（English text to follow）
by Joshua Kery, Carnegie Mellon University / Temple University, Japan Campus
(TUJ Bridging Scholar, Fall 2018)
My roommates and I left Tokyo for Oshima Island before we had spent 24 hours in Japan. That brief vacation took the concentrated hustle of the travel, the new city and its people, and the language I did not know, and diluted it all to lazy island life. It helped me process the change between Japan and the U.S. But soon we returned to Tokyo. My commute and my work and even my desire to see so much in my short time there were sometimes exhausting. I would have been desperate to return to Izu Oshima for a break if I had not found ways to simplify and rest from the city at Temple University Japan. Learning the language and making friends gave me the structure to reflect on my experience of Japan and to more enjoy it.
Learning Japanese was one of the most emotional parts of being in Tokyo. Like I think most non-Japanese speakers feel, the city came to me as a rush of signage, of storefronts and menus, of automated and whispered voices in crowded subway cars. It was so bright and full that it initially stuck me to the tourist sites in my English map and to my commute to school. As if TUJ knew my fears, I learned Japanese in a plain, empty classroom. I was given the phonetic characters to memorize first. They came packaged in neat sets of five, twenty-five to learn at a time. I have never felt so wonderful as I did when, in my second week, I stepped outside with the first twenty-five memorized. What had been before a riot of shapes and lines and colors on the street signs suddenly organized itself into meaningful pieces. I could read them as words. Even though I could read very few signs, and still couldn’t understand them, in that moment, the city felt more open to me.
Learning Japanese helped me mark my progress adjusting to life in Japan. That same wave of a new language in the first few weeks paralyzed me in a clothes store. I refused to ask the clerks for help, and instead I pressed my phone for nearly an hour for translations of all the labels on the racks. But my Japanese lessons gradually eased me out of this fear of speaking the language. Slowly I could prolong my interactions at conbini and at the supermarket with a question or an answer. Like a reward for this, strangers’ conversations betrayed brief pockets of information about their meaning, every day more and more. My last purchase in Japan was a pair of shoes from the same clothing store where I had been frozen. I asked about the available sizes in Japanese, without once looking at my phone. Leaving the store, I felt not only proud of the skills I had acquired, but also in having settled in to my life in Japan.
TUJ’s community, however, probably did the most to connect me to Japan and its culture and to feel like I was at home there. My professors were generous with their time and their care for their students. As part of the Arts program at TUJ, I went on more than a dozen field trips with them, from indigo dying to boating on Tokyo Bay. Their best magic trick was taking the three classrooms that the entire program squeezed into and transforming them into exhibition spaces and movie theaters and stages with changing rooms for nude model sessions. For a program of such limited scale, I was amazed at how much it moved to support its students, myself included. One of my professors organized a discussion panel of recent alumni still living and working in the arts in Tokyo to help upcoming graduates think about their futures. Seeing these graduates happy to return to TUJ, I understood how close a community the support of its professors made.
Of my classmates, I was glad to meet so many people whose stories differed from my own, traditional track of attending college right after high school. At TUJ I was in class with American veterans from the Yokosuka base, and army brats from Okinawa, Japanese students who’d gone through TUJ’s Bridging program to improve their English, and Americans who left home and two-year programs in the States to live and study in Tokyo, as well as students from Brazil and Israel and the UK and elsewhere, all full-time students at TUJ. Since I was always looking for new things in the city, I appreciated meeting people who had lived there long enough that they felt comfortable taking me on adventures to the textiles district or the Kawasaki industrial park, or at least pointing me to the best ramen places they knew about. But this variety in the student body, and this diversity of the classrooms themselves, made me excited to be at the school itself. With friends among both my classmates and my professors, TUJ was at once a space where I could comfortably retreat from the buzz of Tokyo and a base from which I could venture out and explore Japan. Of all the things these people gave me, I did not expect them to share their experience of Tokyo and make it for four months feel like a home.
I stumbled through an answer when, towards the end of my semester, I was asked whether or not I would ever stay in Japan permanently. That was not the first time someone had asked me that, but with my progress in the language and with my new friendships at TUJ, the question felt new and serious. That progress and those people felt important enough on their own to be reasons to stay. But I am still not sure what the right answer is. I left Japan, and I owe it to my experience with learning Japanese and with TUJ that if I do return, it will be as a sort of homecoming.