Japanese Gap Year in Japan
24 weeks Japanese language course
Academic Term Programme Okazaki
I had expected something similar to the French lessons I used to receive at school! Therefore, my linguistic expectations were not particularly high – I hoped, rather than expected, to gain a rough comprehension of conversations and situations around me. I did not expect to be able to read or write Japanese to any practical degree by the time I left. To be honest I spent most of my pre-trip time worrying about navigating the airport system, having never travelled alone before, rather than wondering what the course itself would be like.
The experience has left me not only a understanding of Japanese culture, but an ability to chat to Japanese people confidently. I surprised myself by reaching a stage whereby from arriving in the country with almost zero knowledge of the language, I went to actually enjoying Japanese conversations, which were coming easily to me by the end of my stay. Furthermore, I can read and write much more than I ever dreamed, and am determined to continue my study – especially of Kanji.
The lessons at the Japanese Language School in Okazaki were quite intensive and well rounded, including all four major areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing. In addition to the main classes, we picked elective classes to strengthen our weak areas (I took Kanji, naturally!). I really enjoyed classes, and the fact they were held entirely in Japanese. We also did a lot of exercises involving real life interaction (i.e. post office trips, telephone calls etc)
The teachers were incredibly friendly and helpful, and seemed 100% dedicated to their work. By the end of the semester, they had definitely become our friends too, joining the students for karoke and parties! I was certainly comfortable in the school environment and as I said before found the teachers helpful and approachable. I was surprised that even on the second day not only my own teachers but all the staff recognised me and called me by name.
The school’s location was quite convenient, close to the offered accommodation as well as various restaurants. The best part was actually gaining the ability to communicate with the Japanese! As a people I found them all to be wonderfully polite, sweet and surprisingly genuine. There wasn’t anything I really disliked about the course. Although I did, towards the end of my course, deliver a speech titled “The problem with speaking tests” dedicated to my loathing of the giant microphone they used to record you! As a result of this, a new cassette player with an almost invisible mike was brought in as a replacement – RESULT! By the time I finished, I was one of only two native English speakers in my class. The other students were a good mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Czech, Swiss, German and French and we therefore literally had to use Japanese to communicate.
I became very close to around six of my class mates, and we formed a private study group at Starbucks after school. We had discovered that Japanese people actually went to Starbucks in hopes of meeting foreigners and we built up some great contacts this way.
The college offered several excursions and kept us posted on local events, however I got on so well with the people in my community, my friends and I tended to do our own thing. A nice thing about the college was that all students from all classes tended to bond and help each other – whether with homework, laundry, cooking or just calling at 8.00am to check you were up for school!
The local area is a great place to study Japanese. The community are very helpful and warm, and I was able to buy many things much cheaper in Okazaki’s wealth of 100 Yen stores than in many places in Britain. In the six months I was there, I was treated respectfully and never once had to endure the cries of “Gaijin!” everyone had warned me about. I made a great many friends there, many of whom have invited me back to visit and stay with them – something I’d love to do in future. Unfortunately there is practically nothing in the way of night-life in Okazaki. Really you’re limited to karaoke (fun but can be expensive and requires a large number of people and beer to be really enjoyable) and an Izakaya (bar) about 20 minutes bike ride away from the college. However if you really need a good night out, Nagoya is only 30 minutes and 600 Yen away by train, and is good for clubbing, bars and movies.
I stayed in the Student Village (shared room) for the entire duration of my course. I had very mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, I loved the fact I was surrounded by people in the same position as me, and could almost always find a study partner. I liked the free cable TV and loved the unlimited free broadband internet connection. I also adored my roommate, who was in the top class and was always willing to help me out with language or any other problems I had.
CESA have been absolutely fantastic, particularly in calming my fears before the trip. Furthermore, not just I, but the other two CESA students I met on the course found the Information provided by CESA both accurate and indispensable, particularly with regard to train systems. If you ‘re staying at the Student Village, take your own pillow. I was bemused to find a beanbag the size of a plate awaiting me when I went to bed the second night (first night I was too jet lagged to care). They’re not comfortable and finding a pillow in Okazaki is surprisingly difficult.
And in conclusion.. What can I say, I originally planned to stay until March, and it just didn’t feel like enough time. I extended my stay to six months, and as a result of the experience am now taking Japanese at university, with the fourth year spent in Japan! Even so, I would definitely do this again, given the chance – I’m interested in trying other languages now, too!”
Update Dec 2003: “I’m now half-way through my second year at Sheffield University, reading BA Japanese Studies. It’s a very highly demanding programme, and while the tuition is of the highest standard, I would not have had the motivation to stick with it had I not had the experience of living in Japan. I have never regretted my decision to take Japanese to degree level, and although the course is very challenging, it’s also fascinating. And of course, I’m very much looking forward to returning to Japan for my year of study in a Japanese university next year! Studying in Japan (during my Gap Year) was an amazing experience that broadened my horizons and gave me new direction in my life – I would recommend it to anyone.”
Update Apr 2005: Kathryn is currently on her second term of her year abroad in Kyoto Uni: ” I have been promoted to a very high class this semester, which means I`m finally considered “advanced” – hooray! We are now in the realm of speed-reading newspaper articles and memorizing wickedly tricky areas of grammar for the Ikkyuu Proficiency Test. Ahhh…when I think back to my earliest Yamasa days of “Watashi wa Kyasarin dess” and “kore wa pen dess”… 😉