So, you’re thinking of traveling to the most interesting country in the world? All while gaining valuable work experience and making professional connections that will be indispensable to your future? Great idea! International Co-op is a great place to expand your horizons and deepen your personal worldview, all for the low, low price of a regular course’s tuition.
Infomercial-style sales pitches aside, Japan is a fantastic choice for students hoping to travel abroad for co-op. A county that is safe and accommodating of foreigners, Japan has a unique blend of both modern and traditional elements of its culture. Having recently made the 7600km journey to Japan for an international co-op term through the Canada-Japan Co-op Program (CJCP), I can attest that you will never run out of kind people to meet, wonderful landscapes to wander, and exciting activities to try while in Japan. It truly is a one-of-a-kind adventure. Given my experience, I would like to share some advice (four sub-headings’ worth) for students thinking of making the journey themselves, to help you make the most of your trip!
Going from full-time studies to co-op is a big adjustment no matter where you are. Your first work term will likely be chock-full of personal obstacles that, when overcome, will lead to the betterment of you as a professional. However, the process of overcoming them may be difficult. The first time you go through this adjustment period, I recommend having the support of your family and friends in a familiar setting. Due to the differences in environment and culture between Canada and Japan, you will likely experience many of the same feelings that you would have felt in your first work term when you start your co-op experience abroad, only to a much higher degree. Thus, having previous experience adapting from the classroom to the workplace will be very helpful in mediating your adjustment to working in a new country.
Japanese is a fascinating language whose peculiarities (i.e. a writing system adopted from Chinese) and vast grammatical differences from languages with Latin origins, make it very difficult for native English speakers to become fluent. In fact, many Japanese people that I have spoken to admit that even most Japanese people do not have a full understanding of the language, but effectively use it by relying on an intuition developed over the course of their lives. Now, I imagine that you probably don’t have a lifetime to work with in order to learn Japanese. And, given a limited time frame, it is important to focus on learning things that will actually be useful in your day-to-day life.
So here I offer my suggestions for two simple and relevant aspects of Japanese that you can try and master before you arrive in Japan. These concepts are fairly achievable and possible to learn in under a month (if you really work at them).
Greetings are a huge part of Japanese culture (in my opinion, much more so than in Canadian culture). You will likely be greeted quite often by co-workers and strangers, and you will probably feel much better about being able to respond instead of having nothing to say, panicking, and running away. Some resources I would recommend for learning basic Japanese greetings are FluentU, which offers helpful video clips and images in tandem with new vocabulary, and the Genki textbooks, which have useful culture notes on greetings and expressions so that you know how to use them properly.
2. Reading Katakana
Katakana is one of three writing systems used in the Japanese language, and is often used to write words of foreign origin (most often English but sometimes also French). This means that if you speak English and can read Katakana, 80 percent of the time you will be able to understand what you are reading. Having the ability to read Katakana often comes in handy when shopping, using computers, or reading restaurant menus. Overall having this ability will give you a leg-up for independently navigating your day-to-day life. I found that the Human Japanese and Nihongo Master mobile apps were useful in explaining the origins and proper usage of Katakana, and they also included quizzes to test your reading ability. I personally didn’t find the quizzes helpful until I began writing Katakana out by hand, so I also recommend printing out a few work sheets to practice writing (you can find these on Google images quite easily).
When you come to Japan, I guarantee that there are some things that you will experience that you never could have even conceived of in your Canadianized brain. If you want to know what I mean by this, watch a few Japanese TV commercials. Before coming to Japan, I would have never imagined myself bathing in front of coworkers (public bathing is very popular in Japan) or singing Karaoke with my boss. The culture is amazing and different, and because of the big gap between my expectations and Japanese reality, I have often been pushed outside of my comfort zone.
Japanese people are very curious and excited about trying new things. It is rare to see a Japanese person react negatively towards a new experience. Thus, if you show too much resistance or have a negative attitude towards trying something new (which is quite normal in Canadian culture, I find), you will definitely stand out. People might actually start to worry about you. So, be prepared to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and try to keep an open mind and look for the silver linings in all experiences. Over time you may learn to like some of the things you resisted at first.
One of the most remarkable things about Japanese culture that I’ve noticed during my time in Japan is how kind and helpful everyone is towards each other. In a nutshell, this is a place where bus drivers thank you profusely for riding their buses, and where nearly anyone off the street that you ask for directions will personally walk you to your destination to ensure you arrive without incident. This drive to help others is more of a social obligation than a personal virtue in Japan, which I believe is the opposite of the case in Western culture. Canadians generally don’t assume that strangers are friendly and will help us when we first meet them. However, we exchange favors between and celebrate kindness in people that we know well. This is simply not the case in Japan. Kind exchanges or requests for assistance are generally welcomed between strangers. When you’re in Japan don’t hesitate to ask others for help if you need it, but be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain with a bit of friendly conversations.
I sincerely hope that if you’re thinking of doing a co-op term in Japan that you take the initiative and apply. If you’re lucky enough to be a science student like myself, then the CJCP is a great place to start looking for available positions. It is a long-standing and reputable program run by awesome coordinators that provided me with valuable pre-departure training and lots of support during my time abroad. Don’t hesitate for a moment, find a position and, 頑張って (go for it) !