My Third Semester: Research Track at Osaka University, Japan (2017-2019)

Interviews conducted by Ivana Putri

Elisabeth Stursberg (DE, Strasbourg-Groningen), or also known by her classmates as Lizzie,  studied Cultural History and Theory & Economics during her Bachelor’s. After she took interest in the selection of partner universities and cities Euroculture offers, she started her Euroculture life with the intention to learn more about European history, culture, and politics and the EU in particular, and find out if she could see herself working for the EU or another IO afterwards.
Inès Roy (FR/MA, Udine-Strasbourg) has a background in Languages and International Business. Her decision to study Euroculture stems from her desire to travel and study at the same time. She has always been interested in the concept of cultures and how they are perceived from different standpoints.
Both have returned from their research semester at Osaka University, Japan, and are their final semester at Université de Strasbourg. Thanks Inès and Lizzie, for taking the time to share your experiences!

1. How did you come to the decision of doing a research track at Osaka?

Elisabeth Stursberg (ES): The choice between internship and research track was not too easy, since both sounded like a great option. What influenced my choice most though was the possibility to spend a semester in Japan, a country I had not visited before but was so curious about! I actually don’t think I would have done the research track if I hadn’t been accepted for Osaka. Another reason was that I had already done several internships during my Bachelor’s (it’s pretty common in Germany and often even implicitly, or explicitly, required by employers) and will probably do at least one more after finishing this MA. Time flew by so quickly already in the first semester, and I just liked the idea of studying for another semester as long as I had the chance. Japan as the destination was also a major factor, since I was going to take the research seminar on Integration Processes in East Asia and in Europe during the second semester – so it just seemed like a perfect fit.
Inès Roy (IR): As far as I can remember, I always wanted to go to Japan to see the beautiful landscapes, as well as to see how the ultra-modern and the traditional interact. However, traveling to and living in a country for a few months are two very different experiences. So the possibility to go there was actually another reason for me to apply for Euroculture! As I don’t speak Japanese and wouldn’t be able to find an internship there, I believed this research semester was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

2. What was the research semester like?

ES: In Osaka, we had five main courses plus the preparation of the Thesis Portfolio as an extra assignment, and weekly Japanese language tutoring. The latter was voluntary, but how could I have possibly passed on it? There was one session per course each week, which does not sound like a lot; we even had no class on Mondays. However, there were various assignments like essays, small-scale group research projects, contributions to or leading the discussions in class, readings, and a main research paper. We ended up being quite busy which was, I think, also due to the fact that the semester had been somewhat condensed for us. While the winter semester in Japan usually runs from the beginning of October until February, we only had classes from October until mid-December – courtesy of the lovely organisers – to give us the possibility to return home in time for Christmas! The remaining assignments could be finished from home. The contents were really diverse and well-balanced. For each course, we went on a fieldtrip; for example, to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island, to the ancient imperial city Nara, or to a traditional Takarazuka Revue in Osaka. All of this helped to better understand many things about Japan.
IR: We had classes at Osaka University; most of them were about Japan (postwar society, linguistics, history, culture…) and its relations with the rest of the world. One class was about international relations in East Asia. Besides that, we went on field trips around western Honshū, from Nara to Hiroshima, and in Ōsaka too. During my free time I also got to explore Ōsaka, as well as a few of the other main Japanese cities: Tōkyō, Sapporo, Kyōto, Nara, Kobe. The Euroculture Osaka team really wanted us to be able to have fun and enjoy this semester. Experiences can’t be taught, so I’m really glad they thought that way.

3. Based on your expectations, how did the research track go?

ES: Something we all quickly realised, I think, was the fact that in Osaka, the research track – despite its name – felt more like a regular exchange semester to us. This was because we had regular classes and graded assignments instead of working, for example, with one researcher like it is common in some of the other Euroculture universities. However, focussing on content like this was undoubtedly beneficial since it provided us with many insights into the culture which we would not have acquired otherwise. It was nice to see how the classes and our field trips and travels around Japan complemented each other. What struck me as one of the most difficult things though, was getting around language-wise. Our Japanese tutors were absolutely great and dedicated to teaching us whatever we wanted to learn each week (they inquired what we were most interested in already in summer and prepared everything accordingly), still, there is only so much progress you can make over the course of ten weeks. As a language enthusiast, I had been determined to learn as much Japanese as possible but, and I know this is no new information for anyone: Japanese is such a difficult language! So what I came to realise as the weeks flew by was that I would not be coming back with substantial knowledge in Japanese, however, a) this was also not the main focus of the whole adventure and b) I just celebrated the little victories, like when we were at a department store and I was able to ask where to find Yukatas for men – and the shop assistants understood me! To summarise, I would say that the semester turned out differently from what I had expected, but it was probably even better this way.
IR: I was hoping to learn more about the Japanese culture in general — and a little Japanese too. There’s also a widespread stereotype that the Japanese academic system is extremely demanding and basically consists of studying all day until late at night. I wanted to see if it was true. While it is indeed demanding, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is a lot more to do on campus besides studying. Everyday, students are either exercising or performing between buildings. There are lots of clubs, some of which we could even join. I learned more Japanese than I expected (enough to get by in my everyday life) and I learned so much about Japan’s history, popular culture, modern economics, family relations, wartime life, politics. Overall, this semester went beyond all of my expectations.

