By YUKI TAKAHASHI
Interaction between international and domestic students at Komaba | Photo courtesy of The University of Tokyo, PEAK Admissions Office
“The University of Tokyo (UT) accepts international students from more diverse countries than Princeton University, but UT fails to integrate them into the community of domestic students,” writes Professor Jin Sato, who teaches at both UT and Princeton University for a semester each, every year. In his book comparing UT and one of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., he notes that UT falls much behind the U.S. top schools in integrating international students.
This notion is true when I consider my own campus life. For me, as an April-entry student, the only ways to interact with international students, especially PEAK students, is to take PEAK classes, join Lunch Time Discussions held at the Komaba Writers’ Studio, or to participate in the TGIF Lunch held every Thursday. However, making friends by taking PEAK classes is difficult, since it means that I have to join the established community. I cannot help but feel that there are two separated groups on campus: a group of international students who have conversations in English, and a group of domestic students, who seemingly do not know how they should interact with the other group.
“I interact with April-entry students only for a few hours, maybe less than 8 hours, in a week,” confesses a PEAK student. For her, classes and clubs are the only opportunities to interact with domestic students. She believes that the language barrier is the main reason why she and most of the PEAK students cannot interact with domestic students very well. Since she is not able to speak Japanese so fluently, she is only left with a choice to join clubs that does not require much talking, such as sports clubs, and it results in lack of deep and meaningful conversation with domestic students. Another international student from South Korea who is very fluent in Japanese, in contrast, told me that he mainly spends time with domestic students in Japan and do not interact so much with his fellow international students. “I sometimes feel that I am even treated as a domestic student,” he talks.
So are language barriers the only reason for the lack of interaction between international and domestic students? It does not seem true. I have seen many scenes where an international student who speaks Japanese is alienated from a conversation, maybe because of cultural differences. International students sometimes interrupt conversation when Japanese people will not, or talk in a louder voice than Japanese do.
An increasing number of domestic students in PEAK classes does not directly mean the increase of interaction between the two groups of the students. In the PEAK classes I have taken so far, I found that domestic students tend to gather with other domestic students, probably because they do not know how to chat with international students. Cultural differences are another main factor behind the lack of communication.
What can we do to improve the situation? As Professor Yujin Yaguchi, the Director of the International Education Support Office, claims, interactions among students cannot be cultivated by a top-down approach, but depend on what students do voluntarily. I agree that it is true, but I also believe that the university can do more. A PEAK student points out, “The university should acknowledge both groups equal and give the same opportunities to both groups instead of drawing the line and keeping the groups separate.” Indeed, April-entry students have to take permissions to take the PEAK courses, and cannot live in the International Lodge Komaba, where most of the PEAK students live. “Putting international and domestic students in one dormitory together might be one way to facilitate interactions,” suggests Professor Sato, too. In most of the universities in the U.S., international students live together with the domestic students in dormitories.
Of course, the U.S. is a country of immigrants, and people there tend to be more used to different cultures than people in Japan. However, as Professor Sato insists, it would take hundreds of years to make differences if we wait until the Japanese culture changes. In classes and daily lives, the university can do more to help both groups to interact with each other.