While describing my experiences in Japan, I can assure you I have no intent of boring you with a description of every single day and every single thing I did while abroad. Although every day was amazing to me, not every day contained something really worth writing about. This Japan series will be long, filled with a wide array of events, but I will only describe to you the most important moments, the ones that really burrowed into my heart and made a home there. Some will be very specific, others will be more general to encompass the feelings that involve so many moments, it would be impossible to describe each one. This one is of the latter variety. I want to tell you, as best as I can, about life at Akita International University (AIU).
AIU is the kind of college that every college wishes it was. Situated near the Akita airport, it is surrounded by nature on all sides, with mysterious forest to the west and picturesque rice fields to the east. It's far enough away from the city to be beautifully quiet, and yet close to major roads and with its own bus route, ensuring you're never more than a 20 minute bus ride from the city. The campus is gorgeous, with cherry trees lining the pathways, lawns covered in soft grass, and a gorgeous garden park behind. Across the street is a huge sports complex where students can play baseball or tennis to work out their study-induced blues. The architecture is environmentally conscious and stylistically innovative. The interior of the library, with its sun-like rafting and wall of windows is so remarkable, it stuns you into silence, eliminating all need for shushing librarians.
The campus is small, only about the size of a large city block, so that getting to class feels like simply rolling out of bed into your desk. In the cold winter months of Northern Japan, AIU keeps you warm by making all the buildings connected to each other by corridors.
But AIU isn't just amazing for its location. It is the spirit of AIU that most colleges aspire to, but only rarely achieve. AIU's most interesting aspect is the fact that it is an international campus. Every year, a large percentage of their student body is comprised of exchange students from around the world. When I went there were students from all over the United States as well as Canada, Hungary, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, France, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines. (And that year was a smaller representation than usual; their exchange student numbers had been halved by negative reactions to the earthquake in March.) Just as they welcome many students from abroad, they also send their own students off into the world. The school teaches their students English as a common language until they are proficient enough to travel, at which point they must study abroad in order to graduate. They even encourage their students to pick up a third language, believing that language the best gateway to the soul of a country. The result is a hybrid campus culture where every student can learn about different ways of life from every corner of the globe, and provide a bit of his own perspective. Understanding the value of immersing in a foreign culture, the Japanese students there are all to eager to help any exchange student experience as much of Akita and Japan as possible. For a Japanese major like myself, it was a perfect opportunity to practice their language, as well as teach some of my own (and occasionally rely on it if I didn't know how to say something in Japanese). I learned about food and traditions in places I had only briefly heard of, and I now have friends around the world, who are ready and willing to house me should I ever manage to visit their countries.
This is the goal of the school; to help every student learn about the world and experience it. They believe in the same things I believe in. In order to really do well in today's global economy, to really understand oneself and one's country, you must experience as much of the rest of the world as possible. This is the future of the human race, and the first ones to embrace it will become the leaders of the world. So the school tries to make that as easy as possible. They provide clubs about everything from calligraphy to world issues. They host events that showcase music or food from different countries. They provide their exchange students with specially tailored field trips that show them the best and most notable of Akita culture. They set students up with host families, part-time jobs, school visits. After the earthquake, they helped exchange students join volunteer programs, where the students could help clean up homes and comfort families. The whole school is dedicated to their mission of globalized education, and you can feel that energy and devotion reverberating in the halls. It is a beautiful, heart-warming feeling.
The effectiveness of the school's efforts is partially dependent on the smallness of the school itself. The total number of students, exchange students included, totals somewhere around seven hundred. Living in such a small community made me realize that maybe attending a school with 30,000 people was a mistake. It was impossible to go through your day without running into someone you knew. At lunch and dinner in the dining halls, you always had friends to sit with. Even in the depths of midterms and finals, you never felt isolated, even if you couldn't actually “get together” with anyone. The Japanese students were friendly and welcoming to any foreigner, and the exchange students loved to spend time together and relish in their shared experience as said foreigners. Even the teachers engaged with their students on a personal level, often inviting them out in groups to lunch or dinner, and accompanying them on field trips. I felt so involved in the community, so included, that it felt like saying good-bye to family when we all went our separate ways at the end of the semester. I made life-long friendships there in a mere 4 months that will probably last longer than most of the tenuous, sometimes superficial friendships I've made in Boulder after 4 years.
AIU is a school that leaves a mark on your heart with every detail. I miss its hallways, the vending machines, the tiny TV in the student lounge. I long for the near-holy peace of the library, the bustle and terrible food in the cafeteria, and the pathways through the gorgeous garden where every plant has a tag telling me its species. But mostly, I miss the people. I miss my roommate, Mai-chan, who loved pajamas and supported me during the occasional bout of homesickness. I miss Phil, an always energetic DJ grad student who helped out every single exchange student and landed me an English-teaching part-time job. I miss my teachers, especially Ashmore-sensei, the witty, English geek who taught me to indulge in all passions no matter how dorky, and Andy, my chemistry teacher who took us to a firework factory and let us make ice cream with liquid nitrogen. I even miss the cleaning staff, who bowed and smiled and said “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (good morning!) every time I passed them. I envy every new student from my school who goes there, and yet I wish I could give this experience to every one in the world. The love of this place developed over many days, through the small details of the ordinary, and through the huge moments that made my eyes sparkle with wonder. Even though I could only be there for a short four months, I will always consider it my home across the sea.
(The cafeteria where the whole freshman class and the exchange students would eat meals. Large windows allowed for delightful daydreaming on the rare chance you ate alone.)
(One, the AIU mascot. He is an Akita, the dog breed, and his name is a play on the Japanese sound for woof "wan", as well as the word 'one,' as in we are all part of one world.)
(Sakura, or cherry trees, lining one of the walkways on campus.)
(A video of the hip-hop dance club's recruiting skit. This was at an information session that told new students about the cool clubs they could join. I personally dallied in the calligraphy club, the tea ceremony club, and mainly the Japanese traditional dance club.)