What I Learned At Hitotsubashi University

Or rather, what Yurika learned.  Most of the names in this almost-true story, written to help aspiring exchange students to Japan to make the most of their experience and to not do anything stupid, have been changed to protect the innocent.

I will write more episodes when I have time and when I feel like it. I also will make some illustrations, when I have time and when I feel like it. (Expect to wait anywhere between a few months to a year for both.)

Episode 1

It always struck me as sad that so many people choose to study abroad with “study” as their main goal. Myself, I’ve never been the studious type – after all, the things you really need to know, they don’t tell you in books anyway. Like the fact that in Japan you need to hold on to your train ticket all the way to your destination or you’re in big trouble.

“He’s letting you off with a 60 yen penalty since you didn’t know – you’re lucky,” my boyfriend Kazu told me at the kaisatsu window. “So now do you understand how important it is not to lose your ticket?”

“Uh-huh.” I’d only been in Tokyo two hours and I was already in the doghouse. It’s not like they have trains in Honolulu, so how was I supposed to know? But I figured he was just irritated from having had to carry each of my 70-pound suitcases up two flights of stairs and decided not to let it ruin my excitement.

“Yurika-san!” It took me a second to realize I was being addressed – I was used to hearing it pronounced “Eureka” rather than the way my distant Japanese ancestors had intended. But then I saw Nana smiling and waving.

“Is that your host sister?” asked Kazu. “I’ll be off, then. See you tomorrow at Nakano – try not to get lost.” He gave me a quick hug and headed back up to the platform alone.

Nana was going on a year-long exchange program to Honolulu, and my family had volunteered to host her. In exchange, her family was letting me stay at their house until I found an apartment closer to my university. The fact that the trade was uneven, as per my limited understanding of Japanese culture, meant Nana’s family would feel obligated to spoil me rotten for the two weeks I was there. Still I couldn’t help worrying – the last time I had stayed with a Japanese family, they’d pretended everything was cool and then written to my parents that it should have been common sense not to throw one’s dirty underwear in with the rest of the laundry, and how could they raise such a rude child? Embarrassment that spans half an ocean: not fun. So I was on my best behavior from the moment I walked in the door, remembering to bow, sit straight, and say “thank you” more times than most Americans would be able to stomach. It helped that the Sawadas spoke English; that ruled out the problem of keigo.

“Should I wash my underwear separately?” I asked Nana’s mother later that night.

“What? No, that won’t be necessary, unless that’s what you do at home,” she answered kindly. I relaxed a little.

Mrs. Sawada patiently explained how to get to Nakano Station the next morning, and it turned out not to be too difficult. I found Kazu there and after another brief hug, he presented me with a book containing a map of the JR and subway train routes.

“So you won’t get lost when I’m not around to help you,” he said.

What, no kiss? “Thanks, I guess.” I pocketed the book and followed him up onto another platform – or was it the same one I’d come down from? I was so confused.

We filled most of the ride with small talk; though we’d e-mailed each other daily over the past six months, our three-day initial meeting in Honolulu hadn’t allowed our relationship to develop much. The language barrier also made things difficult, as neither his English nor my Japanese were great. But he’d given me his ring and told me he loved me, so it was a serious relationship as far as I was concerned.

We got off at Kunitachi. I followed Kazu into a shop with a green sign. The katakana took me a minute to make out: “E-buru.” Evil? No, maybe Able…

“My friend is looking for an apartment. She’s going to be a student at Hitotsubashi,” Kazu told the young woman at the counter. Her last name was in kanji I couldn’t read, but her first name, written in hiragana on her nametag, was Kanako.

That was all I got. Kanako proceeded to lay dozens of papers in front of us, chattering a mile a minute (and in keigo on top of that). Kazu translated as best he could so I had a basic idea of which apartments were near the station, which sounded spacious enough for me to do my aerobics in, and which had good access to food.

Then Kazu related that I’d need a guarantor to sign for me before I could rent. He was willing to do it, but I suspected not very.

“Who else might I be able to ask?” I asked Kanako in my probably rude Japanese.

“Is there someone at school who could sign for you?” she suggested.

“We’ll go check,” I said. “Um…anyone know how to get to Hitotsubashi?”

The big boss at the international student office, a middle-aged man who didn’t seem to possess the ability to smile, said that since I wouldn’t officially be a student for another two months, they would be happy to sign for me then and not a day earlier.

“You could have applied to the dorms,” he said matter-of-factly. “Might have made things easier.”

I didn’t qualify as a student until October, but I could have stayed in the dorms now? Maybe I missed something, but I barely had time to wonder, because as soon as we stepped out the door Kazu was upset.

“You said staying in the dorms wasn’t an option.”

“And I maintain that it is not,” I said calmly, continuing to walk. “I know you said it was the easiest, cheapest way, but dorms are too noisy and dirty for me. I would have gone insane.”

“Can’t you stop thinking of yourself?” He sighed. “I lived in the baseball team dorm in high school. It wasn’t the best, but living there was an important part of being in a team. You don’t understand the meaning of being in a team. I just…I don’t think I can be with someone like that.”

“Hey, come on!” I tried to feel disbelief, even surprise, but I couldn’t deny something had felt wrong between us since I’d arrived. “What’s wrong with liking a little privacy?”

“It’s not just that,” Kazu said. “You always have to make things hard. I realized this wasn’t going to work last month when you talked about us going to Korea to change your visa to student status. You didn’t even consider how I have no money.” He fidgeted. “I should have told you…”

Now I was pissed. “Why didn’t you?”

He hesitated. “I was afraid you wouldn’t want to come to Japan.”

I was floored. “You actually think I made the decision to come here, to study abroad, only for you?!”

He shrugged. We stopped at the station and he bought me a ticket back to the Sawadas’. “Look, Yurika. I know how you feel, all alone in a foreign country. I’ll still help you as a friend.”

“You think you know how I feel?” With a swift movement my knee hit him right where he deserved it. He groaned and doubled over in pain as a couple of businessmen walking by averted their eyes.

“Now you know. I don’t need your help, or your pity.” I grabbed the ticket and stormed through the gate. “And you know what? I would have paid for your Korea ticket. I’m here on scholarship!”

Only my second day in Japan, and already my dreams of being in a real relationship for the very first time had been torn apart. But maybe this was for the best, I told myself on the train as I fought back tears. I needed to learn to survive on my own. Wasn’t that why I’d come here? To learn…




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