by I started learning the Hiragana and the Katakana alphabet and I found a private Japanese tutor to polish my basic Japanese skills.

My personal experiences

I saw how developed the country was and I was always dreaming of becoming an integral part of the Japanese society, so that I can work there, marry, have kids and enjoy life in the country. At that time, these were not unrealistic dreams for me, because let’s be honest, working and having a family is not something that only a few people can achieve. However, something is different in Japan and as I got more and more immersed in the culture I realized that my initial plans were almost impossible to execute and I gradually abandoned these hopes.

I might be a bit too sensitive, but reality hit me much harder than I thought it would. The Japanese disillusionment, described many years ago by Lafcadio Hearn is something that’s not easy to handle. I felt like I was living there, I enjoyed my life with my Japanese friends and I got pretty good jobs so even work life balance for me was pretty acceptable, but something was missing. It is not easy to describe this feeling, but the exchange program will definitely not fill this gap for you if you have similar emotional characteristics.

What do these programs usually offer?

So let’s make this a little bit more concrete. If you apply for the MEXT scholarship program, you will have the chance to travel to Japan, do some research and be a student of a Japanese university. This means that if your have perseverance you will be able to graduate and with the paper you get from the university Japanese companies will be glad to employ you. The road will be a bit rough and bumpy but everything is pretty much laid down for you if you want to become a real 会社員 or a company employee in English. The scholarship will be enough to survive, so this means that you will be able to rent a tiny apartment and the money will be enough to buy sushi plates for yourself every single day for 365 days in a year. Health insurance included and you can even buy the latest iPhone every year. If you want more, you will have to do part time jobs, but don’t worry, because there will be plenty of opportunities for you to work. If you are a handsome guy or a pretty girl, you can become a photo model or you can teach English if you are a native speaker or you look like one…

Japanese customs

So financially this is a pretty good option, and if you have no better plans accept the deal without hesitation! Having one’s studies fully financed during university years as something that many people can only dream of in the western world. Moreover you will gain insight into an Asian culture and if you spend enough time in the country you will definitely change for the better. You will learn a lot about politeness, you will become more organised and less rude. Social norms in the Japanese society should be adopted in many European and American countries. Getting accustomed to some of these will definitely help you in the future. These days I never become angry or frustrated and I think this is also a positive aspect of Asian cultures. Considering these, without any scruples of conscience I can say that I am grateful to the MEXT program and I would recommend it to exchange students in the future.

Growing up in Japan

The disillusionment is unavoidable, but I had a feeling recently that this comes as a side effect when you turn into an adult so the country where you are actually located does not really matter. If you fail to realize your childhood plans you will inevitably get disillusioned and when you grow into a mature adult you will have to make completely new ones or redefine the old ones. The scholarship programs in Japan only provide a framework for your life and as almost everything in Japan they are very well designed to support you in every aspect of your life in the country. Whether you want to stay and work in Japan or you want to pursue an entrepreneuristic career is up to you. These scholarship programs don’t hold an answer to these questions, but I can tell you that life in Japan becomes less and less shiny when you approach your day of graduation and you have to make serious decisions that will influence your whole life.

Suggestions while in Japan

The cultural experience you will gain on these exchange programs is unique. If you want to learn a lot about Japan and its people, you have to be in the country, but if you will choose a profession that does not require this experience or knowledge the utility of this journey is questionable. I think it is always good to reiterate the purpose of your stay and do not just let your days in Japan pass without thinking of anything ahead of you. You will find several opportunities as Japan is a huge country with approximately 127 million citizens representing an enormous market. Try to look for potential loopholes or business opportunities and you will be able to start building your new dream based on your childhood visions! じゃね〜

Illustration: pakutaso.com

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