A Thing Called Life in Japan- 6

So here I am. The last day. Saigo no hi. This program has been long, and always difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. Not only have I learned much more about Japanese language and lifestyle, but I have learned much more about myself, as well. Transplating onself into an entirely new environment–new in every way imaginable–almost forces introspection. During these eight weeks, I asked myself questions like: who am I? What am I capable of? What do I truly feel connected to?
Last week, I talked about a certain listlessness and sense of disconnect from my studies. Now writing after that crag has been crossed, I can say that I was truly confronted with many doubts about my studies, my future, my personal ability. And in the week that followed, every day, every experience was another reflection directed at finding a way to calm these doubts.

Though a final exam ate into this week’s schedule like an insatiable time-fiend, time was made for recognizing and affirming those connections made over eight weeks. I spent time with friends made through the program. I visited the places in Kanazawa that felt particularly special. And, of course, I spent evenings with my host-family.
Perhaps due to a choice that was too cliche, I also had a sushi lunch. In Kanazawa Eki, the large and well-known train station of Kanazawa, there is a sushi restaraunt tucked into a back corner, a pocket of great, traditional food.
Though I did not need to confirm the importance of sushi to Japanese culture (because what foreigner does not connect sushi and Japan in the space of a breath?), talking with people at the restaraunt did reveal some interesting information. For example, even though one may be in Japan, and the sea seems always close-at-hand, some areas are much better for sushi than others. Saying nothing about bias, people I talked with at the sushi-restaraunt regard Kanazawa as the place for sushi. The sea is incredibly close, so close that the sushi’s freshness cannot really be beat. Someone told me that even Tokyo sushi is not as fresh, a comment I hesitantly took as truth (because what do I know?).

What I particularly enjoyed about the restaraunt was its openness. The sushi chefs stand right the counter, slicing various fish and plating them on plumps of sticky rice. Customers can interact with the chefs directly, an exchange that I feel demonstrates the seriousness and attraction with which Japanese traditionally treat sushi. The nature of sushi is–and I may be stretching here–akin to that of wine; the origin, the preparation, the atmosphere are all key in the appreciation of sushi. Which is to say nothing on just how Japanese a food like sushi is, composed of two of Japan’s most consumed foods: fish and rice.
Needless to say, eating sushi in such a restaraunt, hiding away in Kanazawa Eki, was definitely the kind of Japanese experience befitting a final week.


Later today, I leave Japan. Not for long, admittedly (I am returning in the Fall for a fuller study abroad experience), but the idea of leaving Ishikawa after spending so much time here, being so challenged in so many ways, is a strange one. I am so thankful to the people that not only helped me learn Japanese, but helped me feel a part of this country and its culture.
One day, I will return. And I will continue my studies. And I will only grow closer to a country I already love.


Joshua Kuiper


A Thing Called Life in Japan- 5

It could be called fatigue. Mental exhaustion. The downward tug of existing at all. Without getting too lost in the melancholic, I will simply say that the past week was a tough one. Every day in Japan is a special experience, but a simultaneously tiring one that asks a lot from a student of language; attention is raised on all fronts, to not only meet challeges of communication but also lifestyle. Couple the “always on” mindset with daily, formal classes and it is easy to become mired in a state of mind that is unproductive, not only to learn but to treat relationships with the focus they deserve.

Thus, I was challenged last week–personally challenged–and while I have come out on the other end with a level of positivity for the final week ahead of me, it was not without some contemplation. And a long weekend.
Necessarily, my language competence took a hit. Reading comprehension was consistent during my slump, but as I found myself talking less, when I got involved in conversations, I was less than eloquent. I like to think of the language-speaking mind as a machine, with many shifting parts and connecting wires. When one talks less, the parts of the machine are still present, still functional, but they have been powered off. They are cool to the touch and and need quite a bit of work to get back to their peak output.
So several times in the past week, I was not operating at “peak output.” My linguistic mind was cool to the touch. As I took notice of this challenge, I also noticed how easily crippling it could become–the longer the machine rests, the more it will need to be functional again.

