5 Challenges You Will Face Studying Abroad in Japan

by Suzanne Bhagan

Japan continues to be a popular travel destination, but what if you wanted to hunker down and really get to know the country? Well, studying abroad in Japan may just sound like a great idea then. It will be easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Studying abroad in the land of the rising sun may sound exciting and exotic at first, but before you take the plunge, be sure you know what it is going to be like in reality.

Aerial view of Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo skyscrapers can be overwhelming.

Here are some challenges you will face while studying abroad in Japan, and tips for how you can overcome them:

1. There’s that pesky language barrier.

If you’re not a native speaker, one thing that can really slow you down is the language barrier. Even peeps who’ve spent years studying Japanese have a hard time being understood and trying to understand the locals. Sometimes, in spite of your fluency, you may be misunderstood because of how Japanese people perceive foreigners.

Britney from the U.S. did a summer exchange at a private university in Tokyo for a month and says that some Japanese people pretended not to understand her. She had already studied Japanese for five years and didn’t let those people’s narrow-mindedness discourage her. She says that if you want to make the most out of your time studying in Japan, you have to make yourself approachable, because Japanese people tend to appear shy (at first) with foreigners.

Raymond from New Zealand studied Japanese in Osaka for one year and was the only English speaker in his class. Although he admits it was challenging to communicate in Japanese, he got used to it after six months. If you find yourself in a class like this, don’t despair! Use it as the perfect opportunity to practice all that Japanese you’ll be studying.

Irina from Honduras did her master’s in Shimane and is now pursuing her PhD in Sendai. She admits that because many of her classes are in Japanese, she has to concentrate really hard, even to catch a few words. There’s also the awkward moment when everyone else laughs at a joke the professor makes and she doesn’t get it.

Ivan from New Zealand studies in Tottori and recommends recording lectures so you can listen to them later. He also takes photos of kanji in his textbooks and uses apps and translation websites to make sense of them. 

He adds that you shouldn’t just rely on Japanese courses at your university because the classes may be more or less advanced than your language proficiency level. Reach out to community organizations to attend free Japanese lessons on weekends and evenings to learn at your own pace.

Another tip: if you choose to study in Japan through a program provider, choose one that offers Japanese language classes as part of their total package.

Crowded train platform in Japan.
The language barrier is a huge hurdle to overcome and can make getting around difficult.

2. You’ll have to make friends somehow.

Socializing in Japan is another can of worms you’ll have to face. Britney found that because there were many foreigners in her exchange program, she couldn’t make many Japanese friends or practice her Japanese with locals. Like Britney, Josephine from the U.S. admits that making Japanese friends during her time in Kyoto was tough. Because her elective classes were taught in English and her study abroad program clashed with the university’s normal schedule, she found it hard to meet local students.

She also found it difficult to join university clubs and societies because of her timetable differences. If you want to make Japanese friends fast, she says you should definitely start researching clubs you’d like to join and go regularly. Raymond agrees that to make friends, you have to get with Japanese club culture. After a few hits and misses, he joined and stuck with the volleyball club.

Irina admits that making friends in Japan was one of the hardest things she had to do, especially because of their different cultural backgrounds. She didn’t know the latest J Pop groups or the popular shows on TV and they knew nothing about Honduras. In spite of this, armed with a good attitude, she was still able to make many Japanese friends.

Insider tip: get to know Japanese pop culture from websites and blogs before you go so you don’t look totally clueless and can easily strike up a conversation.

If all else fails and you still feel like hibernating in your room all the time, don’t. Josephine recommends doing something every weekend to chase the boredom away. Whether it’s talking a walk around the neighborhood, immersing yourself in the Japanese movie experience, visiting a community shrine or temple, or taking in that local matsuri or festival, do it now or you’ll definitely regret it when you get back home.

Sashimi on a plate
If you’re a picky eater, life in Japan will be an adjustment.

3. The food will take some adjusting to.

Japanese culture is all about food. You’ll frequently hear “Itadakimasu” or “thank you” before anyone breaks out the chopsticks. You’ll also learn to clean your plate no matter what, so if you’re any kind of a picky eater, tough luck. Saying you’re a vegetarian is like telling Japanese people you’re from another planet; they just don’t get it and they’ll still offer you seafood no matter how many times you shake your head.

As a vegetarian, Josephine had her fair share of problems. Her host mom quickly got tired of making separate meals for her. If she got sick, it was because she didn’t eat meat. If you plan on doing a homestay with a Japanese family, Josephine says that even though they will try to accommodate you because you’re a guest, you should carefully consider how your special dietary habits may inconvenience them.

