Some days ago I received an e-mail from the International Center of my university. This office is responsible for all international exchange programmes. They take care of outgoing and incoming students and assist them during the whole process. I would like to share this e-mail and use it to explain some details about students’ life at Ritsumeikan.

Subject: Meeting to exchange opinions regarding interactions between international and Japanese students

SKP students,

Hope everything’s going well with you at RU

I’m an administrative staff at the Office of International Division and currently participate in a year-long administrator training program. In the training program, we focus on the issues that need to be addressed within the university. And I hear some of you don’t have much interaction with Japanese students. So I’m trying to come up with some kind of a plan to provide international students and Japanese students with more structured opportunities and places within the university to work together and learn from each other.

In order to do so, I need your help! I am looking for international students who’re willing to share opinions and views with me at the discussion meeting.

[Possible date/time]

July 9 (Mon), July 10 (Tue) or July 11 (Wed)

12:15 – 12:55 (bring your own lunch), 16:30 – 17:30, 18:00 – 19:00

Want to know:

  • What images do you have of Japanese students?
  • Are you interested in having interactions and doing activities together with Japanese students?
  • Do you feel you’re given enough opportunities to do so?
  • If you feel that you haven’t been provided with enough opportunities, tell us what systems/programs you think we should have.
  • Which events or programs did you enjoy the most?
  • What skills do you hope to gain through participating in the study abroad program?
  • In what area do you feel you have grown the most?
  • What’s your level of satisfaction in terms of your studies, living environment, university facilities, and relationships with your peers?
  • Anything you feel like sharing with us

Please fill out the form by Thursday, July 5, 17:00 at http://url***** if you are interested in participating.

Information includes your name, country/region, track (Intensive Japanese Language Track (IJL), Japan and World Perspective (JWP), or Track or Business Track (BT), and your purpose to join the program (For example, to learn about traditional Japanese culture, learn Japanese language for future purposes, have interest in Japanese pop culture, etc.).

It’ll be really helpful to me if you can come and give us your thoughts and ideas to make RU a better learning place. I’ll let you know the date and time for the meeting later.

If you have any questions, you may contact us me at *********

Thank you.

Best Regards,

*********

Roughly summarized: the international students find it difficult to make Japanese friends. How can the International Center help with that?

I do not want to discuss any solutions or suggestions, but I would like to explain some backgrounds about the social interactions at Ritsumeikan.

The International Center takes good care of us international students. It is actually too much care for some fellow students. In the first week, for example, we had orientation for five days. The sessions included important business like how to get the national health insurance or how the alien registration process works. But also less interesting information like: how to use a fire extinguisher, Japan has left-way traffic and that Japanese people do not like it when you cough in their face. Or about six weeks ago, an international student had a bicycle accident. Consequently we received an email and a flyer for bicycle safety. And to make sure that every international student understands we also had to attend a bicycle safety session.

But in general the International Center supports us students in every situation and provides us assistance for legal matters as well, which is really helpful. Consequently I appreciate their efforts in improving the interactions between Japanese and international students.

The international students seemed to have complained about their integration in university life. One particular interesting topic that is discussed rather frequently is the gaiben. It is a neologism consisting of ‘gaikokujin‘ and ‘bench‘. There are several benches in front of the cafeteria, which are used by the international students daily. They gather there, because it is obviously close to the cafeteria and their main study buildings. So during every lunchtime most of them meet there to share about their everyday life while they are eating. This is rather convenient, because they can speak in English to each other and they are around familiar faces.

However few Japanese students join them. There are several explanations for that. First of all a big group of foreigners talking in English in a loud voice, can be considered to be rather intimidating for Japanese students. So I was told that it takes a lot of courage for them to approach this group. Secondly most of the Japanese students who actually join the international students are either official SKP-Buddies or partners of international students. Other Japanese students have the impressions that the international students are being monopolized and that Japanese students are not welcome there.

But there is more to consider. It is not only the international students who do not make much efforts in integration and interaction. Most of the Japanese students lack of proficiency in English. There are a lot of reasons and explanations for that, but I will not discuss that here. But in general everyday communication is one key skill for language proficiency. Consequently there is a language barrier between the international students and the Japanese students. I could observe that the level of integration is connected to a student’s Japanese proficiency. Students with a very advanced level have a lot (or almost exclusively) Japanese friends.

But not only the language also certain social skills are rather neglected in Japanese high school education. I talked about that with one of my professors and she explained to me, that Japanese students have a very structured school life from elementary school until they graduate from high school. Generally speaking Japanese students do not have to make new friends very often, and when they do, they always have a structured mechanism which supports them. The university life lacks of this structure, but they maintain it within their circles and clubs for example. At the beginning of the semester it is very common for circles and clubs to go out for a nomikai as a social bonding experience. Even though it sounds rather silly, drinking together helps them to establish relationships. This is actually performed in many cultures, but I would say that in Japan it is more a strict pattern than somewhere else. This structured way of socializing might be rather difficult for foreigners to adapt to and additionally they are only rarely invited to join.

But also the concept of ‘friend’ works differently in Japan. It is actually very similar to the German way. In the English language the term ‘friend’ is used very frequently. People who I would refer to as ‘acquaintances’ or ‘buddies’ in German are ‘friends’ in English. In Japan people do not make friends, they become friends. It is a long process of shared experiences that eventually develops a personal relationship.

For me personally I can say, that most friends I made here are other international students. I also have Japanese friends, and curiously almost all of them stayed abroad for more than six months. Their exchange experience helped them to develop their language skills and also to learn different patterns of establishing social relationships.

In general I do not complain about my social life at Ritsumeikan. But I think other international students do have their difficulties. They do not have the patience that is required in Japan and unfortunately most of them stay only for one semester. Probably the International Center can come up with solutions that are at the one hand structured to please the Japanese needs, but on the other hand do not make the international students feel like children.

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