Studying abroad on AKP is an experience that will challenge your understanding of not just Japan, but also yourself as an individual. Who you are before you arrive in Kyoto—your culture, your values, your past experiences—will affect how you perceive your time on AKP.
Many factors contribute to your individual identity. They can be visible, such as age and skin color. They can also be invisible, such as your nationality, hobbies, and life experience. During your AKP experience, you’ll be able to add “study abroad student” to your identity list as well! To that end, AKP encourages you to think about your unique identity and culture both before arrival and throughout your learning in Kyoto.
How does thinking about "identity" help with my experience?
There are many reasons why awareness of identity can be beneficial to your experience abroad!
Being self-aware may help you more effectively compare cultures and predict where you might experience some challenges. For example, if you were raised with an emphasis on Western values such as “speaking your mind” or “being direct,” you may be frustrated by how conflicts in Japan are settled in a more passive way. Recognizing that this frustration comes from a clash in cultural values can help you step back and ask, “What can I learn from this?”
When you study abroad, it’s not just a one-way street. Your host family and your Japanese friends will want to know more about the culture you come from. They may ask you questions like “What is it like to be a student in the US?” or “Why do Americans do this?” Thinking about your identity and culture in advance prepares you to share more deeply about yourself and enrich these exchanges.
Think about the parts of your identity that make you who you are. How many parts were you able to come up with? How many do you think a single person from Japan might have as well? In keeping your eyes open to the many facets of Japanese identity, you’ll find that Japanese culture is even richer than you could have imagined it.
Many of your AKP classmates will share the experience of being a “foreigner” in Japan. But you will quickly find that your classmates have unique identities and cultures, which may lead to culture clashes even within your group! As you learn to adjust to Japanese culture in your interactions with your host family and others, remember to extend a similar courtesy, respect, and open-mindedness toward your peers. You can learn just as much from them as you can from your host family and professors.
Diversity in Japan
Japan is commonly seen as homogeneous, and over 98% of the country consists of ethnically Japanese nationals. But there are a variety of subgroups, international residents, and ethnic minority groups (e.g. Zainichi Koreans, Brazilian Japanese, the indigenous Ainu) who make their day-to-day living in Japan.
For study abroad students, Japan is a welcoming country, and violent or aggressive forms of harassment/discrimination are rare. In fact, some Western foreigners from marginalized identities report feeling safer in Japan than in their home countries!
If you do encounter anything, it would more than likely be some form of microaggression—indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination including fetishization or objectification. Oftentimes, these microaggressions manifest as well-intended, if ignorant, attempts to show you appreciation or to learn more about you.
NOTE: Many students used to discrimination in their home countries may be inclined to accept whatever microaggressions they face in Japan or view them as too insignificant to report to the Resident Director. But if you are troubled by any harassment or discrimination you encounter while on AKP, please do not keep it to yourself! Give yourself a space to process your frustrations, whether it be through a support network of friends or with the AKP Resident Director.
The following are some resources and brief insights about what some identity groups might encounter while in Japan. Please note that your experiences may differ from what is shared below. In fact, many alumni might look at this list and note that they never experienced any of the things on it! Rather, think of this section as a starting point for you to think about how you’ll experience Japan and what topics are important to you. After all, you are the expert on yourself!
Given Japan’s relative ethnic homogeneity, people who are not visibly Japanese tend to stand out. Curious stares in non-tourist areas are not uncommon. This can often be attributed to genuine interest—you may be the first person of your race or ethnicity that your host family, community, or other Doshisha students may have met—but it may take some getting used to.
Possible Experiences for Students of Color
- Issues of race or diversity in the US are generally not as well-known in Japan or are perhaps only understood on a surface level. Similarly, many Japanese people may not have given thought to issues of race or diversity within Japan itself.
- Students of color may occasionally find that their identity as an American or “foreigner” is focused on more than their race, which can be surprising if they don’t feel particularly “American.”
- Due to the emphasis of light-colored skin in Asian beauty standards, the issue of colorism exists within Japan. Beauty products with skin brightening or whitening additives (marked by the term 美白 or “beautiful white”) tend to be very popular. In general, most beauty products in Japan are not targeted toward darker or non-East Asian complexions.
- Although short-term residents (such as study abroad students) may not encounter it as often, xenophobia does exist and is particularly directed at long-term immigrant laborer communities. Xenophobic sentiment has also been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Further Resources: Organization – Diversity Abroad
- Perceptions of Black people in Japan are primarily influenced by what is shown in popular and international media. While the popularity of Black celebrities (entertainers, athletes, etc.) has helped to create positive associations with Black culture, particularly among the younger generation, many of the negative media stereotypes are also prominent.
- Black haircare and beauty products may be difficult to find and can be expensive compared to the US. Similarly, Black students may also encounter various comments and questions about their hair, including unwanted touching.
- Further Resources: Video – Black in Japan, Video – Black in Tokyo, Video – What’s It Like Being Black in Japan in 2021?
- Students who can be visibly mistaken for a Japanese person may find it easier to blend in than other students on AKP. However, students who blend in too well may also experience some awkwardness if there is a disconnect between their appearance and Japanese language ability.
- Similarly, Japanese heritage-speakers or Japanese American students may experience a disconnect between their desire to connect with their culture and their “outsider” status as foreigners. They may also find themselves burdened with higher self-expectations or expectations from Japanese locals compared to non-Japanese students.
- Due to the complex geopolitical history between Japan, China, and Korea, anti-Chinese and anti-Korean sentiment is something that students may encounter while in Japan. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to aggravate anti-Chinese sentiment.