4. You are going to need a place to live.

If you’re planning to study abroad in Japan for anything less than a year, you’ll need to find a place to live. Depending on where you decide to study abroad in Japan, housing options will vary. Although hotels can cut into your wallet over time, homestays are a very affordable option, but can be delicate. Because Raymond didn’t know Japanese very well, at one homestay, he was often misunderstood and used to stay in his room a lot. To avoid this, he says you should be as open as possible and do your best to communicate with your host family.

For those who want a bit more independence, you can stay in university dorms for up to one year. Not only are they affordable but they’re way more social, with lots of other international students to chat with. However, if you plan on studying in Japan for more than a year, homestays and university dorms aren’t going to cut it. Popular with international students who choose to study abroad in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, share houses are awesome because you don’t have to pay pesky things like key money.

On the other hand, maybe you’d like to get your own apartment. When Irina planned to move into her own place, she had to find a real estate company to help her. While searching, she found many restrictions like “no women” or “no foreigners.” In the end, she had to ask a Japanese friend to act as a go-between between her, the real estate company, and the landlords.

Ivan also recommends checking out city or prefecture housing which can be less expensive than market rental rates. Talk to your Japanese friends and maybe you’ll get introduced to friendly local who won’t charge you loads like a company will.

If you choose to go to Japan through a study abroad program provider, you’re in luck. Study  abroad program providers tend to sort out your accommodation in advance, but remember that no two programs are alike. Do your due diligence before you commit: compare programs, read reviews, and talk to past alumni about housing and other important stuff.

Close up of bright-colored koi fish in a pond
Don’t play koi when making friends; put yourself out there!

5. Daily life may seem overwhelming at first.

When you first get there, Japan can seem like paradise. Everyone’s so friendly and so polite that it will knock your socks off. You may be able to get help setting up a bank account or registering at city hall but what happens when you have to wing it on your own? Irena from Lithuania agrees that the language barrier made everyday life hard in the beginning. Because she couldn’t read kanji, she didn’t know what to do with all the mail she kept getting and had to ask for help.

Like Irena from Lithuania, Irina from Honduras struggled with the language and says that many of the challenges she faced were because of her lack of fluency. Going to the supermarket for the first time was terrifying because almost all the labels were in kanji. Once, she thought she bought oil and brought home mirin instead. She called her mom, telling her that she’d have to eat only fruits and vegetables because they were the only things she could identify. Thankfully, she survived the supermarket and now shops with more confidence.

Going to the hospital was another story. Before even seeing the doctor, Irina had to answer questions and fill in documents about her symptoms in Japanese. Going to the post office was also a hassle. After a couple of visits, she noticed a new sign that said, “We don’t speak English in this office, so please come with someone who can speak Japanese.” Yikes!

Jasmien from Belgium, who studied in Tokyo and now studies in Tottori, says to get very familiar with the public transport system. If the kanji at train stations looks like gobbledygook to you, use apps like Hyperdia to find out train times in English. Learn how to ask for directions in Japanese to get around and if you’re still tongue-tied, there’s always Google Maps.

To stay connected, she also recommends getting a pocket WiFi because free WiFi in Japan is a bit of a joke, even in Tokyo. Buying a Japanese SIM card, on the other hand, can be tricky and you may need help from a Japanese friend.

Although Japan is world-famous for its technology, there’s a lot of red tape in daily life. For Irena, going to the bank to exchange money was like pulling teeth. She couldn’t understand why she needed to fill out so many forms and wait so long to change a few Euros into Yen. Since then, she’s grown quite patient with the process. Also, if you plan to change your address during your study abroad in Japan, you’ll have to fill out a lot of paperwork at the city office.

Ivan agrees that bureaucracy at Japanese universities can be a pain in the you-know-what. Once, he had to hand-write the same details for his university at least 20 times and submit photos five times. His advice: always keep some ID photos handy and learn some mindful meditation.

Woman practicing calligraphy
You don’t have to perfect the art of Japanese calligraphy, but learning a few phrases of conversational Japanese certainly can’t hurt.

To make daily life much less stressful, learn some basic conversational Japanese before getting on that plane. Irina recommends checking out articles, blogs, and YouTube videos about life in Japan, so once you get there, you won’t feel like a fish out of water. Even if your Japanese isn’t up to scratch, practice a lot of patience with the locals. If your mind draws a blank, use body language and language apps to avoid misunderstandings. Irina says to persevere because with time, things will get infinitely easier.

Studying in Japan can be an incredible experience but also extremely frustrating if you don’t know the language. Accept the challenge, learn the essentials, be polite to everyone you meet, and try to be patient. You’ll soon realize that if you can handle studying and living in a country where you don’t know the language, you’ll become stronger and able to survive almost anything else life throws your way.