No matter how intimidating, conversations are essential to sustain speaking ability. It sounds obvious, and it is, but it is an easily forgettable fact when you feel burdened. Several times this week, I was intimidated, and honestly failed to meet my challenges. But, as the trite saying goes, one may lose the battle but win the war. I am going to stop mixing metaphors now.
As I mentioned, this weekend was a long one, thanks to Ocean Day (海の日、うみのひ, umee no hii). I used the time to focus and reflect on where I had been–mentally–and what I could do from there. And I had just the experience to facilitate this reflection.

On Sunday, I went with a friend and this friend’s hostfather to a place called Shirayama in Toyama Prefecture. Shirayama is a mountain village that has been preserved in a very traditional state. For example, all the houses bear straw roofs that are actually cycled to maintain the tradition. Various agricultural tools and methods, silkworm production, and rice fields (tanbo) can be seen. The village is fun (though, and I say this ironically, filled with tourists).

Surrounded by the immensity of Toyama’s mountains, so shrouded by clouds that you believe they could stretch upward forever, spending time examining a slice of Japanese history, and speaking exclusively Japanese while doing so, was the exact kind of recentering I needed.

I am going forward now not only with more confidence for the final week, but with the reminder that learning a language is going to be exhaustive, and sometimes you might wonder if you can truly improve. The answer to such inner strife is to live. Language is so many things, composed of a people’s lifestyles and customs and thought. The will to expose yourself, and to be involved with the people around you, is both simple and essential.


Joshua Kuiper


A Thing Called Life in Japan- 4

During the past week, I found that I was able to use my language acquisition thus far in an important way: really beginning to investigate the cultural nuances of Japan. That is not to say that I suddenly shot up in fluency during the past week, nor that I have only just begun to really question and investigate the unique elements of Japanese life. However, I certainly felt an intersection of language learning and cultural exchange, an intersection that I was incredibly happy to have encountered.
As part of the summer language program I am participating in, students choose a topic unique to Japan to research and compose a speech for. I chose Shintoism. For those not in the know, Shintoism is what might be called a natively Japanese religion, though depending on who you ask, “religion” may not fully encapsulate what Shinto means for Japan. But at a fundamental level, Shinto focuses on the various gods of Japanese tradition, called 神 (かみ) (kami), which are numerous and may be found everywhere, inhabiting anything. The Shinto place of worship is called a 神社 (じんじゃ) (jinja), which are typically a collection of structures with an open, central space, accompanied by plenty of nature. Jinja are generally dedicated to a single kami.

Many festivals in Japan call for visitation of jinja, or of Buddhist o-tera (a temple). In addition, many rituals are often conducted at jinja, such as the blessing of newborn infants for healthy life. Various kinds of symbolry can be bought at jinja, such as omamori (charms for health, or for studying, or for marriage, and so on), and goshuinchoo (a book in which jinja priests can write the sign of their jinja, sort of like a pilgrim’s passport, to be taken to and signed at various shrines until the book is filled).

The place of Shinto in modern Japan is a question that I wanted to search out, and thanks to my hostmother, after a few connections were followed, I was given the opportunity to meet with the priest of a jinja in Kanazawa. The priest is a very interesting and engaging man with a passion for people. And after meeting him, and not only learning about Shinto but about his own life, I think I have come to understand Shinto a little bit more (though I have he feeling that, as with most beliefs, there is ever more to contemplate). What I mean by this vaguery is that for the priest I met with, Shinto is much more about how one lives than what one “believes,” per se. The very unique element of Shintoism is that other religions do not contradict Shintoism’s core beliefs. For example, Buddhism exists alongside, and in certain areas (such as death rituals) symbiotically collaborates wth, Shintoism. Many houses contain shrines dedicated to both Shinto kami and Buddhist hotoke (in Japan, Buddhas who are treated as gods, as I understand). But, Shinto can also just as easily accept Christ into its worldview.
As the priest noted, Shinto is very much about the lifestyle of an older Japan: showing appreciation for things as small as a grain of rice; the preciousness of nature and its power to affect human lives; the importance of recalling those who came before; and, of course, acknowledging how very human we all are in the scope of the world and beyond.

