culture-tinted glasses – Japanese attitudes towards foreign exchange students.

In my first blog post concerning my upcoming study in Japan, I investigated two possible host universities.  Both are similar in that they offered courses in English, are private institutions in Tokyo, and are both UOW partner universities.  Without any prior knowledge or any past students’ reports to assist me, I utilised the web to decide between the two and ultimately make a decision that I will be living with for the next year.

I had anticipated that it would be an easy task, given Japan’s affinity for technology and their perceived fondness for foreigners; however, I found that their websites were difficult to navigate and hard to understand.  It’s off-putting for a hopeful exchange student to encounter such barriers, but my experience has led me to a few epiphanies as to why this may be the case.

Tokyo is home to over 20 million residents, and only 1.5% of those are foreigners.

Japan is the most monoethnic country in the world.  With 98.5% of its population being native Japanese, the country is well-versed in engaging within its own culture.  It’s also seeing an increase in inbound tourism from Westerners, suggesting that it is deft at inter-culturally communicating with the West.  In fact, Japan has been forced to double its tourism target after surpassing its original yearly goal of  20 million in 2015, five years ahead of schedule.

I have visited Tokyo and Kyoto twice before, giving me an eyewitness account of Japan’s attitude towards foreigners.  Travelling as a blonde-haired, tall white woman, I often felt as though I was an oddity to the Japanese.  I have been approached by schoolchildren wanting to practice their English, used as a handhold on public trains, and had strangers approach me and ask for a photo with me.  Combining my experiences with research allows me to craft a layered autoethnographic account of Japan’s attitude towards foreigners, and so far it’s clear from my experiences that the Japanese have a fascination with Westerners.  This led me to anticipate that their universities would be encouraging foreign students to attend.

It’s fair to say that on Japanese trains I stood out like a tall, blonde sore thumb.

In addition to this, the Australian government has stated that Japan is working with Australia to increase and strengthen connections through university exchange, and the countries have committed to “doubling the number of international students in Japan by 2020“.  This includes 475 formal partnerships across both countries, with 70% offering student exchange and 60% offering research collaboration.  It’s news to me; it’s clear that my experience does not match this supposed reality.

Why, then, was it my experience that these institutions were not catering to their foreign audience?  It seems that in terms of further study, the Japanese struggle to understand how to cater to foreign exchange students, regardless of whether they are interested in engaging or not.  This epiphany is supported by the digital presence of both Asian unis, both of which leave much to be desired.

My first thoughts upon entering the Sophia University website was disappointment.  Compared to the UOW website, I found that the uni’s exchange homepage was unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate… It is not approachable for foreigners and does not make the application process easy.

– Becoming a Gaijin Girl

Without a level of fluency in Japanese, I was relying on the website’s translated version in making my decisions, and there was much left to be desired.  For example, in order to choose English subjects at Sophia University, I had to manually scroll through a 123-page document without a search function – tedious and inaccesible, to say the least.  Although J. F. Oberlin’s website was easier to navigate, I still felt as though the English translation had been overly simplified, and its grammar indicated that no native English speaker had been consulted during the translation process.

It’s possible that much of the information I needed was lost in translation, as it were.   I am what is known as a “digital native” – as coined by Mark Prensky, it means I can deftly interact with all cultures across the globe from the palm of my hand.  However, that isn’t to say I can effortlessly transcend all barriers; despite our cultures being technologically similar, language barriers can hinder communications when the written word is all we have to rely upon.

Oh, the irony of Japanese websites being Lost in Translation.  Source – Rita Santos

Research, however, suggests that it may be a deeper cultural issue than a simple language barrier.  It seems that while Westerners may be culturally accepted as tourists, they remain isolated when they take the step into semi-permanent residency.  This epiphany comes as I examine my ethnographic experience with these 日本の大学 (Japanese universities) and their websites – my research has opened up a new understanding of the acceptance of foreigners in Japan.  Often referred to as the ‘Gaijin Complex‘, it seems that foreigners are separated by cultural barriers that are so deeply ingrained in Japanese society that they can be seen as xenophobic.  One in three foreigners residing in Japan have stated that they have been discriminated against based on their race, indicating that Japan’s mono-ethnicity could be harming their global intercultural relationships.

Even though Japanese society is trying to focus on globalization and internationalization, it is still a very closed society. As a result Japanese people experience mixed feelings of envy, admiration, suspicion and uncertainty when interacting with foreigners. This uncertainty when dealing with foreigners can sometimes be viewed as racism.

 – Yumi NakataThe Gaijin Complex

It’s a relief to see that my experience aligns with the research and experiences of others.  As Ellis states, our memories may be viewed through culture-tinted glasses, and that “we recognize that people who have experienced the “same” event often tell different stories about what happened” (Ellis, 2011).  The ‘Gaijin Complex’ is an issue that goes beyond that of universities and exchange students, and my personal involvement in this complex issue will drive me to investigate further.

See hyperlinks for references.

2 thoughts on “culture-tinted glasses – Japanese attitudes towards foreign exchange students.

  1. I like how in this blog post you give us your expectations and then how they meet with reality, The “fascination with Westerners” and how that could relate to a desire to see more exchange students is a really interesting avenue that I hadn’t considered before. And then boom, you hit us with the reality again, that Japan, despite their cultural interest, haven’t done much in the way of aiding or welcoming incoming/desiring students. This really was an interesting read, and I wish you all the best for the future in Japan!


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