Studying in Japan: A Preamble

Nov 15 2020

Studying in Japan: A Preamble

I feel that I’ve had a lot of really interesting and unique life experiences that I could write about. And I might go back at some point and do so once I feel more comfortable with this blogging thing.

But, the main reason I want to write is that I am gearing up for a Study Abroad/Exchange program in Japan next year, and I would like to create and keep a record of it. Of course, this assumes it happens at all — late last year, the “Novel Coronavirus” or “COVID-19” jumped from animal to humankind and began to spread worldwide; by March 2020 most of Canada was shut down and I found myself both working and schooling remotely from home. The Winter 2020 school semester (i.e. Jan-Apr 2020) was odd. Anyway, cases fell during the summer but rose again now that winter is approaching, and now the total number of active cases are as high as they’ve ever been, so who knows if this Exchange program will even happen this upcoming school year.

Still, despite a certain percentage of the populace being misguided idiots, most people have gotten used to life under a pandemic (wearing masks and washing hands and avoiding others in general), and both Canada and Japan are doing comparatively well in terms of curbing the spread, plus there’s rumours of potential vaccines soon that I probably just jinxed, so it’s not impossible. Case in point, our Education Abroad office at the University of Alberta, where I both study and work, has told us to go ahead and plan and start our applications as though the exchange programs will be going forward, and they’ll run a risk assessment nearer to the start of the school year plus gauge what the partner Universities feel about the program closer to the deadline.

That’s all great, though I can’t help but worry since any attempt to go overseas and study here would also mean the end of my current full-time job at the University, since there’s no way they’d let me take a year off work and return afterwards. Which isn’t necessarily a concern in and of itself, since despite the nice people there, my work can often be both frustrating and boring at the same time. Still, I will admit it’s a cushy job that pays well enough for one person living alone by herself, with a fair amount of freedom, and if I close my eyes to the things that frustrate and anger me, I could easily coast to retirement here.

It feels wrong though, both because I don’t like feeling frustrated and angry at my work and the higher-ups there every time I try to achieve something, and more importantly because I don’t reeeally want to just coast to retirement because that feels like I’m giving up on doing things in life. I’ll eventually write about this in an About Me page, but I just completed a major life event three years ago that was easily 10+ years in the making and 6 years actively working toward it, and so with my newfound freedom from having accomplished that, I don’t think I could just sit around doing nothing. It gave me a new outlook in life and a whole list of things that I want to try, and ultimately that’s a major reason that I want to spread my wings and fly on towards some other new and absurd dream. I want to find something more meaningful to do than just fixing artificial problems at work that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Why Japan?

Well, why not? Actually, Japan isn’t my top choice — because I’m from Singapore, I’d rather go back there for studies, but some unresolved issues I tried to contact them about are stuck in bureaucratic hell and so I haven’t been able to even pursue that because the government agencies there are stonewalling me.

It is my second choice, and a strong one at that, but it isn’t the only country I’ve had my eyes on as well. I’ve had a recent (a few years) surge in interest in East Asian Studies, and I still feel extremely connected to Asia in general (I believe that one’s hometown is forever etched into one’s soul) so I’d have been okay going to any of those countries in the region — China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, or Japan.

The first three were strong choices because I know a fair amount of basic Mandarin (though not Cantonese, but my parents speak Hokkien and I understand that sometimes), having studied it for about 11 years while I was young. Unstable politics sent all three countries down the list though. Between South Korea and Japan — there was a point a couple years ago where I could speak, read and understand neither Korean nor Japanese. I had been to Seoul twice though, and enjoyed my time there both times, so in that sense Korea had a leg up on Japan. Even though South Korea has ongoing volatility in their politics as well with their neighbour to the north, Japan has natural disasters and other issues counter-balancing that as well.

Ultimately though, there were several factors that made Japan win out. First and foremost, my younger sister decided to start working in Japan. She also went abroad to study during her time here at the University, and then she taught English to students in various schools through some agency or other on a contract basis, a life move that took some serious guts. Being over there would allow me to both support her and be supported by her though, if any sort of emergency should happen, as well as allow us to hopefully meet more often than once every other year, if or when she ever goes back to the country.

