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Year in Immersion

A longtime study abroad program in Japan nears a milestone.

Japan

For almost 40 years, the Year in Japan program at Illinois has endured earthquakes, tsunamis, and, well, some pretty awkward moments at the dinner table. Susan Herren remembers clearly the first time she met her Japanese host family, with whom she lived during the study abroad experience.

“I knew no Japanese,” Herren (BS ’81, advertising; MA ’86, Asian studies) recalls, of the 1978-79 visit. “And my host family knew no English.” So how did they communicate in those early days under the same roof, before Herren’s Japanese improved?

“You learn to communicate in so many ways without words,” she recalls, with a laugh.

It wasn’t easy, but Herren went through exactly what the Year in Japan program is designed to achieve: meaningful and total immersion in Japanese culture. After all, by the time her stay concluded a year later, Herren could communicate with her host family fluently in Japanese.

Many alumni have similar stories to tell. Since the Year in Japan program launched in 1975, some 600 Illinois students have taken the opportunity to live a year in Kobe, Japan, and take classes at Konan University, a school of about 10,000 students. Though the program has evolved—for one thing, students are now required to have at least one year of Japanese language courses before enrolling in the program—students still come away transformed by the experience.

Junko Onosaka, a lecturer in Japanese who has coordinated the program since 2005, says the length and design of the program allows students to gain deep insight into Japanese society.

“From an educational perspective, we think that longer is better,” she says. “Students can experience not only the bright side of Japan, but also many other different aspects of the country.”

Planning is underway for a 40th anniversary reunion in 2015 for all Year in Japan alumni, with organizers hopeful that the turnout will be strong. The program was started by Professor Emeritus David Plath (anthropology and Asian studies) of Illinois and the late Professor Kokichi Masuda of Konan University to improve relations between Japan and the U.S. Plath later helped establish the Masuda Award to offer financial assistance to students in the program. As part of the exchange, Illinois also hosts two Japanese students from Konan University each year.

The program has survived earthquakes (including one centered near Kobe in 1995 that killed more than 5,000 people, but injured no students) and tsunamis (the March 2012 tsunami was well north of Kobe but its aftermath decreased program enrollment the following year), and over the years it has grown into a consortium including Illinois and the Universities of Arizona, Hawaii, and Pittsburgh.

The universities share administrative duties, such as a rotating resident director—typically a professor from one of the universities—who assists the roughly 30 students from the consortium who participate each year (including 6-12 from Illinois). Another duty is the delicate task of maintaining good relations with Japanese families who offer room and board through the home-stay program, which organizers consider so essential to the program’s success.

Japan

For example, Onosaka says, one student went to Japan after taking an introductory course in Japanese. After the program, he returned to campus proficient enough in Japanese to take 400-level courses.

“The host family gives the student one room and two meals, morning and night. So the student definitely needs to talk to them,” Onosaka says. “And the students can improve their Japanese very well, and take a look at how a Japanese family works. It’s a very natural setting.”

During the day, students attend English-speaking classes in Japanese literature, history, religion, and other subjects specific to Japan. They take field trips, and they also have time to mingle with their Japanese counterparts. Elizabeth Oyler, professor of Japanese and director of the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies who served as the program’s resident director in 2012-2013, says that students join clubs in music, martial arts, tea ceremony, flower arranging, and other cultural topics.

For the most part, she adds, students leave the program wanting to know even more about the country.

“There’s a curve,” she says. “They arrive [in early fall] and there’s excitement, and then it gets cold, and they are tired, and they miss holidays at home. Winter is hard. Then they recover in the spring. Usually by the end of the year they feel they learned a lot of language and that they learned a lot more about Japan. They feel it was a great experience, and actually I have one student from last year who is already back in Japan.”

The experience still lingers for Herren, now an investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor. She remembers the route she used to take from home to school, and how her feet ached during a brutal, week-long mountain training camp in aikido, a Japanese martial art. There was no Internet, and phone calls were expensive, so home seemed even further away than it does for students today.

It changed her outlook, she says, and much of her life since has reflected it. She assisted a Japanese student exchange program through 4-H for many years in Michigan and Illinois, and she has hosted foreign students in her home. Herren stays in touch with her former host families in Japan, and in 2005 she took her U.S. family to Japan to meet them. She has decided to support the Year in Japan program directly with a $200,000 bequest to help future students participate.

“I would like to find a way to motivate people to go to Japan and do what I did,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I’m still trying to figure out how to repeat it somehow.”

By Dave Evensen
Winter 2014