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When in Tokyo, do as Tokyoites do

A Gaijin’s (Foreigner’s) perspective of the Japanese way of university life

By Dionne Ng Zhe Ting

Overwhelmingly famous and representative, the Merlion is apparently the most reminiscent symbol of Singapore in the minds of local Japanese students at the University of Tokyo. To date, a simple self-introduction of “Hello, I’m Dionne from Singapore,” garners the most common response of “Ah! The Merlion!”

Yet, just as how the irrefutably small city-state of Singapore encompasses so much more than just the Merlion, living in Japan requires the recognition of many things beyond the tourist favourites of the Tokyo Skytree and the Shibuya Scramble. For now, let us focus on some striking features of university life in Japan from the eyes of a foreigner in Komaba.

Firstly, compare the style of instruction in a standard Japanese classroom with a PEAK (Programs in English at Komaba) or foreign classroom. The top-down approach in a Japanese-style lecture or seminar allows for the traditionally fundamental purpose of classroom education – learning via direct instruction – to occur efficaciously. Any Japanese student who has attended a PEAK lesson would be able to highlight its stark contrast with the Japanese-style lecture. The ‘Western’ style of teaching fosters an atmosphere of active discourse and self-directed learning under the close supervision of the professor. Students’ active participation in lessons allows for a more close-knit environment with little distance between the students and the professor.

The converse that occurs in the Japanese-style classroom is an oft-lamented issue by the new generation of Japanese students in the University of Tokyo. Even with nation-wide shifts in pedagogical approaches from tsumekomi (rote-learning, prior to 1980) to yutori (‘relaxed’ education, 1980s to 2000s) and back to datsu-yutori (a balance between tsumekomi and yutori, 2011 onwards), the style of instruction has remained largely constant throughout primary to tertiary education. As an ardent supporter of the Western style of collaborative learning, yet having gone through educational experiences similar to the Japanese style, I can empathize with foreign students who experience an institutional culture shock after attending Japanese-style classes as they may have spent a large part of their lives undergoing a Western style of education.

Additionally, communication appears to be a baffling component of Japanese society for most foreigners. In the mastery of the Japanese language, foreigners have to grasp the concepts of using distinctively classified forms of words when speaking in various contexts. Some of the more commonly-faced difficulties include the appropriate use of keigo (honorific language) as well as the use of body language to express intentions that may not be well-represented verbally. Bowing, for instance, can account for several actions depending on circumstances – a handshake as a form of salutation, the expression of gratitude, and simply a show of respect to the other party. In the University of Tokyo, this would be especially applicable to bukatsu (clubs) and occasionally sa-kuru (circles) as communication between seniors and juniors requires a dedicated show of respect to one’s superiors at all times; for foreigners who are completely new to this part of Japanese culture, regardless of their proficiency in academic Japanese, communication barriers and faux pas become inevitable.

Where foreign students of Todai call home. Photo by author.

Where foreign students of Todai call home. Photo by author.

The crux of the issue is this – in order to assimilate well into a new society as a foreigner, little details like the abovementioned have to be diligently accounted for. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; similarly, when in Tokyo, do as the Tokyoites do. Foreigners will, more often than not, find themselves acclimatizing to their new habitat by picking up the habits and practices of the natives around them while attempting to retain a semblance of their own culture back home. Likewise, as a foreign student in Todai, the myriad of practices, traditions and stereotypical aspects of the school that one has to get accustomed to is simply incredible. I look forward to the day when I can finally call myself a true Todaisei – the day when I no longer respond with ‘Ehhhh?!’ and an appalled expression to the revelation of yet another amazingly unique aspect of the way of life in the University of Tokyo.

Dionne is a first-year PEAK student at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo. 

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