4. What are the major differences between your first and second semesters vis-à-vis your research semester?

IR: Our Euroculture coordinator was extremely involved, helpful and well-prepared. I didn’t encounter any problems because she had already planned everything for our move to Japan. Thanks to her, we all found places to live without any issues – Osaka is home to 20 million people already and the housing search could have been much more complicated. I am especially thankful that I got the opportunity to live in central Osaka! I wish the European coordinators could provide the same help that we received to non-European students in particular. Moving to another continent is definitely not easy because of the visa-related issues and the cultural differences. I believe that making this process smoother for non-European citizens would greatly help in increasing the diversity of the Euroculture MA. Even though this MA focuses on Europe, external viewpoints are especially valuable and I found that these were rather rare during my first and second semesters.

5. What was the social and working environment like at Osaka University?

ES: In general, the environment can only be described as welcoming, friendly, and productive! While the feeling of being in the Euroculture bubble remained throughout the semester, we still got to meet other students from Taiwan, China, Japan as well as Sweden who participated in our classes and with whom we would meet up sometimes. Just like we were asking them many questions, they were also very interested in hearing about us, our reasons for coming to Japan, our studies etc., as were the professors. What came as a surprise to me was that several of the professors had previously spent time in Germany and thus had very specific knowledge about some things, but this was also the case for other European countries. You could really tell that everyone is happy about this cultural exchange, especially since there seem to be not that many international students on campus. Everyone, from our coordinator to the professors to the teaching assistants and the staff at the International Office, was incredibly friendly and while this amazing politeness is generally engrained in Japanese society, it certainly made our stay even better. We didn’t join the various sports and arts clubs on campus, but there was for example a weekly language café for various languages which some of us frequented and which seemed like a great way to meet other students. The teaching style of the professors varied, while there was closer supervision in some classes, we were pretty much left free to do our own thing in others. In general, to me it felt like while there was generous help whenever we needed anything. The contact and attachment with the university did not become too close – which for me was probably also due to the fact that I had people visiting for about one of the three months there, which meant that I spent most of the free time not on campus.

6. Any tips for fellow Euroculture students who might want to do the research track at Osaka?

ES: Relating to what I said previously, if your goal is to conduct actual research during the third semester, Osaka is probably not the best choice. While there are research elements in all the courses and we had to write one slightly bigger research paper, the emphasis is on the classes and individual assignments which will keep you rather busy. Still, if you are interested in any topic related to Japan, East Asia, or the comparison with Europe, you will have professors who are absolute experts in various fields and who are happy to guide your interest and provide you with information and materials. It doesn’t hurt if you already have some preliminary knowledge, but if you don’t you will be just as fine since all the specialisations within Japanese and East Asian studies are presented in an accessible and open-minded way.
IR: Try to live in the city center if you get the chance. Classes take place in Toyonaka which is a little outside of the city, and you would therefore get to spend more time in Osaka and see more of it. I personally loved it. Also, do your best to go to the English café. Students meet twice a week to speak English. A lot of Japanese people don’t speak English so this was one of the only opportunities that I had in order to meet Japanese people – and make Japanese friends! You can have lunch there and it’s also a nice way to get out of the Euroculture circle when you arrive in a city where you don’t know anyone else.

6. Anything else?

IR: People always ask me “why would you go to Japan if your degree is about Europe?” It is important to be able to get out of this bubble. We study Europe (Society, Politics and Culture) in a global context; for that reason, non-European points of view and experiences are as valuable as the ones we get within Europe and in particular, the EU.  For instance, non-Western authors and ideas should be more available to us so that we acquire a well-rounded education on Europe. In Osaka, we got the opportunity to discuss a lot of topics every week, particularly relating to gender, sexuality, culture and ethnicity. These are issues that are immensely important to discuss when it comes to society, politics and culture, but were barely mentioned during my first and second semesters.

Featured picture: on the left, Elisabeth Stursberg; on the right, Inès Roy (all rights reserved, published with the authorisation of the photos’ respective owners).

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