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Cultural Immersion and Practicum Make Japan Study Program Stand Out

Published: November 2, 2012

Go to ACM Notes

"It's absolutely amazing to me that that families will take in, sight-unseen, students who can barely speak to them," said Kathryn Sparling, a professor of Japanese at Carleton College.

Sparling, who teaches courses in Japanese language and literature and chairs the college's Department of Asian Languages and Literatures, was talking about the families in Tokyo that host students on the Japan Study program.

Kathryn Sparling

Kathryn Sparling at the new train station in Osaka during a visit to Japan.

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sparling

She's been selected to serve as the program's Resident Director for the 2013-14 academic year and is looking forward to helping the students get settled into their home stays, one of the key aspects of the program’s cultural immersion.

"The thing that they're usually most insecure about when they get there is meeting their families for the first time," said Sparling, so she helps coach the students on some conversation in Japanese – a sort of a "script" – that they can use in that initial meeting with their hosts.

"That makes them feel much, much better," she noted, and by the time the students have made it through their script, they've usually begun to feel more comfortable.

Now celebrating its 50th year, Japan Study is one of the longest-running off-campus programs in Japan for undergraduates. Based at Earlham College, the program links member colleges of the ACM and the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) with Waseda University in Tokyo, one of the country's premier universities.

Students during the Cultural Practicum

Japan Study participants making noodles during the Cultural Practicum in Shimane Prefecture.

Photo courtesy of Japan Study

Program participants take courses alongside students from Japan and countries around the world at Waseda's School of International Liberal Studies (SILS). The curriculum includes intensive Japanese language study and elective classes taught in English in a wide range of subject areas.

As Resident Director, Sparling will teach courses at SILS. This is her second time as Japan Study's Resident Director – she first served in 1992-93 – and she's taught or directed on off-campus study programs in Japan on seven other occasions.

The program emphasizes its experiential opportunities. Students engage with daily life in Japan through their home stays, by joining clubs and taking part in other activities at Waseda, in field trips arranged by the program, and during the one-month Cultural Practicum.

"Everybody – Carleton students and otherwise – likes the Cultural Practicum," Sparling said. "From my point of view, that's the best thing the program does, and it's the thing that makes [Japan Study] different from any other program."

For the practicum, the students leave Tokyo and fan out to different parts of Japan to live with host families, or in comparable arrangements, outside the urban and university settings they've become accustomed to. In smaller towns and rural areas, they experience daily life in Japan from a new perspective as they participate in an internship-style program.

Roy Wimer with host family

Japan Study participant Roy Wimer with members of his host family.

Photo courtesy of Roy Wimer

Practicum placements are varied. At one site, the rural area of Unnan-shi in Shimane Prefecture, students visit local public schools to observe classes, teach English, and introduce the schoolchildren to American culture. Other students in recent years have assisted in community centers – such as for the elderly or for rehabilitation – in a suburb of Osaka, or participated in a community of Zen monks in a Buddhist temple. Some students have chosen to get an inside view of a Japanese workplace by taking a job at a ski resort, with a company that produces medicines, or in the kitchen of a Japanese inn.

"They get to see an environment that's completely different, in terms of personal experience, but also rural versus city," Sparling said. "And they're doing something that is useful. One student who came back [to Carleton] this year did the temple meditation practicum. He said it's the hardest thing he's ever done, but it also made him grow more than anything else in his life."

Coming at the midpoint of the yearlong program, the Cultural Practicum provides a marker for students to gauge how much they've learned since they first arrived in Japan.

"By that time, they’ve been there long enough that their Japanese has gotten better, their social skills are better, and they sort of get to try again in a new environment," Sparling said. "The second time they're usually much more successful, even if they were pretty successful the first time, and the students really like that."

Japan Study offers a variety of calendar options for students, from a semester – with or without the Cultural Practicum – to the full academic year schedule that stretches from mid-September through July. Sparling said she encourages students to go for longest option, which is what most Japan Study participants choose.

Kathryn Sparling

Kathryn Sparling in Nagahama, Japan.

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sparling

"I think it's really much better than twice as good to go for a year than for a term," Sparling said, noting that the home stay can become a richer experience over the longer time period. "If [the family is] going to take you in for a year, they're going to sort of 'train' you, and that's good. You can have a real relationship, not just a guest kind of relationship. Your Japanese gets much better, you can learn how to do things. It's really the last half to third of the time [in Japan] that you can be productive, because it takes time to get the Japanese language and the social skills. So I really think that the year is much, much better."

Over the years, Sparling has observed that students usually have the most meaningful home stays when they make an effort to become part of the family, and she hears about it in the stories they tell when they return from Japan.

"If you listen to [the students'] conversations, they talk about walking their [host parents'] dog or taking care of their grandchildren or helping to celebrate somebody’s birthday. It's obvious that they were contributing to family life. Those are the students who are happiest."


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