- Further Resources: Blog Post – Asian, but Not Japanese, in Japan, Blog Post – Asian and Gaijin
- More and more Japanese people (particularly the younger generation) are supportive of LGBTQ+ people. But some of the older generation may still hold outdated or discriminatory views.
- In general, it is rare to hear people talk in-depth about romantic relationships, sexuality, or gender in public, as these topics are usually considered “private” or “personal.”
- It is not illegal to be LGBTQ+ in Japan. However, there are no national anti-discrimination laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
- While there are a few LGBTQ+-friendly establishments in Kyoto, people hoping for a larger LGBTQ+ scene should look to the nearby city of Osaka, which also hosts the Kansai Rainbow Festa (the local Pride event) in October.
- People in Japan may be less familiar with common US terms or concepts related to gender identity, such as “transgender” or “genderfluid,” though this has been changing. It may also be possible for a transgender person to be mistaken as gay or lesbian, as those identities might be more familiar to the general public.
- In order to comply with immigration policy and other legal requirements, official documents (such as your visa materials, residence card, Doshisha ID card, etc.) will need to match the name and gender listed in your passport. This may be unsettling for students whose passports do not properly reflect their identity. For non-official documents and day-to-day interactions, AKP staff and faculty will respect your personal pronouns and chosen name.
- Students who are taking hormones to transition will need to confirm, prior to entering the country, whether their prescription is legal in Japan. If it is legal, it would be best to bring the needed supply in advance through an import certificate; foreign prescriptions are not honored in Japan, and it can be a difficult and time-consuming process to get a Japanese prescription for HRT. More information about importing medications can be found on the Bringing Medications into Japan page.
- There is one “gender-neutral” restroom in Kyoto, located in Kyoto Station. However, many buildings have implemented “barrier-free” restrooms, which are single-stall wheelchair accessible restrooms that can be used so long as a person with physical impairments is not in need of it. Doshisha itself has barrier-free restrooms in various buildings across campus. Taishinkan, the older building in which the Kyoto Center is located, does not have such restrooms.
- Onsen and public baths are usually separated into “male” and “female” sections, and it may be difficult for transgender students to choose which side they feel comfortable entering. For the most part, people are expected to enter the side corresponding to their assigned gender at birth. While mixed gender onsen are rare in Kansai, students may be able to find and reserve a private onsen at many facilities in advance for a slightly higher fee.
Further Resources: Organization – Stonewall Japan, Video – What Japanese People think of LGBT People, Article – The ABCs of LGBT+ in Japan, Blog Post – UK Student’s Experience as LGBT+ in Japan, Blog Post – High School Student’s Experience Studying Abroad as Trans in Japan
- Most Japanese people do not consider themselves religious, although many participate in both Shinto (Japan’s indigenous religion) and Buddhist practices. Religious holidays that may be commonly known in the US such as Easter or Passover may not be as well-known in Japan.
- There are mosques, churches, and synagogues in and around Kyoto. If you wish to connect with a religious community while on AKP, ask the Kyoto Center staff for assistance!
- Christians: Doshisha University offers a weekly Chapel Hour and Chapel Concert through its Center for Christian Culture.
- Muslims: Doshisha also serves various halal dishes in its cafeterias and provides several meditation rooms on campus that can be used as prayer rooms.
- Further Resources: Webpage – Religion in Japan, Webpage – Jewish Kyoto
When it comes to accommodating disabilities, Japan excels in some places more than others. AKP will provide reasonable accommodations for our students with disabilities but may need some advance notice. To request accommodations from AKP, you will need to ask your home institution’s accommodations office to send a letter to AKP detailing your accommodations. More information can be found in AKP’s Disability and Accommodations Policy.
- Visual Impairments: Japan originated the use of yellow tactile paving on sidewalks so such paving is present almost everywhere in Kyoto. Most traffic lights also make sounds when it is safe to cross.
- Physical Impairments: All of AKP’s classrooms are wheelchair accessible. However, the Kyoto Center, which is on the second floor of an older building, is not. Outside of Doshisha Campus and central Kyoto, ramps in buildings and stations may be hard to find. While central Kyoto is relatively flat, there are areas with steep hills in the outer neighborhoods as well as some temples only accessible by stairs.
- Hearing Impairments: Japan has its own form of sign language called JSL (Japanese Sign Language). While subtitles/captions are common in Japanese television programming, these will be in Japanese.
- Learning Disabilities: Many common medicines, such as Ritalin for ADHD, are illegal in Japan. If you are taking medicine to address a learning disability, please contact your local Japanese consulate/embassy to confirm whether your current medication is legal. Be sure to also turn in any accessibility accommodations requests at least one month in advance of your arrival so that AKP can support you during your time abroad.
- Further Resources: Organization – Mobility International USA, Website – Accessible Japan
AKP works with all its homestay families to ensure that they are well-informed of your dietary needs. But when you’re eating out or shopping for groceries, you may encounter some challenges, as omitting or substituting ingredients may be difficult for some restaurants.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Being vegetarian or vegan in Japan can be tricky due to the prevalence of fish ingredients in food, such as fish stock or bonito flakes. Always double-check ingredients, even if it looks vegetarian. HappyCow (happycow.net) is one great resource to find vegetarian/vegan restaurants in and around Kyoto.
- Kosher: It is difficult to find kosher food in Kyoto. There are two Chabad centers in Kyoto (https://www.chabadkyoto.com/ or https://www.jewishkyoto.com/) that may be a resource for those looking to eat Kosher.
- Halal: Doshisha University marks all halal dishes on its menu with the halal symbol. As for halal-friendly restaurants, Halal in Japan (halalinjapan.com) has one list of such restaurants in and around Kyoto.
- Further Resources: Webpage – Traveling to Japan with Dietary Requirements