The entire conversation really helped open my eyes to something running beneath Shinto, which is to say the currents of Japanese tradition that, though not obvious or even tangible, are present. The priest told me, even if a Japanese person does not practice Shintoism, they likely live out Shinto principles–because the kernel of Shinto is the kernel of Japan.
However, during our discussion I had to raise an important question: what about the young people? Youth, of course, being the free radical of any society. Do younger generations hold to Shintoism as do their elders? The reply was a predictable “not enitrely.” While there are always going to be people with an interest in faith, the priest definitely feels there is a declining interest. Part of this decline, he said, is that many newer generations are no longer receiving the traditional upbringings that youth once did; Shinto, sharing greatly in the traditions of Japan, necessarily suffers as a result. Shinto may align with the lifestyle and way of thought for Japan, but what happens when lifestyles and thought begin to shift?
This question of generational change is obviously of great interest in a country like Japan, one with years of very particular tradition but with very rapid modernization over the past two hundred years. Such change is especially interesting in language study. Vernacular is a great way to trace the shifts between generations, such as in slang usage. For example, when I brought up slang with my hostmom, she said that Japanese チョ (cho) is a common way to emphasize something; an English equivalent might be “totally,” or “way,” as in “totally cool” or “way tight” (I’m sorry for my suburban lingo). But, she said, one would never use cho with a superior, and in a country like Japan where entire grammar structures are dedicated to superior-inferior relationships, this is an important warning.
However, when talking with local university students, they had a different opinion. As one girl told me, やばい (yabai) is currently a trending word among younger Japanese. While yabai literally translates as “dangerous,” current usage follows such interpretations as “great” or “cool.” It is a versatile slang word. Importantly, when talking with a group of older Japanese parents at a neighborhood party, they collectively understood yabai stricty in its literal interpretation; the slang usages were new to them. And thus, but one sign of the generational gap, in no more than three syllables.


Right, thank you for reading.
Joshua Kuiper

My Wonderful Japanese Host Family

I can hardly believe it, but I’ve been living in Japan for exactly a month now! My experience so far has been absolutely incredible, and everything that I had hoped for! That said, it has also been much busier and more challenging than I had expected, and somehow I let a whole month go by without writing a post. There is so much to talk about, and so I’d like to focus this post on my incredible host family, who, it turns out, are the most amazing people in the world!

Having only studied Japanese for one year before arriving here, I have to admit that I was very worried about communicating with a host family that didn’t speak any English. The first few days were extremely challenging indeed. In fact, I barely spoke at all. But it is indeed true that when plunging into an immersive environment with little background knowledge, one absorbs language really fast! Additionally, it helps that one of my host moms is a kindergarten teacher, and thus is used at using easy words and simplifying her grammar. I have reached the point where I can comfortably speak about nearly any everyday topic with my host parents, and it is such a great environment to practice all the new vocabulary and grammar outside of the classroom.

My host family consists of two sisters in their late 50s and their energetic shetland sheepdog, Lucky (ラッキー). Lucky and I became quick friends! I quickly got to know all the Japanese commands he knows.

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My host parents have introduced me to so many things! My first weekend, we visited the strawberry farm near their house. I was so surprised to see so much farmland right in Hakodate, and the strawberries were the sweetest, brightest ones I had ever encountered.

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On my birthday, my family hosted this amazing potluck and invited all their friends to come meet me! It was really fantastic to hear about all their different stories, and also to try all of the amazing food. I was very surprised by how much Japanese food I had never heard of! I thought I knew what Japanese food was, but the vast majority of the foods at the potluck were brand-new to me (and delicious).

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One day, we tried the most amazing ice cream shop, which is very famous throughout all of Japan. They sell actual ice cream sandwiches – meaning a scoop of vanilla ice cream on an actual bun! The bun is a special Japanese bread called melon bread, which is a kind of sweetbread. The ice cream goes into the bun right as it comes out of the oven, and the combination is surprisingly incredible. The name of the shop is 「世界で2番めにおいしい焼きたてメロンパンアイス」which translates as “The second most delicious melon bread ice cream in the world”. It’s an odd name indeed, since it’s the only melon bread ice cream in the world, but my host parents explained that the shop was just being humble. What an interesting cultural nuance!



One of my favorite activities was going to the 「運動会」(undoukai – “sports day”) that my host mom’s kindergarten held. An undoukai is a very fun modern Japanese tradition similar to field day in the US, except it’s held on a weekend, takes up the entire day, and all the parents and even grandparents come and participate in field games, relays, and dances. The kids were adorable, and everyone had a blast. What a great community-building tradition!


