Embracing Cultural Exchange and Learning Opportunities: A Sri Lankan Student’s Journey in Japan

Japanese Dream

Many people from Asian countries are now working and studying in Japan. What made them decide to come to Japan? In “Japanese Dream,” we interview them and introduce their dreams and ambitions that they hope to realize in Japan.

In our third interview, we spoke with Nethaniah Gunawardena from Sri Lanka, who is currently studying at the University of Tsukuba. She shared her aspirations to take advantage of Japan’s educational opportunities and learn as much as she can.

Firstly, please introduce yourself.

I’m Nethaniah Gunawardena and 19 years old. I’m from Sri Lanka and undertaking the Social Sciences Program at the University of Tsukuba.

Could you tell me how you came to study in Japan?

I got to know about universities in Japan from my high school teacher, but at that time, I didn’t mind it. When my older sister finished high school and looked for universities, I told my parents about the news of the opportunities to study in Japan, and my sister applied for the university in Beppu and started studying in Japan.

After I finished high school and searched for universities, we called a cousin that studied at the University of Tsukuba as well. She told me about the opportunities and stuff that she can get at the university. So, I applied for it and came here.

Is Japan a safe, developed, and traditional country?

What was your view on Japan before you came here?

In my view, Japan was a very developed and advanced country. For example, I looked at Japan through the Olympians’ Instagram Stories in the Olympics and thought it was very developed. Also, I thought it might be a cultural, traditional, and religious country and had a view that it could be very safe compared to western countries. Those were my views on Japan before coming here.

Have your views on Japan changed after living here?

Not really. Because my views on Japan weren’t as different as I expected. Of course, it’s a very safe country. In my home county, I wasn’t allowed to go out after 6 pm even with friends. On the other hand, I can go to convenience stores after midnight and feel very safe here.

It is also developed, for example, when you visit 7-Eleven (a Japanese convenience store), everything’s mechanized. However, there’s still a lot more paperwork for proceeding than I expected. In terms of culture and traditions, I have been to many festivals, but the young Japanese people I met aren’t interested in traditional and cultural things as much as I expected.

About studying, after starting to study here, I felt a huge difference between my home country and Japan. I haven’t experienced a university education in my home country, but more opportunities are given here. So, I really appreciate it.

The Benefits of University Education for International Communication

What kind of opportunities can you get at a university in Japan?

In Sri Lankan universities, almost all students are Sri Lankan, and there aren’t international students, because the education system isn’t attractive to international students. Country exchanges and cultural exchanges don’t happen there. It’s still developing. So, I can get more opportunities to have international communications in Japan than in Sri Lanka. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have friends from like ten different countries. I can learn about their thinking, traditions, and culture, which is a huge advantage.

In my program, there are a lot of club activities like the model U.N. activity, and I think it’s very good, and it would be helpful for me. I really like the interactive things in my program. I joined the eco club that thinks of sustainability and environmental concerns. Also, I want to join the international exchange club when I have more free time.

Bowing Culture in Sri Lanka and Japan

What are the cultural differences between Sri Lanka and Japan?

The first thing is punctuality. People here are very punctual and do something on time. In Sri Lanka, people don’t do that at all. If you have an appointment at 11 am and get to at 10:50 am, you will wait until about 11:30 am. It seems to be bad, but people there just adjust to the custom. If an appointment is at 11 am, people would appear at 11:15 am because they know they’re going to get it. So, in Japan, I always try to be punctual and adjust to punctuality.

Food culture is also very different. In Sri Lanka, we don’t use chopsticks and usually use our hands. Even knives and forks aren’t widely used in Sri Lanka. So, I had to learn how to use them.

Another difference in behaviors is the bowing culture. We just shake hands or smile at a business meeting. We bow on the floor and touch their legs to show respect to elders in a new year celebration. That’s the way we do. In Japan, you usually need to bow at a business meeting or convenience store. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t look in the eyes when I bow. As I didn’t get used to it, I reminded myself that if I did something, I would bow. Now, I’m getting used to it.

To solve language barriers

Do you have any difficulties living in Japan?

I think it’s about Language because I am bad at Japanese. When I came here, I could only read the hiragana and katakana letters, but I didn’t know about the vocabulary. Though I’m learning at the university, it’s difficult for me. For example, when I went to a convenience store to print photos, it took about 25 minutes, because I didn’t know how to connect the machine to the network. For procedures and public formalities, I must ask my tutor or friends who know Japanese. It’s very annoying for me and might be annoying for them too. Also, when I go to a grocery shop, I must hold Google Translate to buy exactly what I want.

Do you have any tips on how Japan can overcome language barriers?

I talked with some Japanese people and found that they know how to say something in English but can’t say it. So, it would be better to encourage them to speak in English.

Although the official language in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese language and there’re a lot of languages as well like Tamil language and Hindi, many people can speak English because English is embedded in the society. For example, if you go to a convenience store, every product information is written in English. So, people must read it. Even restaurant menus or billboards, most of them are in English. People try to read it in their usual days and get used to the language. I think it would be a great opportunity because they would start understanding words over time.

I know that the university organizes a lot of festivals to exchange Asian culture, but what I noticed is that only international students attend them. I think it happens because of a language barrier. If Japanese people are encouraged to come there, Asian students can communicate and exchange opinions with Japanese and widen their knowledge.

Club activities can be also very helpful. For example, an event where international students talked about their own countries to Japanese middle school kids was held. As I had to do it in Japanese, I couldn’t join it. This kind of event might be also a good idea.

Get to know about the language and culture to better connect with people

Do you have any dreams or ambitions to realize in Japan?

I am considering whether to work in Japan. I’m open to it, but it depends on how I catch up on the language. I know that I need Japanese language skills to work here. Besides educational things, I want to travel to Japan to learn about the culture. I’m really excited about it. My senior students give me lots of recommendations for places to travel. Especially, I heard Kyoto is very pretty and I want to go to Beppu as well to try Onsen (hot spring) because I have never experienced it yet.

Do you have any advice for Asian people who wants to study here?

The most important thing is learning the language. I know foreign people who learned Japanese and came here, and they find their lives easier.

Also, you should get to know about Japanese culture before coming here, for example, the bowing culture or table manners as I said before. At least having basic knowledge about it is very important to mingle with people. For friends, professors, and faculty staff, there’re certain ways of talking to them and behaviors. It’s important to make them know that you have respect for them, but if you don’t know how to show it in the Japanese culture, they wouldn’t know that or misunderstand you. That’s why it’s so important to know Japanese culture.