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From the Faculty of International Social Studies (Provisional Name) to the World

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Ted O'Neill
(Professor, Preparatory Office for the Faculty of International Social Studies, Gakushuin University)

Your experience in Japan
Tell us some of your best experiences in Japanese society

One of the more unusual and wonderful experiences I have had in Japan was doing an internship. A few years ago I spent a week working in a sake brewery in the countryside outside Osaka. This might sound like fun, but it was hard work. I slept in the kura and got up very early every morning to start by washing rice in ice cold water side by side with the regular workers. We did everything together that week: sleep, eat, work, and bathe. I could experience the rhythms, smells, tastes, hardships and friendship of a very traditional way of life and work. It put me in touch with the heart of Japanese agriculture and the pride people take in their craft and their work. And, it was fun after all.

Tell us some of the things that you were surprised/shocked by in Japan.

One thing that still surprises me is seeing very young children commuting through Tokyo on their own. I grew up in a quiet, rural town and started walking or riding my bicycle to school on my own when I was about 10 years old. Unfortunately, I don’t think children are allowed to do this often in the U.S. any longer. But, I never would have been allowed to take a train through a city until I was much older. When I see a first-grader wandering the platform in Yoyogi Station changing trains on his way home from school, I still can’t believe it.

Things you noticed/realized while teaching at universities in Japan

One of the differences I noticed between student life in Japanese universities and American universities is the role of sports. In many universities in the United States, basketball or football teams are the primary point of identification for students. Attending games and supporting the superstar team are central to student life and graduates remain fans for life. There are sports rivalries in Japan between universities, but they do not seem all-consuming the way they can be in the US.

On the other hand, actually playing sports seems much more common in Japanese universities. Intramural teams or more casual sports clubs play a huge role in many students’ lives. Practice, planning, and spending time with teammates take up hours or days in many students’ already busy weeks. I think it is difficult for newcomers to the world of Japanese university life to understand just how important these groups can be.

What do you want to teach at the Faculty of International Social Studies?

One of my favorite sentences about teaching is from Paulo Freire, “"The teacher's task is to organize a process which already occurs spontaneously." I hope that students entering the ISS will already have a healthy curiosity about the wider world and different societies and cultures. So, as a teacher I aim to help students structure what they learn and build up their own picture of the world. Educators can help students focus, recognize connections, and understand context.

People often look for the differences between cultures and societies--and there certainly are differences. But, there are often far more similarities and common ground for us to find between Japan and other countries. We can help students identify the common threads in different cultures, and then better appreciate the differences. It is complicated, but holding both of those ideas in mind can allow one to understand problems.

Why students should go abroad?

Over the years teaching in Japan, I have met more and more university students who had the good fortune to study abroad during high school. Even a short home-stay in Australia or Singapore has been a life changing opportunity that stays with them. I have also led several groups of students on study tours of the United States and Canada. Students come back with so much energy and more excited about their future.

From your own personal experience, tell us how studying/living in foreign countries contributed to your personal growth.

I wish I had been able to study abroad in high school or university. Aside from a short family vacation, I had never been outside the United States until I graduated from university and boarded a plane to come and live in Miyazaki, Japan for one year. I loved that first year in Japan, but had some difficult times too. There was just so much to learn about my new home and how I wanted to live there, but only a few people to help me. Among the other young people on the JET Program(me) with me, several had already studied or lived in other countries. Even if they had not studied in Japan, they had learned how to enter and navigate a new culture. When you study abroad, you have help; you can get the tools and the confidence to do well anywhere.

What are some of the things that students should prepare/do before they go study abroad?

I’ve seen many students try to really cram in last minute language study before they leave to study abroad. Of course, they feel some anxiety and pressure, but I try to encourage them to take their time and look inward a bit before they go. They are going abroad to learn, but also to teach. The new friends they meet in other countries may have a lot of questions about Japan, so preparing to explain your home country is important.

Also, travel changes us. Studying and living abroad changes us even more. The other day, I found some old letters from when first arrived in Japan. It showed me how much I learned and grew over that year. I would suggest sitting down and writing about some of your hopes, fears, questions, ideas, and dreams about your future study abroad experience. Just put those notes away and leave them at home. One year or even just six weeks later, students will be amazed at how much they’ve learned and experienced.

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