By Brian Beckford ’05, MS ’08
The decision to study at Tohoku University in Japan was a multi-faceted one stemming from academic interest, culture intrigue and my personal nature. Academically, the university’s program facilitates a high acquisition of experimental knowledge and techniques. This was a significant attraction, along with the abundance of resources at Tohoku University. The professors are highly knowledgeable, helpful and willing to be involved in the advancement of students. The opportunity to work under the advisement of professor Hashimoto Osamu, known worldwide in nuclear physics, was also part of my considerations.
Japan’s academic system is a stark contrast to the one in the United States. A foreign student who is not fully fluent must navigate through the mountains of paperwork written in Japanese. Many things are not clearly stated or outlined. And unless one specifically and directly asks, one spends a lot of time in limbo, not knowing. I feel a large unspoken pressure as a result of being a scholarship recipient. However, the reality is that in order to attract foreign students, Japanese universities must match or exceed offers made by American universities. The most significant challenge is the corporate structure in the academic system, a result of the vertical hierarchy of Japanese culture. This results in a lot more meetings than a graduate student typically has to attend. However the meetings involve little open exchange of ideas because of the lack of free discussion in the “sempai-kohai” vertical structure. Sempai-kohai refers to Japan’s social stratification system. Those who are older and more senior are sempai and they typically dominate decision making and lead discussions. Those younger and more junior are kohai and are expected to follow the lead of their sempai.
Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the knowledge and experience gained in this program will be of immeasurable value in my future endeavors.
The second motivation for journeying to Japan comes from a sincere and earnest interest in Japanese culture. It is a unique culture and prior to arriving, I spent some time researching the history and culture on my own. But the path to really understanding a culture is immersion. Hence, I chose to plunge into the Japanese lifestyle. This has been an everyday learning experience of tremendous worth. There are a plethora of subtle nuances that are expressed constantly in the relationships between teachers, colleagues, friends and strangers. One cannot hope to navigate or grasp this without being in the culture. As such, I have felt it imperative to learn the language. It is a vital tool for forming any kind of sincere relationship.
Lastly, there seems to be some innate part of my nature that seeks out challenges. The move from one’s home to a foreign country to study does take a leap of faith, but I believe truly that such leaps mold us into better people.
Living in Japan grants me the chance to take in a country that is aesthetically beautiful and to practice Budo, the Japanese martial arts which I have pursued for eight years, in the place of its origin. Living here has also been a guide to strengthening my character. I have had moments, which
I am sure all foreign students encounter, gripped by loneliness and despair. However, I see these as the stepping stones along the way of life. I do not attempt to hide from these struggles, as there is no escape. Life should be lived and experienced in the fullness of each moment.