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Culture shock, academic adjustments, language barriers, finances.

Students departing Japan tend to expect such challenges, viewing them as an inevitable speed bump in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience. For many, studying abroad — whether for a semester, a year or an entire undergraduate program — is a dream that cannot be abandoned.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is testing the limits of Japanese students overseas. Thousands have had their programs disrupted (and visa status threatened) by the spread of the novel coronavirus, and many are still struggling with 2020’s fallout.

Kansai Gaidai University student Tatsuya Murakami | COURTESY OF TATSUYA MURAKAMI
Kansai Gaidai University student Tatsuya Murakami | COURTESY OF TATSUYA MURAKAMI

About 80 to 90% of the estimated 200,000 students abroad returned to Japan in spring 2020, according to Tatsuhiko Hoshino of the Japan Association of Overseas Studies. Most were acting on request from their home university, acting under Japanese government-issued travel advice. With no timeline of when they could return to their programs in person, internationally minded students were faced with three choices: shift to online study, wait until international borders reopened or abandon their study abroad altogether due to their desire to graduate on schedule or start job hunting.

Tatsuya Murakami, a senior at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, elected to continue his program online. His immediate concern at the outbreak of the pandemic was whether he could graduate in August 2021 from Wittenberg University, a liberal arts college in Ohio, where he is pursuing a double degree. Now, his focus is keeping up with the grueling schedule.

“The craziest part is the 14-hour time difference,” Murakami says, adding that his classes run from 10 p.m. until 6:15 a.m., albeit with occasional breaks. Still, he has gotten used to mid-day sleeping and much prefers this semester’s live classes, where he can at least see his peers, to last autumn’s pre-recorded lectures and written assignments.

“I feel satisfied (with the program) now,” he says. “I was kind of depressed last semester as I felt apart from Wittenberg, with no others to talk to.”

Although Murakami finds solace in the brief interactions with his classmates before and after classes, he misses the social life and cross-cultural experiences that he enjoyed in the United States, as well as the “water cooler chat.”

Fellow Kansai Gaidai student Rumi Kondo believes so strongly that these opportunities are best enjoyed in person that she is waiting to return to the University of Leeds, England, where she was enrolled last year. Coming back to Japan mid-semester, in March 2020, she had to complete a 2,000-word paper to obtain a credit to allow her to continue her study abroad at a later date.

“It was really tough to do (the paper) in Japan,” she says, noting the lack of books and restricted access to advisors given the time difference. “But I can’t give up because of the coronavirus.”

Kansai Gaidai University student Rumi Kondo | COURTESY OF RUMI KONDO
Kansai Gaidai University student Rumi Kondo | COURTESY OF RUMI KONDO

Since September 2020, Kondo has been taking classes at Kansai Gaidai and counting down to her much-anticipated return to Leeds in autumn.

“My purpose (in studying abroad) is to meet students from around the world, to talk face to face, to broaden my perspective,” she says.

According to Naoko Nakawa, Kansai Gaidai’s exchange coordinator, Kondo is among 380 students preparing to depart the university in 2021 for programs of one- to three-years long in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacifc. The number is twice that of usual, partly due to returning and new students departing together, but also due to the appeal of studying abroad despite COVID-19.

Staff at NIC International College in Japan, a preparatory school for students to pursue an undergraduate degree abroad, are also arranging to send about 400 alumni abroad in August, about half new and half returning students. Despite the difficulties, Shuichi Chikamatsu, Tokyo campus manager, says young peoples’ passion for overseas study — in some format — has not been dampened by the pandemic.

Some who were enrolled in programs in the United States have transferred out of high-COVID areas to affiliated colleges in states with lower infection rates. This process, which Chikamatsu says is possible thanks to NIC’s partnerships with colleges in all 50 states, has allowed them to continue some in-person classes, albeit with social distancing.

A handful have taken a leave of absence for one or two years, by which time they hope COVID-19 will have receded.

“Tuition is expensive and students want to meet people and build connections— one of the best parts of being at university,” Chikamatsu explains.

Still, most have transitioned to study online, either with their overseas college or through NIC, which offers compatible academic credits so alumni can join their overseas institution in person as a sophomore, rather than a freshman.

Although Chikamatsu recognizes the difficulties of undertaking overseas study remotely, he also sees some silver linings, particularly for students unfamiliar with Western teaching styles.

“In Japan, students worry about what others think. They are afraid to speak out,” he says, adding that this can hamper their progress overseas. By taking classes on Zoom, however, “they don’t have any pressure from other students. It’s easy for them to raise their hand.” In some ways, normalizing online classes could help ease some Japanese students into their new educational environment.

Shuichi Chikamatsu, Tokyo campus manager for NIC International College | COURTESY OF SHUICHI CHIKAMATSU
Shuichi Chikamatsu, Tokyo campus manager for NIC International College | COURTESY OF SHUICHI CHIKAMATSU

Overall, though, the physical and emotional toll on students in the past 12 months has been significant, prompting colleges in Japan to do more to support their well-being.

NIC trains alumni to use various online learning technologies, and provides ongoing guidance about life during the pandemic. Kansai Gaidai, meanwhile, launched an online intercultural engagement program to provide interaction between Japanese and international students.

Meanwhile, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Oita Prefecture, whose 3,000-strong student body usually comprises 50% Japanese and 50% non-Japanese, took the opportunity to begin a new online exchange program, connecting 141 of its freshmen with 22 students in overseas partner schools, to boost cross-cultural interaction.

After taking part, Takahito Kataoka told APU he now has “a better sense of just how challenging it can be to exchange opinions on global issues with students of a considerably different background.”

Despite the communication difficulties he faced, the new experience has fueled his motivation of “becoming a global citizen” through studying with people from all over the world. Even if it is largely online for the time being.

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