There’s even more. For my birthday, my host parents insisted on getting me my very own yukatta (summer kimono) which was amazing. One of the other teachers at the kindergarten happens to be a kimono etiquette teacher as well, and came over to teach me how to wear it (it is surprisingly difficult). I think I’ve got it down, although I still cant tie it as well as she can! I can’t wait to wear it at the Hakodate Port Festival in August.

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The transition to life in Japan has been a crazy experience, definitely difficult at times, and even more of a different world than I had predicted. I’m amazed at the all the new aspects of everyday culture that I’ve been introduced to, and by how far my language skills have come in just one month. I’m so excited for the second half!


A Thing Called Life in Japan- 3

Time wears on at a breakneck pace–as is always the case when dealing with workloads, social relationships, and daily adventures but nonetheless surprising for this.
I have just under a month left in Japan and the conflicted feelings are coming on strong. On one hand, I love this country and its people and its language and do not want to halt my immersion. However, I also will be happy when I finally get some time with my family back home in the U.S., country with a significant amount of issues but also that is my undeniable home.

At this point in my summer immersion experience, I find myself thinking a lot about values: what have I anticipated, what have I mistaken, what have I overlooked. Learning Japanese at an accelerated pace while also having daily interactions with native speakers and the Japanese lifestyle has been a constant process of learning things that are new while also striving to maintain the old. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of language immersion is that one cannot only focus on the “next chapter.” Every day may demand a varied amount of vocabulary and grammar (some learned, some not), a challenge that, slowly but surely, encourages those mental connections that turn conjugation tables and kanji lists into Japanese.

Certainly, such a challenging task of retaining the old while developing the new is most emphasized by kanji. For me, personally, kanji are a stumbling block on the path to fluency. I love kanji; I love studying such an extensive collection of symbols, each one representing not just different sounds, but concepts. For example, 花, one reading of which is はな, or hana, meaning “flower.” Sometimes, kanji form a set of sounds in a larger word, but they still retain some integral symbolism, such as 国, or くに, or kuni, “country,” which can be used in 国際的, or こくさいてき, or kokusaiteki, “international.”
So kanji are interesting and deserve my time. But they are also incredibly challenging to memorize, especially as I must constantly study new collections of them.
But while I have been struggling, I have come to find out that even native Japanese speakers can have kanji trouble.
It is a rather unique social issue: as more and more people (especially young people) are using technology for communication, kanji skills are weakening. Though I should clarify that reading kanji is not the issue, it s writing. Over the past weeks I have talked my host family, with students from the local Kanazawa Daigaku (University), and even with the summer program instructors, and all report that at one time or another they forget how to write kanji. As technology develops more and more, and tools like autofill become more fine-tuned, the need to follow stroke-orders (the, ah, “right” way to write kanji), or even to ever write by hand at all, disappears. By typing in the base syllabic components of a word (i.e. hana for 花) the kanji pops up and the brain can move on.

In the U.S., for example, it is an issue that is difficult to relate to. Once the alphabet is learned, it’s learned. People may forget words throughout their life, but not the means to express those words in writing. But in Japan, that is gradually becoming problem to investigate. As said, reading recognition is not the problem–it is writing. An issue akin to losing one’s tongue when one tries to speak, perhaps.
What learning about this issue has done is emphasize in my own mind the extreme importance of kanji acquirement and practice, especially at this early stage in my language-learning process. Kanji, was they would appear, are always going to be difficult and will always require upkeep, especially as a foreigner. Writing the same symbol several times over is nonetheless exhaustive, but maybe now I can appreciate the importance of the exercise.

Outside of kanji, a lot of my focus recently has been placed in conversation skills and vocabulary (as I have already written about, where creativity meets the need for new material). The days that I have an opportunity to speak with students from the local university are usually the accent marks to my weeks. Last weekend, I joined in with an event hosted by a university club that facilitates international interaction. We all made bread dough together and bake said dough over a fire. The experience was fun, but was made special because of one student I met in particular: he is a mechanical engineering student but, as he told me, he has a passion for English. We talked in English and Japanese together for an afternoon, each encouraging the other. Experiences like the one we shared are a demonstration of the beauty of language. We are both people who want to navigate in foreign spheres, discovering the undeniably human beneath layers of unique culture, systems, beliefs, ways of life.