Yet another reason is a commonality shared with a lot of people that dream to go over there — anime and manga. I actually as of this post do not read manga or similar media, but I have watched a fair amount of anime and played a number of JRPGs. I’m apparently not your typical anime watcher, since I gravitate toward Slice of Life, School, or Music shows rather than Action ones, and thus haven’t watched many of the “popular shows” out there, but it’s a fascinating subculture nonetheless. And the anime shows I have watched have led to several other rabbit holes — I’ve become really interested in things like Japanese Shinto and Buddhism, old temples and shrines and the stories behind them, the train system, different dialects, festivals, foods, schools, and traditions that are unique to each city, and Japanese music, specifically J-Pop, City Pop, Anison and Idol stuff. All the cultural aspects of the country that shine through.

But while I find that others who are interested in anime and manga tend to have had long relationships with that medium and often nostalgia from childhood as well, I only started being interested in it myself around 2018, after being hooked on my first couple JRPGs. Before that it was simply a thing that I had no interest in, disliked the art for, and thus ignored. Instead, my childhood nostalgia with Japan came from a collectible card game called Legend of the Five Rings, and its mix of history, fantasy, and mythology that captivated me, my siblings, and my primary/secondary school class in Singapore. And then, from there, another step into the world of mythology with a book called Lords of the Rising Sun, the 6th gamebook (a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type book with branching multiple paths) in a series called Fabled Lands, which was my favourite and most beloved gamebook series bar none. Lords of the Rising Sun was set in a world modelled after a mythological Japan, and it was amazing. Short paragraphs, vivid descriptive images that captured a sense of mysticism and adventure, and my imagination did the rest.


So yeah. Long story short, factors like the above-mentioned ones definitely pushed me in the direction of Japan. I started learning Japanese from scratch in May 2019, and I’ve bumbled along my way to where I am currently. I am fairly confident that if I take my JLPT right now I’d pass N4 and fail N3 (but not by too much).

I’m not blind to the realities of the place or the downsides of the Study Abroad attempt either though. Much as I suspect that I’d like to work there eventually, I have no intention of putting in 8am-8pm work days slogging away in a cramped office or anything like that — work/life balance is of paramount importance to me as otherwise this entire venture would lose its meaning, and my evenings are sacred. And while it is extremely culturally vibrant, I also consider Japan to be slowly dying, for several reasons that include population decline and a conservative view of politics and society, at least from my viewpoint on the outside. So while the idea of going there to work seems really fun, especially if I can find a job that I think I will enjoy greatly, the year abroad is definitely necessary for me to get a good “feel” of the place and scope out the society.

This then dovetails into the other issue with going this year, which is that even if things are gradually reopening, there will definitely be an effect on just how much is open and available for me to see and do due to COVID-19. This one is a double-edged sword, because it’s also good in that locations will just be plain less crowded, and it will definitely be a particularly interesting and unique experience to be able to see (and write about) the country in an abnormal state, but I still will probably miss out on actually seeing how the country is really like during “normal times,” not to mention missing out on any sort of attraction or experience that is cancelled this upcoming year. So part of the experience will definitely be different, if not outright incomplete.

But then, at this rate, how long should I wait? Despite all the promising tests, a vaccine could be years away due to production and logistical issues, and as long as a subset of the population remains unvaccinated, the virus could still spread and take hold again every year, like the seasonal flu. It could be years before the “normalcy” of people in crowded places not wearing masks again, and every last place (that hasn’t shut down) reopening to normal pre-pandemic capacity, and I’m no longer young.

Therefore, I do what I always do, and I will forge ahead with my plans. I have discovered that fate has a way of intervening on my behalf if something was just not meant to be, in order to give me the best possible outcome — for example, I missed out on possibly going abroad THIS year (2020) because of a technicality I had no idea about while signing up for classes last year, and that eventually turned out to be a good thing because this isn’t really the best year to be abroad, with so many things shut down and the general level of danger.

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