From Redfield, South Dakota to Tokyo, Japan
Johnson shares experiences as foreign exchange student in Tokyo
By Shiloh Appel
Gwen Johnson, a senior at Redfield High School, lights up when she talks about her summer, which was spent eating many different kinds of fish, learning a new language, going to an all-girls school, sleeping on a futon mat and immersing herself in a new culture full of new adventures. She spent her summer in Tokyo, Japan, as a foreign exchange student. It all started in seventh grade.
“So, I joined FCCLA when I was in seventh grade and at the state meeting there was a girl who was talking about how she went to Japan from the scholarship she had gotten from FCCLA,” said Johnson. “The age requirements [for the scholarship] were about 16 to 18, so I had to wait a little bit, and once I got to be that age, I went to the FCCLA page and found out what the scholarship was.”
Johnson discovered that the scholarship was provided through Youth for Understanding and sponsored by the Kikkoman for South Dakota Corporation and FCCLA. It was a full-tuition scholarship.
“I applied. It was just a basic application - much like a college or scholarship application. Personal information, family information, hobbies, and things like that. I had to write three essay questions based on whatever they asked and then a letter to my future host family and then I had to do a video interview with one of the staff from YFU to see if I was qualified,” said Johnson. “That was back in January, and I didn’t know if I got the scholarship until April.”
After receiving the news that she had been accepted, it wasn’t until the beginning of June that Johnson found out who her host family would be — just before she departed. After going through a pre-departure orientation in Chicago, Johnson was on her way to the prefecture of Ota in the city of Tokyo. With an estimated population of 716,413 in the prefecture of Ota alone (9.27 million in the city of Tokyo), Johnson found herself stepping into the big-city life of Japan.
“While I was there, we would get out and explore,” said Johnson. “We never got out of Tokyo, though, because Tokyo is so big. Every weekend there was a new part of Tokyo to explore and it was just completely different. It was like I was in a different part of Japan, but it was still Tokyo. There were so many diverse prefectures in Tokyo that you just get a full experience. One of the prefectures is called Asakusa, which is a very traditional prefecture I would say, because they have the very, very famous temple and shrine there. They have this street where they have traditional markets and shops leading up to it. They also have the tallest building in Japan there called the Sky Tree.
Another prefecture was called Odiva, which is very open to foreigners. I saw a lot of foreigners there. A lot of the shops and buildings there are influenced by American and European culture. There were two huge malls next to each other. A Ferris wheel and amusement park. A mock Statue of Liberty. They had something like the Love Park in Philadelphia. That was really cool.
My favorite place to go was Harajuku. That is the pop-culture fashion district of Tokyo. That is where young people go to freely express themselves with their fashion. There was this street filled with people constantly walking up and down it. But I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I always felt safe walking down it.”
While she was in Ota, Johnson lived with the Yagame family, which included her host mother, Kanako, father, Gun, older brother, Ryuma, sister (her own age), Rinka, and grandmother, Chiyo. They all lived in a two-story house. According to Johnson, the first story was very traditional with tatami floors made of bamboo, and sliding doors made with paper sheets. The second story, however, was more Western-style with sliding glass doors. Johnson slept downstairs and her host family slept on the upper level.
For four weeks, Johnson attended school at an all-girls school with her host sister. Where Johnson attended, classes are held Monday through Saturday from April to July for the first term of the school year. The next term then begins either the end of August or beginning of September and continues into December. The students then take a winter break and start classes again in the middle of January and continue on until March. Finally, they take another break before starting the school year again in April. While Johnson attended, she took advantage of all of the extra-curricular classes offered.
“I really enjoyed taking those different classes. I took a Japanese cooking class for a couple weeks, and that was really fun. I got to make a lot of different foods. Their PE class was a lot of fun, too. I got to do Nihon buyo, which is a traditional Japanese dance. So we were put in Kimono and got our fans and we were taught this dance. Then, the second half of the day you go to your other activity that you signed up for. So I did traditional Japanese drumming. That was a lot of fun,” said Johnson. “The drumming is called wadaiko and it is very, like, ceremonially almost. There was a lot of yelling and shouting at the end.”
