Learning Japanese and independence

Studying abroad may be less stressful than in S'pore but it poses a challenge in other ways

Why Japan?

That is always the question I get when someone finds out that I'm pursuing my undergraduate studies in Tokyo.

I always pause, wondering if I should reveal the mildly embarrassing truth.

The land of the rising sun first caught my eye because of a man named Matsumoto Jun. Yes, he is from a boyband, and its name is Arashi.

While my schoolmates - the K-wave generation - bobbed their heads to DBSK's Mirotic and Super Junior's Sorry Sorry, I knew a grand total of two people who had heard of Arashi.

I was an evangelist in a town where everyone had already pledged their allegiance to another religion.

The writer supporting her university's baseball team in a tournament against sports archrival Keio University.
The writer supporting her university’s baseball team in a tournament against sports archrival Keio University. ST PHOTO: JAN LEE

The isolation probably spurred my obsession, not just with Arashi, but with all things Japanese.

Then in 2013, five years after I discovered my beloved boyband, I found myself standing in Narita Airport, an acceptance letter from Waseda University's School of International Liberal Studies in hand, and armed with a sloppy grasp of Japanese.

My first year in Japan was not how envisioned it.

During my first month, I tried to open a bank account but was rejected. My sin? I did not speak Japanese well enough. I remember pointing to my friend, fluent in the language, who had agreed to help me with opening an account, but still, I got a resounding "no".

I wandered aimlessly in the massive, sprawling Shinjuku station, utterly confused and blown away by its 13 different train lines and countless exits.

Going about my daily life, I was often seized with anxiety. Was I too polite or not polite enough?

School, while fun, also posed its own unique set of challenges. Fresh out of Hwa Chong Institution, where "mugging" (Singapore slang for studying hard) was par for the course, university life was relatively stress-free.

The environment was relaxed, the workload was comfortable. The liberal arts curriculum allowed me to touch base with a range of subjects - international relations, history, law and literature.

An affordable gymnasium on campus meant I began to exercise, and the delicious and diverse, not to mention wallet-friendly, food options around campus fulfilled all my lunchtime cravings.

I also had a ton of study-abroad options to choose from.

Japan, in recent years, has been trying very hard to globalise and connect its traditionally inward-looking society with the rest of the world. And Japanese universities spearhead the effort, offering many exchange programmes, summer schools and internships overseas.

I spent my third year in Peking University, doing a double-degree programme with a focus on international relations.

Despite the excitement and opportunities, I struggled, especially in making friends.

Even though my faculty taught in English and most students were fluent speakers, many Japanese still preferred to hang out with those who spoke, well, Japanese.

Instead, I sought friendships from fellow foreigners, all struggling to adapt to life in Japan. We bonded over a shared inability to understand the differences between "ga" and "ha" - two fundamental Japanese particles.

Eventually, through countless theories and debates about grammar and vocabulary, we all became good enough to converse confidently.

I am starting my fourth and final year in Waseda. Perhaps the first year was tough, but my time in Japan has been extraordinary. The whole experience of studying abroad is an unparalleled privilege. It was an opportunity for me to learn how to build a life for myself.

Japan was where I picked up independence. I managed my finances, figured out what to cook for dinner and compared fire insurance plans for my rented apartment.

I explored the wonderfully weird city I always wanted to see. A place where the old truly met the new, Japan's rich culture, iconic architecture and vibrant arts scene always gave me something to look forward to. I am proud that I have learnt to enjoy Tokyo, even as a resident. Because nothing is too difficult when you can make a whole new city your oyster.

Well, nothing but watching an Arashi concert live. With over a million fan club members balloting for concert tickets, I have yet to see, what was for me, a life-changing boyband perform.

•The writer is on a Singapore Press Holdings journalism scholarship.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'Learning Japanese and independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe