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Yonsei Study Abroad

Greetings from Japan!

My name is Nathan Kenji Kasai and I am a Japanese American student studying abroad in Kyoto. I’ve traveled to Japan after studying Japanese for a year and a half both to study the language here and try to learn more about my Japanese heritage. This study abroad experience was over a year in the making, yet despite all the planning, the March earthquake occurred ten days before my departure and seriously made me reconsider coming to here. The earthquake amplified all of the anxieties I had about living in a different country.

My family and I had quite a few discussions over whether or not going to Japan was the right decision but in the end we all agreed that passing up this opportunity would be a mistake.

Since arriving, the earthquake has had minimal effects on my daily life in Kyoto. The most immediate consequence the earthquake has had directly upon my experience is that about two thirds of the students canceled their plans after the quake and certain items in grocery stores have had purchase caps placed on them. It’s rather surreal to be in Japan while it recovers, yet be affected so little by the ongoing difficulties in the North.

When I first arrived, it felt almost wrong to be enjoying my time here while Tokyo was facing rolling blackouts and people near Fukushima were being evacuated from their homes. Despite this, I am glad I am in Japan even with the trying times for the country. I have been given a chance to see Japan during historic times and I hope to make the most of it.

On that note, the time that I have spent thus far has been fascinating and amazing. I have been to several temples and landmarks throughout Kyoto, and I hope to share more about those experiences in the near future. My language skills are pretty basic when it comes to Japanese, yet I have found that I can get by fairly well. Also, when I don’t have to speak, I blend in fairly well with the crowd given my half Japanese ethnicity. This has really allowed me to go out through Kyoto and experience it for myself. Contrasted with the majority of the other exchange students, who are mostly caucasian, many get asked to have pictures taken or get approached to speak English with them. I however can usually walk around a temple or market without turning any heads.

Blending in physically has presented me with both benefits and challenges. Despite the fact that my Japanese is probably the least proficient out of most of the exchange students, I probably get the most Japanese spoken at me on a day to day basis. Not a single cashier or person on the street has spoken English to me before I tell them that I was from the United States. This has really made me use my Japanese every day, and isn’t something that most of the other students experience. This however, was also really intimidating at first. I spent the first few days constantly repeating the phrase for, “I only speak a little Japanese”.

It also brings up a feeling that I am not quite everything that I should be as person. Constantly being expected to speak the language, which I do think is perfectly normal on the part of the Japanese here, has definitely been difficult to handle at times.

I sometimes feel as if I am not living up to the expectations of those I meet. This hasn’t made me dislike my time here, but instead has made me that much more determined to become proficient in Japanese so that I can one day fit in the country that makes up half of my ethnicity. As time has progressed I have definitely become more comfortable trying to use as much Japanese as I possible and I remain optimistic about attaining fluency one day.

Being able to fit in with Japanese culture isn’t the only motivation behind my studies here however. Like so many other Japanese American families, the ability to speak Japanese has been lost in my generation of my extended family.

As the eldest of my generation, I view it as almost a responsibility to learn this language so that our connection to our Japanese relatives is not lost. The relatives that I have here in Japan are amazingly generous and caring people. I met them for the first time fifteen years ago on a previous trip to Japan and seeing them again has definitely been a highlight thus. The last thing I would ever want is to have the connection between my relatives in the States and Japan severed.

Now that I am here I am filled with eagerness to learn as much as I can and discover more about where my family comes from.

© 2011 Nathan Kenji Kasai

earthquake exchange student Japan JPquake2011 language

About this series

Nathan Kenji Kasai is a fourth generation Japanese American foreign exchange student at Ristumeikan University in Kyoto.  He is studying Japanese and international relations and will be traveling throughout Kyoto and other parts of Japan. He will be staying in Japan for one semester from March until August 2011 and will be writing biweekly articles on his experience.