Another fun experience for Johnson included taking part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony as the “first guest of the house,” in which she sat next to the “tea master” and took the first drink of the tea that the tea master prepared before passing it on to the other guests at the tea ceremony. She also got to travel to Mount Fuji and take a bus tour up the mountain with her host family.
“That was cool. My host family had never been to Mount Fuji in all of the years they had lived in Japan. So, I thought that was really cool to see them experience it. Because I was there, they were also getting to experience new things,” said Johnson. “We drove in the bus for about two and a half hours to get to Mount Fuji itself. We drove up to the middle of the mountain where they had a shrine, temple and gift shop. Then we got to go on this lake cruise where we went out on this boat and we got to get a different view of the mountain. Being in Tokyo, you don’t really get to view the nature aspect of Japan. But being able to see Mount Fuji, you really got to immerse yourself in that nature aspect.”
As for the food, Johnson said she didn’t like it in the beginning. However, as time went on, she began to have a few favorite dishes.
“It is such different palates than American food. The food is a lot more salty and the sweet foods are a lot more sweet, in my opinion. They have rice and they have their side dishes, which are meats or vegetables in sauces to add to the rice. A lot of their meats, though, are fish. Their fish is quite different from our fish because our fish is white flesh, but the fish there was all red and dark flesh. I had a hard time getting used to the fish. Because it came from the ocean, they were a lot saltier than our fish, and a little bit slimier,” said Johnson. “What my host family really enjoyed was sashimi, which is raw fish. Raw fish tastes like what a fish smells like. If you smelled a dead fish, it is that taste, but with the texture of the fish. When you bite into the fish you can feel all of the tendons. You can feel the strings that are in there. I did not like it at all, but I tried it. I tried everything that they gave me.”
Johnson said that one of her favorite Japanese dishes is gyoza, which was originally a Chinese food that was incorporated into the Japanese cuisine in the past. Gyoza is a dumpling filled with pork, green onions and cabbage. It is cooked on a stovetop in a pan with a flour and water slurry.
“It is all crunchy on the bottom and they steam it. It is really good,” said Johnson.
Other foods that Johnson enjoyed while she was there included noodle dishes such as the freshly-made Soba and Ramen. She also liked the matcha ice cream and motchi rice balls.
“There was an airport right by our house, so we went there one day and got this famous ice cream sundae. It had matcha ice cream and brown tea ice cream with these little rice balls which they create by pounding rice for hours until it was this gooey-gummy consistency and then they would roll it up in balls and put it on the sundaes,” said Johnson. She said she loved the sundae.
Some of the cultural differences Johnson noticed while she was there included a higher respect for elders, required school uniforms, higher living expenses, smaller families, and a bigger emphasis on work than family time.
“They have a high respect for people older than them. Even if a younger person might be more qualified, they still have to respect the older one. There are placement words to show respect. They always bow to say hello, thank-you, goodbye. Bowing is a form of respect that is expected. It is such a big part of their culture that it is just weird if you don’t bow. If somebody is older than you, you might bow lower, but if somebody is your same age, you might bow a little bit more shallower. Children are always bowing because they are so young,” said Johnson. “They have to show more respect to all of those who are older than them.”
Johnson said it was easy for her to make friends, even though she was initially scared due to the language barrier.
“The girls I went to school with loved talking with me and I loved talking with them,” said Johnson. “They would bring in a lot of foods and snacks for me to try and I would tell them about our foods and snacks in America. I made a lot of friends there.”
Now that Johnson is back in South Dakota, the question is, will she ever go back to Tokyo?
“I would definitely take a trip back. It is in my future. It really is. I can’t wait to go back,” said Johnson. “I would encourage others to go, too. Those who are in FCCLA and even those who are not in FCCLA. It is just a great experience that will open your eyes and change your life.”