Lisa Matsui ‘21, Global Communication and World Languages major/Public Relations minor, participated in a spring 2019 semester abroad program in Tokyo, Japan.
As a Japanese American who has frequented Tokyo several times before to visit
relatives, I was definitely concerned with whether this trip abroad would be “worth it.” Most
college students are only able to study abroad once, if at all; was it really worth using up such
an opportunity, just to re-visit a place? Having returned from my semester in Japan, I am here
to tell you, yes: it is absolutely worth studying abroad overseas, even if you’ve
been to the country before.
For starters, I ended up studying in Japan for a total of six months. Significantly longer
than any two-week trip I’d taken to Tokyo before, this extensive period in Japan granted me
time — time to further my immersion, sights, and even embarrassing mistakes (which I also
learned from, as well). Additionally, through the Japan Exchange and Teching Programme (JET) program, I got to see a variety of districts
outside of Tokyo, as well; just as Japan is not Asia, Tokyo is not Japan.
Furthermore, this was my opportunity to see how I could get by without my parents.
Graced with their native Japanese tongue, I often sat idly by as they navigated the streets,
engaged in conversations with workers, or flagged down taxis for me. This time around, if I
wanted to do these things, I’d have to dive into the process, myself — the novel freedom
brought me as much intimidation as it did excitement.
With this all said, I knew not to take my time abroad lightly or for granted; I wanted to
secure a defined purpose. For me, this purpose was to try my hand at an international
internship; all my life, I’d entertained the thought of making a living in Japan, and this was my
chance to have a taste of it. After sending cover letters and coordinating a Skype interview, I
was lucky enough to secure an internship in Minato, Tokyo. Before I knew it, I was working at
Empire Entertainment Japan, Inc., where I would help transcribe, translate and plan for
corporate events all over Tokyo. Whether it was collaborating on a script for the BMW Award
Show, ordering frames for an SK-II gathering, or running errands for the release of MAC
Cosmetics’ spring collection, every week brought about new experiences that I’d never ventured
to envision myself in before.
“This time around, if I wanted to do these things, I’d have to dive into the process, myself — the novel freedom brought me as much intimidation as it did excitement.”
Did my time abroad feel like a dream? On many days, it truly did; each adventure,
planned or otherwise, had its own memorable trait, and I often had to pinch myself in this
unique reality. To say that every day was perfect, however, would be a heavy lie that I’d hate to
brainwash you with. Again, between my bilingual upbringing and the majority of my family
residing in Japan, I grew up seeing Japan as a second home; as I also mentioned before,
though, I had limited experience engaging with other locals. It was through these new
interactions outside the home where I quickly saw how these locals viewed my individual
identity; a foreigner.
Hence, when asked whether the visit to a country of one’s heritage holds any challenge,
I anchor my response here. Had I gone to any other country, I would most likely anticipate and
even embrace my feelings as a foreigner. Instead, I was taken aback at how often locals
spoke English to me, and insisted on continuing the dialogue outside their native tongue; all
before I even began to speak. At the international school, I had even passed the Japanese
Language Placement Exam, yet still did not suffice in some professors’ eyes; to them, this
American “would not be comfortable skipping too many levels to join a class amongst native
“It was through these new interactions outside the home where I quickly saw how these locals viewed my individual identity; a foreigner.”
As nuanced as these interactions were, they perpetually communicated to me one
thing. It didn’t matter how long I’d spoken the language for, or whose home I’d been brought
up in; I would never be viewed as “one of them,” so long as my appearance continued to throw
off one’s preconceived perception of what it means to be “purely Japanese.” In my childhood
in Massachusetts as a “person of color,” I had lived through my share of moments that placed
me in the “Other” category. Though I had grown accustomed to this identity in the States, it
was not until this particular semester in Japan, when I faced the abrupt realization that if I
“wasn’t American enough” for some, I could just as well be considered “not Japanese
enough,” for others. Needless to say, this semester posed an identity crisis like I had never
Don’t worry; this story isn’t a pitiful one, either. Just as I experienced prejudiced
encounters, I was lucky to have wholesome ones, as well. Blessings came in the form of
conversations with others who were surprised, intrigued, and excited to be challenged in their
prior understandings of Japanese identity. To the open-minded, it didn’t matter that my ombré
highlights or thicker-than-Japanese-average eyebrows exposed my Western influences; they
were just as interested in America as I was Japan, and it was through our shared language that
we could each further our social and cultural understandings.
“Though I had grown accustomed to this identity in the States, it was not until this particular semester in Japan, when I faced the abrupt realization that if I “wasn’t American enough” for some, I could just as well be considered “not Japanese enough,” for others.”
To the impressive readers who made it this far; thank you, and let me encourage you
once more in this sentiment; no ambition is too big or too small. Leading up to my semester
travels, I was told that studying in Japan would be too easy, but also that working for a
corporate organization there would be too challenging — much to the shock of myself and
others alike, I managed to achieve both things.
My hope for you is that, once it is mandated as universally safe, you would not remove
yourself from opportunities based on what others deem as “too far a stretch” or “not stretching
enough.” Challenges look different for everyone, as do ambitions. So long as you insist on and
pursue growth, in whatever that looks like for you, I say go for it; you’ll have yourself to thank.
“Blessings came in the form of conversations with others who were surprised, intrigued, and excited to be challenged in their prior understandings of Japanese identity.”
Lisa participated in the Temple University Japan semester abroad program. You can check out this program and others on the Global Gateway. Students apply two semesters in advance for all semester abroad programs.