A Tale from a Nagasaki Boarding House

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Nagasaki’s Akari International Hostel could easily pass for a traditional, Japanese style boarding house. Lined with tatami mats from floor to ceiling and Japanese pride splashed over all the walls, the place seems like a great place to foster community. Though in the off season, company consists of tourists from different parts of Japan with a basic English level rather than Westerners. Didn’t mind it at all, actually, as my week proved to be far more interesting without much outside influence.

On the 4th floor, in the farthest room from civilization (first to die in a fire), is where I slept tucked away in a 8-bed dorm. The room, despite not having a view, let in plenty of sunlight in the mornings but otherwise maintained a vibe of a haunted attic. That setting doesn’t sound appealing to most people, but I loved it. Strangers forced together in an unfamiliar location with a peculiar atmosphere brings out some interesting stories.

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First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that I had 3 of the same roommates for the duration of my stay (5 nights, rarely ever happens) one of which was a Wisconsin expat looking to further implement an internationalization program in Japan. This is where the story begins.

About a dozen young gentlemen fresh out of tech university or on the verge of graduating gathered in this boarding house for about 2 weeks, as part of a program that exposes them to a familiar Western concept: gap year. In the travel community, we talk a lot about venturing outside the comfort zone because that’s what you have to do in order to travel. As Westerners, we embrace that idea and are open to things like gap years, studying abroad, sabbaticals, long term travel, etc.

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However, with a nation like Japan that is focused more on unity, the whole, and great pride for the country, something like a gap year is still too foreign of a concept. Of course, young adults can and do travel, but it is usually in packs or group tours so as to minimize interaction in English. Solo or extensive travel is rarely practiced because the country doesn’t want younger generations becoming estranged, deviating away from their unified culture. So for the most part, anything that isn’t in line with studies and work is discouraged.

More than that, the general lack of English skills or courage to use them is a big barrier that keeps the Japanese from traveling abroad. Same goes for Westerners traveling to Japan or anywhere really, but we’re more willing to throw ourselves into the fire because we know what great experiences can come from it.

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According to Mr. Expat, these former engineer students turned professionals who have come to work for his company have the option to travel around in what is supposed to be a structured gap year program. There isn’t an application process, and while anyone can opt in, the program is male dominated. When a student selects a destination, there must be some greater purpose for visiting such as practicing martial arts, learning a new language, etc. While traveling, they also have to post to a blog, mainly for safety reasons.

The trail of implementation for said gap year program begins with nightly meetings, discussions about different interests, and sharing stories. Though the program goes much deeper than that, such informal gatherings are what I had the opportunity of witnessing while in Nagasaki. Typically, the guys were left on their own to learn about the city during the day, and they would regroup at dinner. I was fortunate enough to sit in on their curry party (delicious, by the way) where I heard the story of one young gentlemen’s bike ride around the entire island of Kyushu. It wasn’t all about thrills and adrenaline, however.

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Two of them admitted (the ones I happened to be rooming with) to being “kicked out” of the program last year in Toronto and were starting anew this time around in their home country. Essentially, they were asked to go back to Japan because, rather than going out to explore and learn about the city, they stayed inside accomplishing much of nothing.

So this makes me wonder, even though they volunteered to participate, as to whether they feel like they’re being forced to participate in something in which they have no interest. Is Mr. Expat wasting his time trying to work against the grain of such a structured culture?

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Nagasaki Spectacles Bridge

I love the Japanese for who they are, their way of thinking, their creativity, and what they have to offer. It’s true, I want them to be happy and free to do as they please, but is Japan ready to embrace this “radical” lifestyle? For change to occur, it takes a series of bold actions, and sometimes we have to push, stretch, shove, kick, and scream. Can they leap out of the structured lifestyle box while keeping their beliefs, traditions, and loyalty intact?

I want your opinion. Let’s start a discussion.

Should a concept like gap years be introduced to Japan for international relations purposes? Is it too much of an intrusion to their unique culture? The Western world has a lot of great opportunities to offer. Are the Japanese digging themselves into a rut by not requiring students to continue studying English?

Do you think the concept of a gap year would be successful in Japan? Why or why not? How do you balance pride for your country, social norms/expectations, and freedom to do what you want with your life?

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