Do you find yourself dreaming of sushi and temples, manga or mecha in the Land of the Rising Sun? Becoming an exchange student in Japan may be the path for you - and going abroad to this popular East Asian country is now easier than ever.

Highlights
  • Language: Living in Japan, you'll be able to fully immerse yourself in Japanese, a tough language that is very rewarding to speak and use once you've gotten the basics down. Total immersion is one of the best ways to conquer Japanese, particularly the kanji writing system.
  • Popular Destinations: Japan's size makes it easy and safe to travel even long distances alone. The bullet train lines stretch almost all the way across, from Kyushu to northern Hokkaido. Depending on where in the country you live, you will experience different climates, and enjoy the changing of the four seasons, celebrated with special seasonal dishes and treats.
  • Cost of Living: Cost of living in Japan, especially in Tokyo is high. For most programs, around $10,000 USD
  • Activities: Plenty of familiar sports are practiced here, along with a few you may not have tried before - how about checking out a handball or kendo club at your school? The Japanese also take their sports seriously, particularly baseball - and the annual high school baseball tournament, Koushien, is so famous that the whole nation tunes in!
  • Food: Food in Japan might take some getting used to for the uninitiated, but it isn't all raw fish. In fact, after trying some homestyle cooking, you'll probably find yourself very disappointed in what passes for "Japanese food" back home! Tonkatsu, soba, udon, omuraisu, curry rice and ramen - real ramen, not Mr. Noodles - are just a few items you might find in your school cafeteria.

There are a number of study abroad programs that cover Japan, but because it does tend to be a little more regimented than some other countries, there are a few big names that are trusted by Japanese school boards. Rotary is a popular choice for applicants who can qualify. AFS, YFU and EF are the three biggest non-profit organizations that place study abroad students in public schools. For the private school experience, you'll likely want to contact a smaller, for-profit company, sometimes called a "homestay agency" - but beware of the price!

  • Academic Program: Most organizations, including the big three, offer a range of options for your trip abroad. Academic programs are very popular for those wishing to learn Japanese. A year-long or semester-long exchange program would put you right in the classroom with Japanese-speaking students, likely with a tutor for part of the day to help you grasp the language. Short "intro to Japanese" summer programs are great for first-time language learners who don't want to take an entire year away.
  • Culture Program: Short-term cultural programs are becoming common as well. The influence of anime, manga, j-pop and other popular culture that has made its way to the West cannot be understated, as have the martial arts, tea ceremony, kabuki and many other more traditional arts. If learning languages isn't your cup of tea, but you know your way around shonen, shojo, seinen and the rest, a short-term cultural exchange might be the way for you. Pop culture-focused exchanges are less common than traditional culture exchanges, but both will teach you plenty about Japanese society and take you on exciting adventures to places like Mount Fuji, Asakusa, Kyoto, and yes - even Akihabara!

There are a few things that you should be aware of when planning a study abroad in Japan. Japanese school year starts in March - lining up the "perfect" time to go can prove to be difficult for those juggling graduation requirements and college applications! Since most high school exchange students studying in Japan end up in the second year regardless - the schoolwork crunch for third-years taking entrance examinations prevents many schools from placing students in the final year of high school - eleventh grade is an ideal time to go abroad to Japan for a year or semester.

Requirements:

Age can be a factor. All of the big-name programs that offer study abroad in Japan, and most of the small ones as well, are wary of students who are over 18.

Students who have already graduated in their home country and are seeking a gap year will likely still be placed in the second year in their Japanese school, and exchange organizations tend to be stricter with older students, for fear that they will not commit to academics. It's not impossible to do a high school exchange after graduation, but it can be very difficult to arrange.

Pre-departure language study is not usually necessary for students going to Japan. As the language is a far less commonly found at the high school level, particularly for North Americans and Europeans, you won't be expected to know much on arrival. Most students have only a beginner level, and the schools are prepared for this. You may even find that people are shocked, months after you arrive, that you can manage basic greetings in Japanese!

Another contingency to prepare for is finding that not all of the credits you earn in Japan will be able to be transferred home after your exchange. This is something you should discuss with your school guidance counselor as you are planning your study abroad. They may be able to help you be allowing you to complete courses via correspondence during your free time.

Housing/Accommodations

For the serious Japanese student, the homestay and high school experience can be the fastest track to fluency. Not only will that language ability help you should you choose to go and study in a Japanese-related field later, but the cultural aspect is irreplaceable. Life in Japan is very different for a high-schooler than it will be for a post-secondary student, and you should take the opportunity to really experience the total cultural and linguistic immersion you'll gain by doing your exchange at a young age.

You'll come home more mature and worldly than you might expect - and, with any luck, fluent in Japanese! In Tokyo or Osaka, your hosts might have an apartment, but houses are common in many cities, especially in the suburbs. Many families who tend to host do live in larger dwellings, which might mean a long train commute to school, but if you're close to the neighborhood school, you'll probably travel by bicycle.

It isn't common for Japanese parents to drop students off, and of course, students aren't allowed to drive! Your route will be just the same as many of your classmates and you'll have the opportunity to socialize on the way as you walk or ride to school.

If a homestay isn't an option or isn't your preference, don't worry -- you have other options.

Preparation

You will need a visa to study in Japan, and it will likely require an in-person trip to your nearest Japanese Embassy or Consulate. Be sure to research where to find the closest one and leave plenty of time for the application. Use the Internet to locate the nearest one to you and investigate the visa requirements for your country of residence.

Medical check-ups and immunizations might not be strict, but your exchange organization will provide you with a list of recommendations. Tuberculosis screening is common for students applying to Japan.

Financial Costs

The cost of studying abroad in Japan is not cheap, and you should be prepared to come up with a fair amount of money. For a year, the absolute minimum with one of the non-profit exchange organizations is going to be in the $10,000 USD range. A program with more flexibility (such as the ability to choose your own destination city or host family) can increase the price dramatically. Scholarships are sometimes available, especially if you have relatives who work for a foreign branch of a Japanese company like Honda. Why not see if your parents or friends have a connection?

You might be lucky enough to do an exchange with an organization that pays your entire way, though this can severely limit your control over your living situation. You might have to agree to move host families several times to meet scholarship requirements. Or, should there be no financial assistance available to you, you may need to turn to fundraising for yourself. Letter-writing, selling candy, and crowdsourcing through social media with a platform like FundMyTravel or GoGetFunding are just a few ideas to get you started.

Contributed by Ashley Haley

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