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Upon arriving back in England after six months studying in Tokyo, the question asked by every friend, family member, casual acquaintance, Starbucks barista and passing stranger is always the same: “So, how was Japan?!” Harmlessly curious conversational fluff though it may be, this simple question never fails to open up a vast and dizzying array of possible adjectives, none of which go halfway towards explaining just how very weird and wonderful half a year in Japan can be.
Six months studying abroad in that faraway land of samurai and skyscrapers, kimonos and Hello Kitty, will make it clear that Japan is, above all else, a country of contrasts. Signs of Japan’s deep affinity and respect for tradition are everywhere, such as in the ritualistic tea ceremonies conducted by kimono-clad tea mistresses in paper-walled houses that have somehow stood up against the country’s smorgasbord of natural disasters for hundreds of years; side by side with these quaintly traditional places, however, are the monstrous skyscrapers, blinding neon panoramas and swarming train stations for which Tokyo is so famous. It can easily fulfil its stereotype as a futuristic technological wonderland – its vending machines are so advanced they could probably beat the average human in a game of chess – whilst at the same time baffling you with certain practices still stuck firmly in the past: Japan is the only place I’ve ever witnessed banks and post offices comprised of giant warehouses of filing cabinets, where absolutely every transaction is still carried out by way of several thousand paper forms. Its people can be achingly hip and in tune with every single changing trend and fashionable whimsy, whilst at the same time adhering to the strict codes of social conduct instilled over centuries. The cities are sprawling rainbow-lit metropolises teeming with a hundred thousand types of person, and yet uninhabited mountaintops and silent forest temples still lie in wait a mere hour from their borders. The time spent as a student abroad in Japan can be divided between marvelling in reverent awe at ancient castles which have stood for many hundreds of years, and wildly leaping around Tokyo nightclubs hysterically trying to avoid the drunken grasp of Japanese businessmen (however, I’m sure most students who have been abroad can agree, between all the hilarious frolics and cultural exploits, the vast majority of time does always seem to be spent eating in one’s room and surfing the Internet. I hope. Please tell me it wasn’t just me).
Therefore, when presented with that single question – “How was Japan?” – it never fails to bring a thousand contradictory adjectives bubbling to the surface. Studying abroad in Japan can be simultaneously fascinating, terrifying, inspirational, bewildering, overwhelming and completely unforgettable. This is why, when faced with this question, all you can do is sigh, smile and give the only answer that adequately sums up everything you’ve experienced in the last six months.
“Yeah, it was good thanks.”
By Rosie Johnson
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham