Studying at Japanese University: One Strange Experience I Had

A bit about what I will cover in this article

After going over my experience studying in a Japanese university “zemi” course, I will go over some…strange things I noticed on a class field trip, including…bath time communication. Yeah…you read that right. Let’s get started!

A bit about my background and University Zemi’s in Japan

Hi, my name is Evan. I moved to Japan in early 2015, first to study Japanese at a Japanese language school in the heart of Osaka, and then later to enter Kwansei Gakuin University from 2016 to early 2020. In Japanese universities every student is assigned to an a zemi class (ゼミナール), an intensive seminar group of 10-20 students that study together, go on field trips together, and almost just as often go on nomikai drinking parties together! This zemi acts somewhat like your new university family. Really, it’s a bit like joining the Yakuza, or even the mafia. As a member of a zemi, the zemi is your life, and your life is the zemi.

Every zemi is a unique world in and of itself. Your teacher, dictate’s your fate, with the curriculum and overall vibe of each zemi class differing wildly. Essentially, choosing a zemi during your 2nd year of Japanese university dictates how the next 2 years of your life will go. What kind of connections do you want to make? What job opportunities can each zemi open up? What difficulty setting do you want to set for your own existence. These are the questions Japanese university students ask themselves before choosing their zemi class. Or…maybe they just join the zemi their friends join? I can’t speak for everyone, but one thing I did notice is how these varying levels of difficulty within zemi’s dictate the social and education dynamics towards the last two years of university in Japan. The students who want strive for challenges in their education tend to find themselves in similar zemi’s when this choice crops up.

What we studied at my zemi

Fair warning, i’m going to dive into some pretty heavy concepts in the next paragraph. Feel free to jump down to the next section if you want to read about Japanese drinking party fun, and my weird zemi story.

Every zemi also has a different theme, or subject of choice. This is heavily influenced by the teacher who runs each class. Our zemi’s theme was 「世界の中の日本のありさま」, which may be translated as “Japan’s place in the world.” Through the study of various texts relating to 日本人論 (Nihonjinron (日本人論, “theories/discussions about the Japanese”), is a genre of texts that focus on issues of Japanese national and cultural identity.), we would discuss subjects such as the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, which is the theory that the language we speak limits the boundaries of how we may think. We studied further texts such as 日本人の仲間意識(Nihonjin no Nakama Ishiki), which explores the linguistic characteristics relating to how the Japanese language defines and indirectly attributes bias to the way relationships are formulated. This would become a topic closely linked to the topic of my final graduation thesis where I would cover the link between the Japanese concept of 遠慮 (can be loosely translated to restraint) and how relationships are defined within the Japanese society. There’s more and more, but I won’t attempt to translate so many concepts that only exist within the context of the Japanese language.

What it’s like studying at a Japanese university. Drinking with your teacher every week???

It’s true! Every week the Asahi super dry would be unleashed. Kanpai after kanpai (kanpai means cheers in Japanese), jug after jug, and toast after toast, Japanese drinking parties play an important role in Japanese society. Very important! In fact, there is a unique Japanese word that encompasses this entire social dynamic: 無礼講 (Bureiko). Bureiko is a Japanese term for the minor breakdown of rules that tends to occur at nomikai, or Japanese drinking parties. This dynamic is very complex, but, put simply, drinking parties in Japan allow people to set aside all of the rules of Japan’s social hierarchy. Everyone can do what they want, and act how they want. Really. You can say almost anything to your teacher or boss and get away with it. This is the concept of bureiko. What happens at the nomikai, stays at the nomikai. Im fact, this bureiko dynamic can lead to some awkward situations.

It is of my opinion that much of the Japanese work ethic is centered around this concept of building up to the bureiko. In Japan, showing one’s effort is typically more respected than showing good results from those efforts. This leads to an emphasis placed on the process, or as i prefer to refer to them: the formalities. Japan is chock FULL of formalities, none of these so visible as the formalities seen in Japan’s working and student culture. I do believe that Japan places so much emphasis on the number of hours worked, because more hours worked = a bigger celebration when all of the work is done. This dynamic can be seen in Japan’s countless drinking parties, which also permeate a large part of Japanese university life. When i say drinking party, I’m of course referring to nomikai one has with their colleagues and coworkers. You NEED to work to build up that nomikai, whether you want to go or not! After all, everyone else is going!

The beginning of my culture shock; weird experiences with Japanese university drinking parties

And this dynamic can be funny, because what happens at nomikai really does stay at nomikai. I noticed again and again that people i been having a blast with at nomikai could barely make eye contact with me the next day. At this moment I truly realized to what extent Japanese relationships rely on situational circumstances. University friends are university friends. Nomikai friends are friends in the context of THAT nomikai. In Japan, relationships (including the relationship one has to their own identity) shift to accommodate their surroundings. Actually, you can read more about this here in the first article I ever wrote for this site. I’ll go into this more later in this article!

Our Zemi trip to Nara, and the time complete strangers bonded over Japanese bath time.

A common component of the Japanese university zemi, is the Japanese university gasshuku. What is a gasshuku? It’s essentially a field trip, but typically involves staying overnight at some far-away area, often cross-country. Gasshuku’s also typically involve a myriad of group activities and (very Japanese) intermingling.

Ohhhh so honorable, so collective! So…Japanese!

In my 3rd year of Japanese university we went on an overnight gasshuku to Nara, Japan, so a few hours away from where I was living at the time near Osaka. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I just knew that we were going to Nara, there was going to be some kind of project or group presentation, and I was going to be sleeping on a tatami mat with 3 other Japanese guys (and bathing with 3 other Japanese guys! The soap and communication shall flow, and nothing can stop it!

*I will go more into this…’bathing’ style of communication later. Bathing style of communication IS a given if you are going to be living in Japan. The SOAP WILL FLOW! JAPANESE PEOPLE CAN’T SAY NO! FRIENDSHIP GROWS (cue ancient tribal music).

Arriving at Nara

I arrive at deer-filled Nara, full of vigor and hope! “Oh, for this will be the greatest Japanese university adventure I have yet! Mystery! Communication! I…group presentation!!! (yay…..) and group bath time!!! These are the feats of adventure that make the Japanese life oh-so-spicy! …wait…group…bath time??? Yeah, i’ll get to that. As we arrive we commence initial introductions and pleasantries. I was the only non-Japanese there (a cliché thing to say, but absolutely true in this case) in a group of around 100 people. Heading into the main lobby hall, there were students from other universities’ zemi’s gathered in the area from other schools in the Kansai region. All of the teachers from the different surrounding area’s international major programs were pretty buddy-buddy, and were planning the projects were going to participate in for the day. (Majors in Japanese universities tend to be much more broad.)

We would then engage in a series of group discussions centered on how technology could impact globalism in the future. For example, virtual reality augmenting the experience of long-term communication and business meetings, etc. As shown in the picture above, we would draw out a plan or idea on a piece of paper and present it to the rest of the group.

When the weird culture shock things started happening.

I have covered earlier how there is this strong tendency in Japanese culture of categorizing relationships based on very specific criteria. Put simply, relationships in Japan, much more than what I was used to growing up in the US, are dependent on circumstance. As I had said, classmates are classmates, and drinking party friends are drinking party friends. It’s a pretty rare thing to make friends with somebody at a drinking party, and then continue where you left off on Monday morning. These circumstances are entirely separate from each other in many cases in Japanese culture, and this is also true in Japanese university life.

At this zemi event we had group discussions, lunch, another group discussion, bath time, a final group discussion. You might see where I’m going with this (lol). As we began our group discussion, everyone in the struggled to make eye contact. The simple act of uttering their name and favorite hobby would become the event of the hour. Humility, distance, restraint, and…a lot of awkwardness. These quality filled the room like a heavy humid-filled cloud. It was time to do the ‘Japanese introduction at a new formal event’ style of conversation.

SWITCH! The beginning of weird happenings at the Japanese university zemi

It’s lunch time! People are supposed to have fun, laugh, and be close friends during lunch time! Stories of hobbies, the trip over, and even everyone’s favorite movie become the topic of conversation. Everyone is having fun, enjoying their meal, and settling in. “Oh, well I guess they just needed some extra time to feel comfortable around each other. Japanese people are known for their shyness, after all. A bell rings and it’s time for us to resume our group presentations.

SWITCH AGAIN. Back to the weird creepy distance zone.

The moment everyone returns to the lobby, things seem…off? I couldn’t help but feel this distance between everyone again. Also, I could tell that for most of the people assigned to my group, none of them had a lot (if any) experience talking to a foreigner before. I could tell they had no idea how to talk to me, but I was pretty used to that at this point. The thing that perplexed me was how much they were struggling to talk to each other. And they were NERVOUS. In fact, they made me, the foreigner, give the group’s presentation in Japanese (of course) to the 100 or-so attendee’s who were there. Well…maybe they didn’t force me to, but nobody else volunteered. So I got up and did my thing…maybe they just got tired? Maybe the trip was long? Maybe Japanese university students are just…awkward? As hard as that is to say…

BATH TIME! This is when I knew things were getting…weird

Despite the fact that having a designated time for 100 people to go “Take a bath!” is pretty hilarious to me in and of itself, THEY DID THE SWITCHING THING AGAIN! I guess maybe I have some bias since I obviously was surrounded by guys, but everyone else seemed to open up…to a non-human degree once they all ran into the bathes together! The thing is too, this was a Japanese onsen-style open bath, which means 50 Japanese guys were lined up completely naked, sitting on a little stool bathing themselves. I guess in a way… I did the switching thing, in an opposite way. I was talking a bit to people around me, but they were having… a little bit too much fun in their for my own personal comfort levels.

Only in Japan will people feel more open talking to each other with their junk hanging out than when they’re sitting in a circle introducing themselves (fully-clothed of course.)

I suppose the group dynamic gave people permission to open up more? But…I can’t help but feel that these other Japanese university students felt some kind of obligation to…have fun in the bath? Yeah… I said it. It probably doesn’t have as much to do with the bath as it does with adjusting to the overall atmosphere of each particular situation. Bath time just happens to be fun time! Who woulda guessed?

The build up to the drinking party: A Japanese university staple

It’s a stale of any Japanese academic or work environment really. People work, work, work, so they can enjoy that pint of Asashi super dry with their classmates or coworkers after-hours. This even was no exception, with presentations going on for 6 or 7 hours, only to explode when the mountain of cheap beer and chu-hai was unveiled. It’s a group dynamic so common that it would be some general reverse culture shock for me to have any work or school gathering without alcohol at this point. It’s a real part of Japanese social dynamics that never fails to make me laugh a little bit at how contrived, but also how fun it can be.

In conclusion

I wanted to talk about this story to demonstrate just how extreme this shift in social dynamics can be depending on the situation in Japan. In all of my 7 years living in this country, this was by far the most blatant example, and probably the most humorous one too.

If you want to learn more about my experiences studying in Japan university or studying at a Japanese language school, please click one of the these links, or one of the articles below. I hope you will enjoy reading through this site and discovering my perspective on life in Japan and the Japanese culture and language.

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