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Far from home: thoughts from Japan

Hideki Kato laugh when I said that western people think Asians all look the same.
Hideki Kato laugh when I said that western people think Asians all look the same.

As an exchange student, being confronted with another culture is a part of the experience. I was surprised to see that even if I’m from a country which shares a common Western culture with the U.S., many differences exist.
Another part of this experience is sharing this confrontation with other exchange students. One student in particular got my attention, because he comes from a very different country, culturally speaking.
“Those 10 months are the best of my life. I learned a lot,” said Hideki Kato, a junior UNC Asheville exchange student from Japan studying political science.
Kato began attending UNCA in the fall 2015 semester. When I talked with him about being an exchange student here, it appeared to me that he was living something completely different. The experience was deeper for him; it affected him more than me.
“I have more time to think about my future and more objectively,” Kato said. “Until I came to the U.S., I always thought that my future was influenced by others’ opinions and ideas.”
Kato said he came here to figure out his future. He saw the opportunity to taste the independence he didn’t have back home.
Japanese society, according to Kato, doesn’t take part in any globalization movement, especially when it comes to diversity.
“I met a girl who graduated from a Japanese university last summer, and she told me that to her, the Japanese society is dysfunctional. Japanese didn’t make her feel welcomed, because she was a foreigner,” Kato said. “When I was living in Japan, I couldn’t see that.”
Having feedback on his own country was a precious moment for him, Kato said. This information will help him decide what he will do with his life.
“Now I can see a clear picture of my future. Before that, I was living for my family, for their reputation, it wasn’t my true desire,” Kato said.
He explained to me that living in the U.S. will probably be less stressful for him, and he might have more satisfaction with his life. Nevertheless, there is something more important that pushes him to go back to Japan.
“I want to improve my society. I feel like it’s my responsibility now, because not a lot of Japanese see the truth,” Kato said. “I think it’s possible to improve it, not in 10 years but maybe in a century.”
Kato said he has the desire to create a path for the new generation in Japan.
He came to the U.S. for the first time in 2014. He was part of the Kakehashi Project, an initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan that promotes cultural understanding between the U.S and Japan.
“It was a two-week trip to New York and Los Angeles, and we gave presentations about Japan,” Kato said.
He also took the opportunity to learn about Americans and their culture.
“I found that students in the U.S. are more passionate and curious. They are also more independent,” Kato said. “I think they try to find how they could give better outcomes to their society.”

Hideki Kato is from Japan and he's studying political science at UNCA this year.
Hideki Kato is from Japan and he’s studying political science at UNCA this year.

It was fascinating to see that he didn’t have the same struggles as I did. French culture is more similar to American culture. For him, adapting to the social life here was harder because his cultural background is different.
“People in Asheville are kind and generous. They are willing to help people, and they love talking,” Kato said. “It’s new to me. In Japan, we are kind and generous, but not with foreigners. It doesn’t mean we dislike foreigners, but we don’t mix with them as much.”
When an American invited him to his house, Kato thought he was just trying to be nice but didn’t really mean to invite him.
“In Japan, when a friend tells me that if I miss the last train to go back home I can crash at his place, in reality, he doesn’t really want me to come to his place,” Kato said. “He just wants to maintain friendship.”
It surprised him the first time a stranger talked to him at the bus station, because Japan doesn’t have this culture.
“We don’t speak with people. We just look at our smartphones, and before smartphones, we were looking at the newspaper,” Kato said.
That was something we could agree on. Maybe it’s a little less extreme, but in France, we tend to mind our business as well, and we rarely engage in conversation with a stranger.
Kato also had difficulties with language that I didn’t experience, because he had to learn a new alphabet.
“It was super hard for me, to be honest. I have learned English during the past 12 years, but my English is still at an intermediate level,” Kato said. “I’m not as fluent as native people.”
He explained that he hesitates to give an opinion in class because he isn’t as fluent as he wishes. He said he worries he wouldn’t be able to explain his ideas.
As in my own country, Japanese learn English at school and therefore are supposed to know it, but in practice, it’s different.
“In reality, most people just know how to say ‘hello,’ ‘okay’ and ‘no.’ They don’t have a level good enough to make a conversation,” Kato said.
In every developed country, English has a strong presence. Japan isn’t an exception. Kato said he finds humor in how Japanese try to use English.
“Phonetically, the Japanese for water is ‘mizu,’ so they write ‘mizu’ in english letters on the menu and expect tourists to understand it’s water,” Kato said.
I was surprised to learn that Japanese have admiration for Western civilization and that influences their culture a lot, especially on the criteria for beauty.
“It’s not based on any scientific facts, it’s only my opinion,” Kato said. “For example, Uniqlo, which is a Japanese clothing company, uses Western models.”
And apparently, it also influences television.
“Most popular characters are half Japanese, half Caucasian,” Kato said. “The beauty models have typical characteristics of Western white people, like large eyes, long noses and tall.”
Kato said he finds it funny that Western people like to be tan whereas Japanese try to have as fair of a complexion as possible.
By the way, you know how some white people say Asians all look the same, and it’s hard to recognize them? It turns out some Asians feel exactly the same about us. Fair enough.

By Aymeric Assemat

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