Until next time.
Joshua Kuiper

A Thing Called Life in Japan- 2

With more time in Japan, confidence has grown. While it has taken time, I feel as though my ability to express ideas is not as limited as when I began. While this sounds like a natural consequence of prolonged language immersion in a foreign country, it is nevertheless something for me to personally reflect on. In my first entry, I discussed the need for creativity in conversation; expedient ways of conveying meaning are important at a lower level of language proficiency. As I have spent more time with native speakers, I find this creativity is very much tested. I have engaged (or been engaged by) teachers, host families, neighbors, local students, and so on. In each encounter, the desire to approach complex topics has proven to be attainable but occasionally slow and awkward.

For example, discussing the U.S. and its politics is a challenging activity no matter how “creative” I am with noun modifiers or liberal interpretation of verbs usage. At some point, complicated vocabulary becomes essential (grammer is more or less a non-issue). In Japanese, senkyou is now a fixed entry in my mental dictionary. Senkyou translates as “election.” Talking politics in Japan right now necessitates this word; of course, the U.S. presidential election is in November, but Japanese national elections are in July.
When talking with my hostfamily about the upcoming U.S. election, I mentioned that I would be able to vote in November. Then when prompted on who I supported, I said that I lean toward Sanders. Of course, by this time it’s known that Trump and Clinton are the respective nominees. It’s a difficult election, I tell him.
Both my hostparents were more or less unspoken on who they supported for the U.S. But, there was one topic of which they were certainly vocal, and that is Trump’s statements regarding foreign policy. Part of Trump’s policy involves a withdrawal of U.S. military presence from Japan, a move that might be viewed as more supportable if Japan’s self-defense was not restricted–by the constitution established with U.S. oversight after WWII. As my hostparents relate, the policy presented by Trump is a difficult one for Japan, should it ever be realized. However, currently the Japanese government is considering changes to the constitution, so that such a decision from the U.S. would be less of an impact on state security.

The nature of the U.S. electoral system also came up for discussion. Since I support Sanders, my hosfather assumed I had voted for him in the primaries. When I said I had not, he was initially (understandably) perplexed. It was problematic to explain 1) that I’m Independent and 2) that being Independent means (in most states) no vote until November. The idea that an individual cannot take part in decisive elections because of party lines was apparently very foreign. Thus, I was educated in Japanese senkyou. In Japan, anyone of voting age (18, as in the States) can take part in all elections; there are no party divisions, and no systems like those in the U.S. (such as caucuses, primaries, delegates, superdelegates). Of note is that Japan has a number of political parties, similar to systems as in the U.K.

What discussions like that described above have revealed to me is that vocabulary is becoming more and more important in the immersion process. While initially, a limited vocabulary can suffice for introductions, directions, and general living, real important interactions necessitate an ever expanding vocabulary. And thus, when creativity meets the end of its sphere. Vocabulary acquisition is definitely a challenge, especially given all the words that are a part of everyday life but not in a textbook. Add in slang and regional dialects, and speaking the language becomes quite easy compared to listening to native speakers. As the weeks continue, in order to get the most out this immersive opportunity, I will need to focus on out-of-class encounters.


“Challenge” is a word my hostfather says often (in English), and I find myself echoing the sentiment. My weaknesses are known; now I must target them. If, in the future, I want to talk about Japanese security, or climate change, or food imports, then I must continue to push my boundaries. This weekend I will be discussing the Shinto religion with the head priest of a jinja (Shinto shrine), an opportunity that I am very excited for but also anxious. It will be a test of my listening, without a doubt. However, the chance to delve further into something that has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries is invaluable. I cannot wait to report the conversation.

Alright, until next time.
Joshua Kuiper

Welcome to Japan!

Well, here I am. After almost of year of preparation of various applications, grants, and language skills, I have arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun.  From the big cities and crowds to the awesome convenience stores and vending machines, it is everything I imagined! But there is more. Being immersed in the culture and language has demonstrated to me the subtleties of foreign culture. For instance, Hakodate, the site of my language study and homestay, is home to many ancient and wonderful Christian denominations (and some absolutely beautiful churches).



This is hardly the first thing about which one thinks when they think of Japan, and yet it is just as much a part of Japan as its other faiths, cultures, and practices. Seeing another culture from a different perspective commands a respect for the majesty of the human spirit in both its magnificence and humility.

