What It’s Like to Be a Filipino Exchange Student in Japan

"You get to meet all sorts of people when you study in Japan, not just Japanese people."

Dream Coffee is a cozy cafe just right around the corner of a private university in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. I went there on a weekday morning during vacation last year. I had a thick piece of toast and a strong cup of coffee for breakfast. The last time I was there, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as an exchange student.

I took my Junior Term Abroad after graduating in 2012, since the Tohoku Earthquake that devastated Fukushima happened at around the time I was supposed to leave for the spring semester in 2011.

That intervening year prolonged my mom’s worries. She worried that we wouldn’t have enough money for the exchange program. It was a good thing, then, that I was granted a dormitory scholarship since rent can be pricey in Japan.

For those who are thinking of going to Japan as an exchange student, here are a few things that might help prepare you for the experience: 

The dorms can be spacious. 

I loved living in my dorm. Roomy, it was practically an apartment. It had a small kitchen, a terrace, and a toilet separate from the bathroom. There was a bed, but it had a futon on it instead of a mattress. I loved cleaning the most. There was a small department store right next to our dorm, and I loved buying mops, cloths, and brooms to spruce up my room. 

Expect to make new friends.

You get to meet all sorts of people when you study in Japan, not just Japanese people. A lot were dorm mates. Larry was a nerd like me, albeit American, and we once scoured Akihabara for retro arcades. Bengt and Sabrina—both Germans—taught me that you have to look people straight in the eye when you say cheers. I got along with Min from South Korea because, like me, he was opinionated about politics. He knew more Japanese than English, and I the opposite. 

Especially when you join student organizations. 

 Photo © Victor Bautista

I made a lot of friends being part of international student orgs. There were two in my school, and I joined events in both of them. We went on trips, once out of town to this log cabin by the Tama River. At school, we’d often have lunch together on the lawn across the cafeteria. A lot of the time, we went for
nomihodai or all-you-can-drink sessions.


Practice makes perfect.

 Photo © Victor Bautista

I took Japanese lessons before my departure, but I still sucked at the language despite them. You learn a lot by doing, although the language classes I took at at the university were excellent as well. I hit my stride when, in straight Japanese, I managed to hand laundry at the cleaners and ask police for directions going to unfamiliar places. 

But you’re still bound to make mistakes.

 Photo © Victor Bautista

In many establishments, you have to press a button to call a server. I pushed a red button at an
izakaya I was in with orgmates, thinking it was for that. It turns out it was a fire alarm. The fire department came. I wonder if the staff used the baka gaijin or stupid foreigner excuse to explain the mixup. 

The locals can be very helpful.

 Photo © Victor Bautista

Once I tried to go to the campus closer to my dorm to study for finals. I got into the bus waiting by the stop with the school logo. It turns out it was a shuttle for Kuronekoyamato shipping. I freaked out, not seeing any buses that could take me back to the station.

I asked a man with long, wavy hair on a bike for help. Instead of just giving me directions, he came with me all the way back to the station! By this time, I was so glad that my Japanese was already good enough for good conversation. He asked me about the Philippines and my studies here. He called me
onii-san or kuya. We even stopped by a vending machine where he bought me water. To this day, it still is one of the nicest things that a stranger has ever done for me. 

It’s easy to feel at home.

 Photo © Victor Bautista

The daily commute made me most feel that I was really living in Japan. Walking out my dorm, I’d say
ittekimasu (“I’m off!”) and the dorm manager’s wife would reply itterashai (“Have a good day!”), just like in my favorite slice-of-life anime. I’d be on the Tobu-Tojo Line with salarymen in suits and high school students in their crisp sailor uniforms. Sometimes I’d read a book like the old men around me. Or sometimes I’d just marvel at the view: the houses, the streams, the sakura trees in spring.


 Photo © Victor Bautista

I’ve been to the university and Tokyo a couple of times again, but it was never the same as when I was studying there—living there. Now I understand the word
natsukashii: a word that Japanese often say with a wistful look in their eyes. It’s often translated as nostalgic—but it’s not quite that. You feel that way for moments that you miss but know will never return.

I left Dream Coffee and walked around feeling

Main Photo by StockSnap on Pixabay.

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