Japan from the Perspective of Dionne, a Foreign Student

You’ve written a book about Japan from the perspective of a foreign student. What were the biggest takeaways during your university life?
So just to give a general overview of my 4 years at Todai , around 50% was spent with PEAK people and the other 50% was spent with my bukatsu (varsity teams/clubs) people and circle (non-varsity/recreational clubs) people. I was in the badminton varsity team, so as some people might already know, we spend ample amount of time just training, about 16-20 hours a week, with almost everyweekend spent at competitions. Apart from that, I was also in a band circle, and wrote for the university newspaper. But that was all in the first two years. Badminton was until my 3rd year. I did part time jobs and internships along the way as well. In my last two years, I was pretty busy writing my book and heading the committee of the Singapore Students’ Association in Japan.

With PEAK, the greatest takeaway was learning how to live in a very multicultural environment (in the non-clichéd way) because we’re all foreigners and all from very different backgrounds even if we have the same nationality, or we might have similar backgrounds even though we’re of different nationalities. And all of us were living in this foreign country, and this is something you would not get if you studied in other countries where most people band together with people from their original country. Most of us stayed in a dorm in the first two years, while some stayed on for all 4 years. Living together and experiencing different lifestyles was an eye-opener. It’s like a family; we often say that we have a PEAK identity that’s different from the rest of Todai. That’s because we are fundamentally different from the general demographics in Todai, along the way we built our own identity to foster a sense of community to “survive” in the university. And there was the academic part as well. It was a bit less rigorous than I expected but the lessons were pretty interesting.

But that’s how it works in Japan. University is a period where you get to experience a lot of things apart from academia (they like to call it a “moratorium”). But one thing to note is that for foreign students who study here for all 4 years, it’s very different from what Japanese students or what short term exchange students do. For Japanese students, the general perception is that you don’t have to focus that much on your academics to get a decent job so long as you graduate from a decent university. For the exchange students, they’re just here for a year or less, and relatively speaking their performance during their exchange period doesn’t have that much impact on their career. But for PEAK students, academic performance actually does matter quite a lot because most people apply for graduate school abroad, or return to their home countries to look for work – both instances where GPA matters. And for people who choose to stay here, you’d have to work on your Japanese and everything else relevant to the job hunting process.

As for my badminton varsity team, I always say, it’s very much a microcosm of Japanese society where you learn about hierarchy, hidden communication skills, reading the atmosphere *laughs*, and also about alumni networks and all. So being in that was very new,  daunting and challenging for me, because that’s something you read about, but you won’t truly understand the extent of it until you experience it yourself.. And even when you experience it, every time you think that you got used it, something new comes up that leaves you lost and confused all over again.

I think it was because I joined my badminton team that I now know how to maneuver social relationships in the Japanese context, especially at work.

What about the most difficult experiences you faced during your time here?
I don’t think there was one huge difficult experience that got me down, but there were many small ones that are very similar – dealing with bureaucracy, administrative matters…

You’re currently working in a consulting firm. Could you tell us more about your working life?
My firm does not feel Japanese at all. It’s a foreign firm and we have a really flat structure where everyone is accessible, regardless o position. But when we deal with clients, I have to read the social cues and learn to abide by the unwritten rules of the business community.

So the experiences in Japanese clubs and circles helped with your current job.
To an extent.

How did you find your current job?
I think I got very lucky. At the end of my 3rd year and the start of my 4thyear, I went through the typical process of submitting entry sheets, applying online, going for interviews, group discussions etc. As I just started with the application process, I herad of my current company from a friend. My firm was, and still is hiring interns so I applied, and I naturally transitioned from an intern to a full time employee So my job hunting process in that sense was quite simple and not very typical in the Japanese context.

Would you say that would be more suited for foreign students looking for a job in Japan rather than going through the typical process amongst the Japanese students?
Frankly speaking, I think the process of doing an internship and knowing the company and getting the company to know you before they hire you is the ideal regardless of your nationality. Many companies are already starting to realize that the job hunting process is something that doesn’t gain them the talent that they need. How much can you judge from just one interview or even 5? Interviews are where people inadvertently put on a mask to leave the impression that they are the ideal candidate. You have people who are good at making masks and people who are really bad at it and it reflects nothing about who they really are and how their capabilities fit the firm’s. So what my firm believes in is hiring people only after they intern with us, because that’s where we see how they actually perform and whether what their strengths, abilities and demeanor are synergistic with our firm’s needs. So I think it’s about HR models, and not about the nationality.

What advice would you give to prospective students?
I didn’t use to think this, and it’s not limited to Japan, but after I came here, a word of advice I usually give people is, if you’re confused or hesitant about whether to do something, if there’s a speck of you that actually wants to do it, after giving it some rational thought and ascertaining that it is something that benefits you, then just do it. Because life is too short to mull over something that you don’t know what the results will be, or how the minor risks would turn out, So yes, if you’re considering coming to Japan, there’s no harm in trying but you have to be logical and weigh the pros and cons. Generally speaking, there’s nothing to lose in having a new experience, especially in your university days. If you want to find out what it’s like living as an actual foreigner, this is the place to try it. Also, if you want to see a society that’s currently in its most intense stage of change to accommodate the incoming foreigner population, then this is the period to do it.

To sum it up, for those of you still undecided, feel free to ask us any questions you have and “just do it”!

For more information about PEAK, check out the following website:

(Part 1)