How Common Is It For Japanese Kids To Spend Time Overseas?

by Justin Sevakis,

David asks:

I've noticed that a common practice in anime to have a "foreign" character is to have them be someone born in Japan, but who moved to another country (it usually seems to be the US, although I believe I remember a few cases where it was Australia), then moved back to Japan. An alternative is to have them be a Japanese-American who's emigrated back to Japan. Are either of these common cultural occurrences, the way for example Israelis have a cultural trope of traveling outside the country after their military service is over, or New Zealanders doing an "Overseas Experience" after college?

While not quite as uncommon as it is for an American to live overseas during school, living overseas as a student is not something that happens very much to Japanese kids. But the ones that do go are greatly changed by the experience, so much so that their transferring back is often quite an event among the other kids. As a result, making a character an overseas transfer student has become a cliché way to make a character stand out within the world of their particular anime or manga.

Kids are, by nature, not the masters of their own destiny, so long trips overseas are typically due to a parent getting transferred to a large Japanese company's international office. Japan is a pretty culturally insular country, so lots of people dream of having a job that would afford them such an opportunity. However, most of the time only higher-ranked employees with decent English skills are considered. (Whether the other members of the family know English is a different story.) These transfers are usually not permanent, due to legal restrictions. In the US, for example, an employee transferred to an affiliated office can apply for a special "L" type visa, which is only good for 3-5 years.

So what usually happens is that the kids come with the parent and are forced to try and integrate at a foreign school for however long it takes. Their Saturdays are often spent at a special Japanese language program, to make sure their studies in that subject don't fall behind. Some learn English quickly and do well, others quietly sit in a corner and try to make do, usually with a little help from the school. It's not easy for them, and it can be quite isolating at first.

Upon returning to Japan, they are usually not the same people. Once the western mannerisms, the English usage, and our penchant for individualism and speaking our minds take root within a kid's psychology, they don't tend to leave. Lots of anecdotal stories exist of elementary and middle school kids being unable to socially integrate into their classes; some get bullied by their peers. High school kids, meanwhile, seem to be a little more open-minded, and eager to hear about what life is like outside of their small island nation. The more self-assured transfer students might decide to own their other-ness and start writing their name in katakana, which is quite a statement.

There's no doubt about it, being able to study overseas, particularly when you're old enough to grasp cultural differences and multiple languages, is a huge socioeconomic advantage in the long run. Being ACTUALLY fluent in English and having experience working with Westerners is a huge leg up in the job market. Such opportunities are usually only afforded to the upper-middle class (after all, their parent must be doing well enough at their job to be given the opportunity), so those who manage to transfer are often seen as having an advantaged life. And as anyone who's seen enough school life anime can understand, that can either make them really cool, or completely backfire and make them a pariah. But it's still something that most people would jump at the chance to do. Which is why lots of Japanese students attempt to go overseas for college.

Even as an adult, going to and living in Japan after living in the West for ages can be quite an experience. If your Japanese is good, nobody can tell that you're different from everyone else, and you're treated like a local -- which is nowhere NEAR how other foreigners are treated. One Japanese American friend of mine was taken aback when an old lady politely walked up to her, looked her up and down, and said, "You know, you could really stand to lose a few."

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap. Please note that he does not take question submissions via Twitter.

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