Let’s start with a little of my backstory. I’m Anne a second generation Japanese Canadian who at the moment is supposed to be starting my third year at UBC in Canada. Wonderfully interrupting my Canadian post-secondary plans, in June of this year, I was selected as the first recipient of a new scholarship from the National Association of Japanese Canadians to study for a semester at Suzuka University in Japan. When I applied for the scholarship, I didn’t really know what it would be like, but I was sure it would be an adventure and offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to know a culture I understood mostly from television and visiting relatives. I do have to thank my parents for sending me to Japanese school on Saturdays when I was young. To be honest, I didn’t like it at the time, but now I appreciate that I can converse with people in Japanese – even if I do make a few mistakes. In 20/20 hindsight, I now wish I had studied writing kanji a little more, but then that’s what I’m doing here.
After changing planes in Tokyo, arriving in Nagoya and taking a boat to Mie, I arrived in Suzuka at the end of September. I thank both the NAJC and the people at the university in Japan for making all the arrangements and ensuring my two suitcases and I got to the right place on time. The scholarship includes a small apartment that I just love and have made my own (I’ll post some photos.) Time really has flown by and now that I’m almost halfway through the exchange it’s certainly about time I started to share my experiences. I’ll upload a lot of photos and try my best to explain life here. But I’ve found that living in Japan means adventure happens every time I step out my door and sometimes even inside my apartment such as when the NHK man came to collect my TV tax. I had no idea people paid a tax to watch TV.
Suzuka is a smallish town. I can see rice fields from my window. Tsu, Mie’s capital is not far, but it’s also not very big. Nagoya is the biggest nearby city, but it takes either a boat or an hour or more on the train. It’s about a 25-minute walk to the university, which is really modern and not too big so not too confusing. UBC is a maze of disconnected buildings so I was happy that Suzuka university has two main buildings. My course load consists primarily of Japanese languages classes, with the exception of one history course. One aspect of studying here I should have clued in to before I came, but didn’t, is that these courses naturally are filled with other foreign students mostly Chinese, Nepalese, Korean, Vietnamese and Brazilian. It’s been a very cool and rewarding experience to learn Japanese along with everyone else and to communicate with non-Japanese using Japanese. In fact, most of the friends I’ve made here are from these classes and not Japanese. They have taken me under their wing and shown me around Suzuka and Mie. And oddly have been very good Japanese culture and language teachers too.
As I mentioned adventure seems to happen each time I walk out my door, two weeks ago, one of my Japanese teachers asked if I would volunteer at an annual children’s festival held at a local middle school. Four other students and I agreed to go. Once we arrived at the event, the school’s principal looked at us and said “oh good, the university students are here.”
He directed us to two giant boxes and then told us to get changed. We had no idea what was up until we opened the boxes to see a bundle of blue fur in one and red in the other. Apparently we had been enlisted to bring life to the mascot costumes for the town of Suzuka. One is Bell-dy (Suzuka means bell and deer) and Karin-chan is the other. Apparently there is a long tradition of Suzuka University students animating mascot outfits with their bodies. With some trepidation, I crawled into the Bell-dy outfit and fixed the giant head to my shoulders and then went outside to greet the kids.
Disney characters could not have been more popular than we were that day. The kids were all super happy to see, talk and greet “us” with their parents clamoring for photos. This was needless to say something I have never done before and it gave me an opportunity to interact with the kids and parents in Japanese without any trepidation. To them, I was just a giant blue anime-like character walking, talking and playing with them and talking Japanese. It was simply a fun experience for all and in many ways one of the most pure experience I’ve had so far learning to improve my Japanese and getting to know more about Japan and its rich culture. It seems nobody expects too much from a big blue fur-ball except smiles.
It’s these types of unexpected experiences that seem to grow organically just from living in Japan that have had the most impact on me as a person. Studying in class is great, but not too different from back home. Since arriving here I’ve been invited on a hike wearing ancient robes, asked to pull an omikoshi in the local matsuri and been taken to visit Ise Shrine. I’ve also made life-long friendships and naturally gained confidence and competence in Japanese.
Until next time,
Anne in Mie