Welcome to the official Oh My Japan blog! In this first post, I'd like to talk about the background that lead me to create Oh My Japan.
According to the Institute of International Education, which compiles statistics on U.S. students studying abroad and international students studying in the U.S., in 2011, only 1.4% of all students enrolled in higher education participated in study abroad. Out of this 1.4%, only 2.3% chose to do so in Japan. In terms of numbers of students, that's 6,166 U.S. students in Japan out of a total of 19,805,000. In other words, less than the student population of one average-size state university! (Note: I don't mean to be U.S.-centric in my posts, but as I was born and raised in the U.S. and Oh My Japan is a U.S. company, most of my statistics and research is likely to reflect a U.S. geographic bias.)
I share these numbers to underscore the unfortunate fact that for the majority of people in the U.S., whether planning a trip or deciding where to study abroad, "Japan" is not a destination that ever enters their minds. And this is despite a few generations of Americans having grown up with Japanese products such as cars (Toyota, Honda, and Nissan), consumer electronics (Canon, Casio, Citizen Watches, Fujifilm, Fujitsu, Hitachi, JVC Kenwood, Korg, Mitsubishi Electric, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pioneer, Ricoh, Roland, Seiko Group, Sharp, Sony, TDK, Toshiba and Yamaha), and video game systems (Nintendo and Sony) as well as anime and manga.
In other words, although Japanese products have become a common sight in Americans' daily lives, we don't generally consider Japan to be a place to go. As a result, the people who do come to Japan end up being quite a varied group and often have few personal connections in the country.
This, combined with Japan's (somewhat undeserved) reputation for being an insular society, means that many foreigners in Japan find themselves feeling a bit lost (though hopefully not as bad as Bill Murray in Lost in Translation).
This is quite sad, since there are a very large number of Japanese interested in the English-speaking world. For example, in 2011, 21,290 Japanese university students studied in the United States-- nearly 3.5 times the number of U.S. students who studied in Japan, despite the fact that the U.S. has more than twice the population of Japan-- and this figure obviously doesn't include the numbers of Japanese who went to the U.K., Canada, or Australia. In addition, Japanese junior and senior high school students are generally required to study English for six years (technically, schools are allowed to teach languages other than English, though fewer than 1% do so), and English conversation schools are not uncommon in even small Japanese cities.
And things are changing for English speakers in Japan. There are more U.S. students studying in Japan now than when I studied in Japan during my university days. And Japanese companies are increasingly stepping up their international recruitment efforts. For example, a 2011 New York Times article states: "Companies like Panasonic, Sony, Lawson, Yamato Transport and Fast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo brand clothing stores, are among the enterprises that recently said they would step up their hiring of non-Japanese to 30 to 80 percent of all new hires." This is an extraordinary ratio and a sign that times really are changing in Japan.
So where does Oh My Japan come in? Despite the big changes taking place in Japanese society and the increasing number of English speakers from around the world coming to work or study in Japan, there are few established networks to aid the transition into Japanese daily life, a transition which some find quite difficult.
One of the biggest reasons for this is the difficulty of the Japanese language, which is ranked by the Foreign Services Institute of the U.S. State Department as one of the most challenging for native speakers of English to attain proficiency in speaking and writing. Conversely, English is also one of the hardest languages for native speakers of Japanese to learn.
The situation, then, is this: native English speakers are looking for Japanese friends and people to practice Japanese with, and there are a tremendous number of Japanese people interested in practicing their English and making friends with native English speakers. And yet, many English and Japanese speakers have told me they had trouble making friends in Japan-- or online.
I think there are many reasons for this, most of which can be traced to cultural differences in approaching people. Such will be the topic of a future blog post. But for now, it suffices to say that I thought it would be possible to solve these problems by designing a space that encourages people to communicate deeply-- and that space is Oh My Japan.
For my own part, I have six years of living experience in Japan, and in that time I've worked as an English teacher at a junior high school, as a scenario writer at a Japanese company, and as a freelance translator and editor. I've lived in both Tokyo and Morioka, a small city in northern Japan. During this time, I've talked to a lot of people, both Japanese and foreign, who were searching with difficulty for opportunities to make more friends.
Thus, to meet that need, I am happy to introduce Oh My Japan, a new and safe space that allows adults to communicate with one another at a depth that is unusual in this day and age. Details will follow. For now, I welcome any and all feedback that you may have!