We are blessed to live in an ordered universe in which truth penetrates falsehood like light through darkness. As such, no matter where one travels, he can always discover the truth as long as he is armed with faith. I seek the light of truth in my travels while determined to cling to that which completes me. As my faith guides me, I courageously and humbly go forth to experience the unknown. Wish me luck.

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Nicholas Gerstbauer


A Thing Called Life, in Japan-1

It might be called “cultural conditioning.” The trip to Japan was long, and exhausting, and I barely slept from a combination of stress and excitement and the ever-pressing need to study, study, study. Yet, taking my first few days together, I might say that the plane flight (and second flight, and bus trip) was the most arduous part of my transition. As the days following my arrival in Japan proceeded, I found myself able to connect with the new environment with relative ease.
In the past few years, I’ve spent my time learning about Japan and getting exposure to Japanese culture. And I am not talking about anime. Books like Natsume Soseki’s Botchan, or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles; an education in literature and social currents during the past two-hundred years or an investigation of Japan’s miasmic ancient history through Notre Dame classes; of course, activities with the Notre Dame Japan Club, experiencing such traditions as kendo; and, maintaining an active apetite for Japanese cuisine; in such ways have I found exposure to Japan while not being in Japan. Certainly, nothing approximates to the material reality, but my surprises have been minimized, to say the least.
Which is to say that I have been able to put the majority of my efforts into dealing with the real transition of this summer experience: that of speaking Japanese extensively, everyday. At the beginning of this trip, I was a first-year student of Japanese. My challenges have been many in only a week’s time. I have found that communicating with a fundamentally sound but limited linguistic knowledge demands creativity and fast-thinking in everyday settings. When I am talking with my host-mother, for instance, and come upon a vocabulary gap in the conversation (I want to say “musician,” and I have no clue how to do), I must consider what I have at my disposal to approximate “musician,” no matter how goofy my expression sounds. Being understood is important; eloquence can come with time, but being able to speak at intervals and maintain a discussion is more foundational to the experience.

In many ways, I have felt myself to be a child since I have arrived. The common college refrain is “I’m not a kid anymore”–maybe that’s high school, but nevermind. Point being that learning a language through cultural immersion is a humbling experience that demands one’s ability to learn from others, from all kinds of backgrounds and persuasions. Given my skill level, I know there are Japanese children who can speak Japanese better than I can. And that’s good; I would hope so. Recognizing this, my next conversation with a 6 year old can be as educational as a conversation with the 40 year old neighbor, or the elderly woman in the convenience store, or that grumpy teen on the bus.
Already, I have been able to learn words outside the classroom setting through simple environmental exposure. The Shinto protective charms, o-mamori (お守り), are now a part of my internal lexicon. As with hatake (はたけ/畑), or agricultural field, and “owari sheetei kudasai” (おわりして下さい)(“Please take seconds.”) These are words and phrases with varied contexts, but life is composed of varied contexts, and immersing onself–linguistically, culturally–in another place is about living the life of another people, in all respects.
That said, I have so much longer to go on the road of language learning and living. Time with my host-family is a time for discussion, good food, and Japanese game-shows (which are great, by the way). But I must strive for more chances to connect out in the city and community. While I have been to a few cultural sites thus far, such as Kenroku-en Gardens (兼六園)(nationally recognized for its beauty), there are more sites to visit, and people to engage while doing so.

The students of the local university likewise present a great chance for conversation. Language tables are sure to be my next step in navigating the language-learning process, alongside others who are in the same pursuit. Univerity students have their share of thoughts to give on all manner of topic, within Japan and without. The language table I have been to thus far was a initially daunting but actually fun once started. To bridge a gap like that made by language is a rewarding experience, especially when doing so reveals how truly connected people are by just being human. Topics from international study to rough class schedules to famous composers and photography found their way into the language table discussion, and I look forward to he next time when I can not only learn more about Japanese language, and not only learn more about Japanese life, but to connect with others.


Well, that’s me for now. A fledgling in the ever-increasing expanse of Japanese language, or so it seems. But everyday brings more experience, more encounters, and more understanding of those tiny details that make up a thing called life in Japan.
Thanks for reading!

Joshua Kuiper (カイパー)